Tessa Jowell Speech to BFI/UKFC/C4 Media Literacy Seminar

I was delighted to hear that today's seminar was over-subscribed.  That is just one indicator I think that this is a coming subject.

Like many debates of the last 100 years or more, what is dismissed by some as today's political correctness and subject of parody will become a new orthodoxy.

Today, media literacy needs to be defined and its significance justified.

And in 5 years time it will be just another given.

Now you have already spent much of today talking about media literacy in its various forms.

You know that it is capable of several definitions, applicable to different media in different circumstances.

However, the fact of converging technologies demands that we begin to think about a more converged definition of media literacy.


Because it is not good enough just to say that media literacy is about giving people the ability to access, analyse, evaluate and use the media.

In my view that definition must be developed to embrace at least three separate strands:

First, that people have the means to understand the potential of all the new communication technologies that are rapidly becoming available.

To have a modern population able to take advantage of modern technologies is good for individuals, good for the economy and good for our wider society.

But technology and hardware by themselves have little value.

It is the content delivered that matters to people.

We live in a society where large corporations, and other institutions are becoming ever more sophisticated and powerful in the way they use the media to promote their products and shape the way that people see the world.

We're all aware of the power of advertising, and generally ads are seen for what they are.

But in a world where the excellent "Lost in Translation" lists in its extensive credits a "Product Placement Co-ordinator" it is reasonable to ask whether people are aware of just how the media are used in many and varied ways to deliver the corporate message.


So we want active, informed consumers, able to take decisions for themselves and their families based on judgement and on understanding.

But thirdly, we recognise that people are more than consumers.

They are citizens, and to be citizens they need to have an understanding of the world around them and how they engage with it.

Most of the information they need to be able to act as informed citizens does actually come from the media.

It therefore matters that people can get the information they need, know what degree of trust they can put in it, and how to "aim off", to take account of the inevitable bias that flows from the viewpoint and interests of the organisation or individual who is delivering the information.

It's not only the big corporations that are sophisticated in their use of the media.  The same could be said of political parties, pressure groups, NGOs, and you might even say Government too.

Let's face it, if we're prepared to work hard to get our message over then we owe it to the public at large to ensure that they have the skills they need to be as sophisticated in understanding what we're saying, as we are in saying it.

When there were few media outlets, changing slowly, understanding the media was easier.

But today the proliferation of outlets and the globalisation of sources makes the media world a very different place.


One parody of my views, which I saw reported last week, was that I wanted to teach people the difference between Eastenders and images of an African famine.  Of course I have never said that or anything remotely like it.

Similarly I have little interest in seeing an increase in the number of media studies graduates emerging from our universities. That's absolutely not the point. This is not a recruiting sergeant for people to become media studies graduates.

But when children spend more hours in front a screen than they do in the classroom, it is transparently important that they should be helped to get the most from all those screen hours, and be protected from what we know are some of the worst excesses of the screen.

As a government we have put emphasis on the importance of numeracy and literacy, but media literacy is about getting skills for life, skills which allow us to find our place in the world.


Why does Media Literacy Matter?

People do need to know what Media Literacy means in their real lives.

So let me illustrate the definition with a few recent examples:

  • Firstly, there is the debate about obesity in young people and the impact of food advertising.
  • Secondly, there is the concern about paedophilia and the use of the Net for inappropriate contact with young people.
  • Thirdly, take the debate about Europe.  Is it really possible to understand what is written about the EU without knowing about the deeply felt passions of the owners and editors?
  • And what about those owners and editors?  There is a debate about who might buy the Telegraph titles.  Is that a private debate amongst big companies who might be interested in buying, or is there a legitimate public debate, which should be properly informed by an understanding of both plurality and diversity?

So these debates are important.

They shape people's lives.  Decisions are taken by individuals, by companies and by Governments in response to the public debate.

Much of the information provided to the public is heavily opinionated, often selective and sometimes overstated.

It is regulated under one set of rules in newspapers, or not regulated you could say, by quite a different set on TV and radio, and by very limited rules – sometimes no rules at all – on the internet.

So I think it is metropolitan, elitist arrogance to think that, just because some in the media village think they understand how this convoluted system works, that people in the rest of society need no help at all in working out how to access, analyse and evaluate the media they consume.


Take some of the commonplace assumptions you will find in almost any of the newspapers about the way the media, in the traditional phrase, can become the message:

  • That, for example, media outlets will report the world in a selective way that reflects their wider corporate interests
  • That newspapers, with their licence to be opinionated, will let those opinions determine the stories they report, how much prominence they give them, what context they provide and what they don't, that will elide fact, opinion and create a kind of editorialised fiction.
  • That television and radio news follow the newspaper agenda because they are too timid or too constrained to set their own agendas
  • That advertisers are now too comfortable with the existing self-regulatory codes and too imaginative in finding ways of getting round them.  Alcohol ads are meant not to associate alcohol with social or sexual success – but some of the very clever and very witty ads are surely pushing those boundaries back?
  • That PSBs are dumbing down their output of news and serious documentaries, contributing to the growing apathy in politics
  • That communications technology is becoming so powerful and so gadget-ridden that we are getting an information super-class who can navigate their way around with skill, and an information under-class who feel alienated and excluded. 


It is important to set these issues out so that we can share in the debate about their veracity.

I do want to know whether people feel equipped to deal with the growing clamour of voices seeking their attention, and whether they feel they have the ability to sort the wheat from the chaff, the genuine from the fake, the factual from the polemical, the objective from the biased.

The National Curriculum

Now the national curriculum has a role to play here for young people.

Formal education already has a significant role.

Increasingly, media literacy strands are developing within the National Curriculum.

  • In the Citizenship strand, which engages with questions like "What makes a news story?" and "How are the media used to promote causes and campaigns?"
  • In the ICT strand, where pupils learn how to interrogate and communicate information, and to use technology in a way that serves their needs.
  • And in the English strand, which examines the purpose and presentation of texts, including moving image texts.

Charles Clarke is very aware of the growing importance of media literacy in our society, and is very happy that his Department should take part in the forums and discussions that are being established to take the issue forward.


Educating the wider public


There is also already a great deal being done for people outside formal education.

If you turn to work being undertaken in the USA, we see the Kaiser Foundation funding media literacy projects to help people understand how to navigate themselves around the very confusing world of health communications.

Here we see Media Smart set up with the industry to advise schools on how to teach children how to handle advertising.

We see the Internet Watch Foundation set up in part by prompting from the Home Office, helping parents understand how to help their children use the internet – and protect them from its worst excesses.

The BBC takes its responsibilities seriously in this area, with a series of projects both on and off air, and online as well.

Channel 4, ITV and others are also committed to playing their part.

But what has been done so far is simply not enough.


Because the media world is changing fast and it is converging fast.

We need initiatives on media literacy that match that speed, the scale and the changing circumstances.

And that's why I welcome today's call for a forum that will bring the industry together and build on the debate, which has already begun.

Next Steps

So in conclusion let me suggest four conditions for taking forward today's discussions:

1.  I think media Literacy must embrace all media.  The Comms Act specifies a role for Ofcom in the world of electronic communications, but this is about more than telecoms and broadcasting.

It is also about film, newspapers, magazines and the internet.

It is about advertising in all its forms.

It is about ideas and debate and democracy and how people form and give expression to their views.


2.  Education will make a substantial contribution, not just within formal educational processes, but also in those many informal processes, which help shape people's understanding of the world around them.

3.  Thirdly, people's interests need to be understood and reflected in policy.  That's means a serious commitment to collecting and analysing the evidence before policy is made.  Decisions need to respond to people's needs and not be imposed on them without their understanding.

4.  All the regulators, finally, need to work together – Ofcom, the ASA, the PCC, BBFC, BFI and the UKFC, ICSTIS and the Internet watch foundation.

Now I don't want to see as the way of dealing with this and as our response, more regulation.  I want to see effective regulation of a responsible industry serving an increasingly informed public.

There is a prize here – we all want to live in a country of engaged citizens and wise consumers and put an end to the hand wringing about apathy and disengagement from what's going on in the world.

But we have to create it, it won't happen by itself.


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