Public Value and Public Goods in Broadcasting

by Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve

24 Jan 2017

Recent discussions of standards that matter for public services, including public service broadcasting, often appeal to conceptions of public value. However, appeals to public value are disputed because there is no agreed list of public values, and it is unclear whether the same ones matter for broadcasting and for other activities of public importance, such as education, securing public safety and protecting public health.

A deeper problem with appeals to public value is that it is often unclear whether public values are to be understood as those the public actually value or those they ought to value (but may not). Many ethical discussions since the early twentieth century have hovered between the thought that values are objective and justifiable, and the thought that they are merely subjective. A subjective interpretation of the term value has been widely accepted, particularly by economists, who often equate values with preferences. Subjective views of value(s) are treacherous terrain for ethical debate about the public domain, including debates on public service broadcasting, and may not offer a good basis for claims about public policy, or in particular about public service broadcasting.

So it might be useful to think again about public goods, rather than public value - and here we can learn from the economists. Examples of public goods include: a sound currency, a non-corrupt judiciary, a medical data base, a common language, a flood control system, lighthouses, and street lighting. All are non-rivalrous goods, although some are geographically restricted. Nobody loses when others too enjoy them. Evidently if broadcasting a good, it is a public good: audiences do not use up programmes that others too can hear or watch.

And there are many reasons to think that broadcasting (of the right sort!) is a significant public good. It can contribute to a shared sense of the public space; it can enable communication with others who are not already like-minded; it can provide access to a wide and varied pool of information; it can exhibit critical standards that enable intelligent engagement with other views; it can support understanding, awareness and toleration of the diversity of lives and views among fellow citizens and others; it can secure shared enjoyment of cultural and sporting occasions that would otherwise be the preserve of the few or the privileged.

Individual choices that reflect consumer preferences are not generally enough to secure public goods - even where many (or all) individuals want them. Problems of non-coordination and free riding can’t be solved by uncoordinated provision, or by unrestricted free markets. So public goods require either public provision, or some coordination and regulation of providers. If some sorts of broadcasting provide public goods, then we have reason to create and preserve structures that provide them, whether in the form of taxpayer funded and regulated broadcasters, or in the form of broadcasters with varied funding working to defined standards

Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve is a former president of the British Academy and a crossbench member of the House of Lords.

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