Written evidence submitted by the Cardiff University School of Journalism, Media and Culture and the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre


Submission to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee inquiry into ‘The future of public service broadcasting’[1]

June 2020



Introduction to organisations and reason for submitting evidence

We note that among the key questions this DCMS inquiry is examining is the value PSBs bring to the UK in terms of economic (local, regional and national), cultural and societal impact. We also note an interest in ‘looking ahead’ by exploring issues pertaining to the range and scope of the services provided by PSBs in a digital age – particularly, what services should they provide, and for whom?

Based on longstanding research by academics within JOMEC and the PEC, this submission focuses on an often overlooked and underexplored area: the value proposition for PSBs with special reference to media literacy where news provision is concerned.


Defining Public Service Broadcasting

What counts as ‘public service broadcasting’ varies from one national media system to the next around the globe (Lowe et al. 2018). Common to most definitions, however, is the understanding that it revolves around a public service ethos, one that may be compared and contrasted with the economic (profit-oriented) priorities of private or commercial broadcasting. That is to say, the term is typically employed to describe those systems which strive to advance certain civic aims and normative values as a means to redress perceived market shortcomings (EBU 2012b).

From its origins in the 1920s, the BBC has pioneered a conception of public service broadcasting that is free of commercial advertising and, in theory, political influence. Its mission statement, as expressed by John Reith, the Corporation’s first Director-General, is to ‘inform, educate and entertain’still key elements of its remit today (BBC 2016) as well as of other PSBs across the globe (Public Media Alliance 2020).

Facing intensifying pressures from commercial rivals (both nationally, primarily from ITV and Sky, as well as globally, with new entrants such as Amazon and Netflix), the BBC strives to balance its public service remit with a commitment to attracting wide audiences to its services. In addressing these audiences as citizens, as opposed to prospective consumers, the BBC’s preferred definition of the public interest should, in principle, prevail over and above what may interest the public at a given moment.

Addressing the public values of PSB, Professor Stuart Allan (2019) points to ‘its daily reaffirmation of common civic values in a time of fake news and filter bubbles’’,’ and underscores its vital contribution ‘to enhancing mutual understanding and dialogue in public life’. There is ample evidence in support of the claim that PSB’s contribution to creating more informed citizens is more widely recognised, and publicly appreciated, than that associated with market-driven media (Cushion 2019, 33).

The European Commission defines the role of PSB as essential to uphold ‘the fundamental right to freedom of expression and information’ (Council of Europe 2010). This right is defined in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Freedoms: (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. (2) The freedom and pluralism of the media shall be respected. PSB therefore enables people to ‘seek and receive information’ and it promotes three important public service values: (i) democracy, (ii) diversity and (iii) social cohesion, as well as having the ability – in theory, at least – of ‘holding power to account’ and ‘building trust’.

Civic value: a duty to inform

PSBs remain a trusted source of news in the digital age, a value borne out in recent Ofcom research (Ofcom 2019a). The public continue to value PSB with 74% of viewers claiming to be either very or quite satisfied (77% in 2016) (Ofcom 2019a, 35). This, in turn, is seen in audience share which remains relatively unchanged despite growing competition and increasingly fragmented audiences. 

Audiences value PSB most highly for the provision of news. For the public, Ofcom PSB purpose 1: ‘Informing our understanding of the world’ continues to be the most important. The highest scores were given to ‘providing news programmes which are trustworthy’ (73% of viewers gave it a 7-10 rating) and ‘helping me understand what is going on in the world’ (69%) (Ofcom 2019a, 35). Although an increasing number of people are using social media as a news source (49% in 2019), television remains the most common source for accessing news – TV services from PSBs make up four of the top ten most commonly used news sources, according to Ofcom’s latest news consumption research (Ofcom 2019b, 8). Overall, PSBs remain the public’s most trusted sources of news in the UK (Ofcom 2019b, 8).

At a time when there is increasing suspicion of fake news and disinformation, PSB’s supply of balanced coverage of politics and public affairs and their delivery of high editorial standards are essential to sustaining a well-functioning democracy (Cushion 2019, 32–33, 36), particularly when the stakes are as high as they are during this current pandemic crisis.

These findings from academic research are supported by current data on the public’s news consumption. Broadcasters such as Channel 4 and the BBC already reported a significant increase in audience numbers during the weeks building up to lockdown (Cushion 2020; Sambrook and Cushion 2020). Since the end of March, Ofcom has been monitoring the ways audiences are consuming news and information about Covid-19, with the objective of supporting a range of stakeholders during the crisis.[2] Ofcom has commissioned a weekly survey of c.2,000 people, asking them about their consumption habits and views.[3] Findings for the 1st week indicate that the most-used source to access information about Covid19 was BBC services (80%)36% of respondents name BBC TV as their most important source for news about Covid-19 (down to 29% for those in the 18-24 age bracket, but still their first option). [4]

According to this data, the consumption of news through media organisations has gone up – average daily news viewing across all channels was up by 92% in March 2020 compared to March 2019. 65% of respondents report using UK-wide organisations (a lot or a little) more than before the outbreak, and 38% report using local media organisations. While the number of people watching news on PSB has declined since peaking in w/c 23 March 2020, viewing remains much higher than previous years (Ofcom 2020d).

In relation to attitudes to Covid-19 and media coverage, results in the first week of lockdown revealed that, while official sources were the most trusted,[5] traditional broadcasters were highly trusted, particularly PSBs.[6] It is interesting to note that social media and closed groups (such as WhatsApp) are least trusted sources, with only between 20%-25% of respondents saying they trusted information from these sources.

As lockdown has started to ease, the majority of the public (88% in week 11 vs 93% in week 1) still report seeking information about Covid19 on traditional media (broadcasters, printed news, and radio).[7] Of these, the most used outlet and broadcaster was the BBC, as reported by 74% in week 11 (vs 82% on week 1).[8] In June (week 11), traditional media and the BBC remain by far the most important sources of information for 67% and 45% of respondents, respectively. 

Recent research (Kyriakidou et al. 2020) has found that broadcasters, and particularly the BBC, have not only increased their news audiences, but trust placed in broadcast news is greater than other types of news outlets. Overall, this study reported that more people trusted TV news than did not, the BBC gaining a trust rate of 85%, higher than other PSBs (73% for ITV, 69% for Channel 4, and 54% for Channel 5) or commercial broadcasters (69% for Sky News). As Professor Stephen Cushion notes, broadcasters will play a critical role in both conveying and questioning the government’s strategy of dealing with the coronavirus. This is a major test of broadcasting’s public service role – to impartially report the facts, while robustly holding the government to account (Cushion 2020).

Beyond news provision, PSBs have been quick to respond to other social needs in terms of content provision. It is clear from research that certain forms of content are likely not be delivered by companies whose remit is solely centred on profit-making. For the commercial broadcasters, content devoted to the arts (Noonan 2018) or children’s news (Carter 2017; Steamers 2017) have traditionally not offered the large-scale audiences needed to satisfy advertisers or provide sufficient potential for international sales.  Commercial entities may on occasion deliver content that has a public service ethos, for example David Attenborough’s series Our Planet on Netflix or the service provided by Sky Arts. But these are often isolated and narrow investments designed to attract subscribers within a specific demographic. In contrast, it is the PSBs range, depth of content and consistency that distinguishes them from other market players.

A further important aspect is the fact that inequalities in children’s education during the pandemic appear to be exacerbated by the digital divide (London CLC 2020). This is a particular concern to be addressed in the Workstrand’s research into Covid19 and children’s media, which will centre on the impacts of socio-economic inequalities during and post lockdown on children’s education. PSB has the potential to bridge the inequalities, as research in other contexts has already proved (Steemers 2019; Baharuddin 2020).

While consumption rates vary across audience demographics, many viewers still rely on linear TV services (Ofcom 2019a). PSB are also providers of interactive content, and feature amongst the most popular on-demand services in the UK (OCI 2019). Full engagement with the expanded television ecosystem requires consumers with sufficient disposable income and access to appropriate technical infrastructure (such as reliable broadband). Such requirements can represent a barrier for many to the range of original UK content available to audiences. Developing an effective on-demand service is not cost neutral. It requires the skills and infrastructure of online media. Therefore, PSB have the responsibility to deliver both high-quality linear and user-friendly on-demand services, and will have to do so in a climate of considerable uncertainty and severe budgetary pressures.

During lockdown, we have seen a wide range of PSB responses to offer audiences support and access to content consistent with its commitment to broadcasting in the public interest. Examples from the BBC’s provision include educational (e.g. Bitesize Daily), cultural (e.g. Culture in Quarantine) and religious (e.g. Sunday Morning Stories) offerings, to S4C’s efforts to keep viewers healthy through Ffit Cymru. The Covid19 crisis has highlighted the relevance of the public service value of universality, an essential attribute of PSB to create a pluralistic, diverse and accessible-to-all service.[9]


Public Service Values for Children

Children are citizens in their own right, and as such entitled to the ‘freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds […]’ as expressed in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNICEF 1989). Children’s news is a key part of the commitment of PSBs to foster and support childrens citizenship.

While children’s television viewing habits are changing in favour of online platforms and video on demand services (VoD),[10] research in the UK and beyond finds that children’s preferred platform for news consumption continues to be television (Carter et al. 2009; Messenger-Davies et al. 2014; Narberhaus 2016). For the UK, Ofcom’s News Consumption Survey reveals that, overall, TV also remains the most-used source of news among 12-15s (64%), followed by talking with family (60%), and social media and talking with friends (both 55%) (Ofcom 2020a, 16).[11]

TV remains not only the most used, but also among the most trusted sources of news for children. Six in ten 12-15 year olds claim to be either ‘very’ or ‘quite’ interested in news (Ofcom 2019b, 10) and family, radio and TV are perceived to be the most truthful news sources, while news from social media is regarded as the least truthful (Ofcom 2019b, 11).[12]

Like adults, many children across the globe have been in lockdown during the past few months, becoming dependant on media ‘as their main sources of or facilitators of their education, information, and entertainment’ (IZI 2020). Across the globe, PSB have risen to the challenge of providing resources to support children’s needs, including their emotional, physical and civic wellbeing (Steemers and Götz 2020; Asseraf 2020; Götz et al. 2020; Heike vom Orde 2020). In the UK, this has also been the case, with the BBC launching its most ever ambitious educational resource pack across all platforms, for all ages, regions and nations (BBC 2020b; 2020c). Unprecedented in scale, it is well within the remit of the PSB commitment to children education (Steemers 2009).

During lockdown in the UK, TV broadcasts have been the most popular and trusted sources of news and information about the pandemic amongst family members surveyed. Two-thirds of 12-15-year olds in the UK (67%) have reported getting news and information about the pandemic from family members. A similar percentage said they used television as a source of news and information about Covid-19 (72%). BBC TV was the most used broadcaster, with nearly half of 12-15-year-old respondents (49%) saying they used it as a source.[13] Just under half of 12-15s (48%) said they used social media as a source of information about the topic (Ofcom 2020c, 1).[14] Perhaps not surprisingly, family members are the most trusted source of information about the Coronavirus outbreak.[15] BBC TV is also highly trusted, with 87% of 12-15-year-olds who use it saying they trust it to tell the truth about the outbreak (Ofcom 2020c, 2).

This data support recent research that shows that factual information plays an important role in children’s civic engagement, but also on their emotional and physical wellbeing (Carter 2013; 2017; Messenger-Davies et al. 2014). Findings from a study of childrens sources and attitudes towards information on Covid-19 shows that if ‘children have a basic knowledge about the coronavirus and how to protect themselves and others from it, they are less worried’ (IZI 2020). One of the programmes in the UK that is contributing to filling the gap in children’s access to reliable information is Newsround, Children’s BBC (CBBC) TV news bulletin and website.

The BBC is conscious of the vital role programmes like Newsround have ‘in providing accurate information for young audiences(BBC 2020a). Examples include broadcast items such as do masks work? or social distancing explained in dominos, with a handwashing demonstration video attracting 158,000 views (BBC 2020a). Q&A sessions with health experts have generated over 300,000 views online, and more than half a million via social media (BBC 2020a).

Newsround’s importance during the pandemic needs to be situated against the backdrop of an earlier BBC’s proposal to reduce the time allocated to Newsround. In late 2019, there had been plans to end the afternoon broadcast (reducing the number of broadcasting hours from 400 to 350 with the aim of increasing online provision) in favour of reallocating resources into online news coverage. These plans were put on hold in March 2020 as the BBC mobilised efforts to inform the public about the risks of the coronavirus outbreak, including children.

Children’s media experts Prof Jeanette Steemers (Kings College London), Dr Cynthia Carter (Cardiff) and Prof Màire Messenger Davies (Freelance Consultant) made a formal intervention to Ofcom in December 2019 challenging the BBC’s intended cuts for Newsround. They argued that, in doing so, the BBC was at risk of undermining its public service commitment to child news audiences. Case in point, during the coronavirus lockdown, Newsround has not only kept its hours, but has increased its provision to include a wider range and more in-depth content to inform about the pandemic and how to best cope with it.

The promotion of Newsround on other online platforms has improved since the beginning of the health crisis. Its increased presence on YouTube is to be welcomed, since according to latest data on children’s online behaviour, watching YouTube is more popular than watching television programmes on a TV (Ofcom 2020a, 10). Although it still does not have its own channel on YouTube; it is on the home page of the CBBC YouTube channel. It also features quite prominently on the CBBC and iPlayer CBBC websites, and on the iPlayer Kids home page. Many of the most popular videos are about coronavirus (information, instructions, Q&A, as well as wellbeing and mental health advice to navigate lockdown), which suggests an increase in children’s (and also parents’) need for reliable and age-appropriate information.

Founded in 1972, Newsround has been the only news programme for children in the UK for many years. Commercial investment in children’s news programmes has decreased in the last two decades. Sky (Fresh Start Media/ Sky News, Sky Kids) has recently called on public resources, namely the BFI Young Audience Content Fund to support a series of documentaries for 8-11 year-olds (BFI 2019). Launched in April 2019, one of the objectives of the £57m scheme is to stimulate the provision and plurality of public service-original UK content, and it is seen by the government as an example of its commitment to children’s broadcasting. This move suggests that the BBC’s provision may be complemented through contestable funding to advantage, but it is too early to say for certain.

While Ofcom offers data of declining child audiences for linear TV and Newsround in particular, there is a gap in the research into its causes – including in relation to channel/platform accessibility and scheduling prominence. More qualitative studies are needed to understand what children expect from news provision and what it will take to best engage them on a day-to-day basis.

One pertinent worldwide study during lockdown, involving 4,322 children aged 9-13, explored children's knowledge, understanding and coping strategies during the pandemic and how adults (media producers, teachers, parents) can best support them during the COVID-19 crisis.[16] This information will be used by children’s media producers, regulators, advocacy groups, and academics to better understand children’s media consumption, particularly what they have found to be useful for their learning, relaxation and coping with the lockdown - and why.[17]

Some of this study’s findings thus far highlight the importance of traditional broadcasting for news consumption among children. Children were asked to name the three media (from 21 options) that they used the most during lockdown. Nearly half of the children across the international sample (47%) chose TV (Götz et al. 2020, 8).[18]

Findings concerning the reasons given by children for accessing media suggest that the role of PSB, or at the very least a public service ethos, is fundamental for children’s wellbeing, particularly in times of crisis: 70% of children ‘reported using media to access information and to know what is going on’; 60% reported using media ‘to take their minds off from what is going on (escapism)’ (Götz et al. 2020, 8). As the authors note, ‘these findings demonstrate that children’s media are bearing a great responsibility, serving important functions for children during the COVID-19 crisis’ (Götz et al. 2020, 9).

Children need reliable information that is bespoke to their personal priorities. A public service ethos can help children ‘1) cope with this special situation in age-appropriate, readily-understandable ways; 2) develop understandings of responsible behaviour for themselves and towards others; and 3) to react appropriately in the given situation’ (Götz et al. 2020, 9). PSBs are not only well-positioned to support children’s civic engagement and wellbeing but have the statutory remit to do so.  

While it is true that audiences are fragmented across media platforms, PSB ‘continue to offer a distinctive democratic service, not just for some audiences but for all citizens in a democracy’ (Cushion 2019, 38), including children. In the UK sample for the above study, children interviewed were overall well-informed on different aspects of the pandemic (where it originated, main symptoms, who is most affected and what to do to protect themselves and others), and were able to spot ‘fake news’ easily (Carter 2020). Reliable information, suggests the study, also makes children less anxious (Götz et al. 2020).

PSBs need to be responsive to its child audience and their parents. The coronavirus crisis has highlighted just how important Newsround has been in informing children. It has done so, not just through its role in fostering their civic engagement through its enhanced news provision, but also by ensuring that this important sector of the news audience has the necessary tools to navigate through troubled times, including those which support children’s media and digital literacy as well as their emotional, physical and civic wellbeing.




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———. 2020. ‘COVID-19: To Counter Misinformation, Journalists Need to Embrace a Public Service Mission’. 17 March. http://theconversation.com/covid-19-to-counter-misinformation-journalists-need-to-embrace-a-public-service-mission-133829.

Cushion, Stephen, Nikki Soo, Maria Kyriakidou, and Marina Morani. 2020. ‘Research Suggests UK Public Can Spot Fake News about COVID-19, but Don’t Realise the UK’s Death Toll Is Far Higher than in Many Other Countries’, LSE Covid-19 (blog). 28 April. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/covid19/2020/04/28/research-suggests-uk-public-can-spot-fake-news-about-covid-19-but-dont-realise-the-uks-death-toll-is-far-higher-than-in-many-other-countries/.

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———. 2012b. ‘Empowering Society’.

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[1] Submitted by Dr Eva Nieto McAvoy, Professor Stuart Allan and Dr Cynthia Carter (School of Journalism, Media and Culture at Cardiff University/Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre).




[2] This work is in line with Ofcom’s News Consumption.

[3] The survey takes place each weekend. The first one took place on 27-29 March 2020, questions referring to the previous week of the 23, the first week of ‘lockdown’ in the UK. The findings are representative of the 87% of the UK population that are online (Ofcom, Online Nation 2019).

[4] 56% use non-BBC broadcasters; 52% officials; 49% social media; 43% the press (online or printed); 42% rely on family, friends or local people; and 15% use closed groups – e.g. WhatsApp and Facebook messenger. For 18-24, 16% say official sources (such as WHO, NHS, Govt, etc); 12% non-BBC broadcasters; 12% BBC Online; and 5% social media (up to 11% among 18-24s).

[5] Nine in ten or more of those using the official sources 95% of respondents using official sources trust the NHS, 94% the WHO, 91% local health services, 90% official scientists, and 89% trust the government as a source of information.

[6] 83% of respondents trust BBC TV, 83% Channel 4, 82% ITV, and 75% Sky.

[7] 5-7 June.

[8] The BBC News site and/or app had the highest average monthly views per adult visitor (aged 18+) of the Top 10 news sites and apps (in April 2020, 41 visits followed by 26 to the DailyMail). BBC News, DailyMail, The Guardian, The Sun, Express, Sky News, Mirror Online, Metro, Telegraph, Independent (Ofcom 2020).

[9] This is followed by independence, excellence, diversity, accountability and innovation (EBU 2012a).

[10] 74% of 4-15-year olds still watch broadcast television each week.

[11] Since 2018 there has been a decrease in the proportion of children who use BBC TV news sources: ‘BBC One or Two’ is down to 40% in 2019 (from 45%), and CBBC (Newsround) is down to 9% (from 12%).

[12] One of Ofcom’s findings in this regard is that most children in the sample of their ‘Children’s Media Life Study’ do ‘not appear to be engaging with national news stories’ (Ofcom 2020b, 7), however more in-depth research shows that children are in fact interested in finding out about what is going on in the world (Carter, Messenger Davies,et al. 2009); Carter (2013).

[13] A third said they used ITV (30%) and a fifth used Sky (21%) for information about Covid-19.

[14] YouTube (20%), Facebook/Facebook Messenger (20%) and Instagram (18%) were the most commonly used online sources.

[15] Of the 12-15-year olds who said they used their family as a source of information, 92% said they trust them tell the truth about the outbreak. By comparison, half of those who said they used their friends as a source said they trusted the information provided (50%).

[16] The questionnaire was developed by the Bavarian Broadcasting Corporation (a regional public service radio and TV broadcaster based in Munich) through its research unit, International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television (IZI). Its UK team includes Steemers, Carter and Messenger Davies.

[17] The main benefit to children from their participation in this study is know they would be helping researchers and children’s media producers to better understand how children are feeling during the crisis. It would also show what media sources (TV, radio, press, social media, games) they are using and finding to be helpful (or not) in coping with the pandemic.

[18] 9-year-olds selected this option more often (61%) than did the 13-year-olds (39%) but in average far away from the second option which was a mobile phone (30%) and third YouTube (28%). In the UK, most children chose YouTube over TV (35% vs 30%)