Notes on the public and public service in the 1980s.

.Public Domain

.Social solidarity, active democracy and the public interest

.Public service broadcasting and the 1980s

.The public sphere and public space

The public domain

In The Decline of the Public David Marquand defines the public domain as ‘the domain of citizenship, equity and service whose integrity is essential to democratic governance and social well-being…. In it citizenship rights trump both market power and bonds of clan or kinship. Professional pride in a job well done, or a sense of civic duty, or a mixture of both replaces the hope of gain and the fear of loss….as the spur to action’.
(Marquand 2004:1-2).

Social solidarity, active democracy and the public interest

“Doctors and nurses do not ‘sell' medical services; students are not ‘customers' of their teachers; policemen and policewomen do not ‘produce' public order. The attempt to force these relationships into a market mould undermines the service ethic”. writes Colin Leys in Market Driven-Politics: Neoliberal democracy and the public interest.

“Contrary to the impression given by neo-liberal ideology and neoclassical economics textbooks, markets are not impersonal and impartial but highly political, as well as inherently unstable. In the search for survival, firms constantly explore ways to break out of the boundaries set by state regulation, including the boundaries that close non-market spheres to commodification and profit-making. This is a crucially important issue since it threatens the destruction of non-market spheres of life on which social solidarity and active democracy have always depended’
(Leys 2001: 213 and 1-2)

In The Corrosion of Character: The personal consequences of work in the new capitalism Richard Sennett argues that the neoliberalism of the ‘Anglo-American regime’ corrodes ‘character’. ‘Character’ here refers to ‘the ethical value we place on our own desires and on our relations with others’. It provides our connection with the social world, developed through loyalty and ‘mutual commitment’. With the erosion of character, our sense of mutual dependence corrodes along with the attendant notions of community. Bonds of trust, formed through crisis and the need for help, are threatened.
(Sennett, 1998:10 and 139).
Back to the top»

Public service broadcasting and the 1980s

The 1980s were years in which the idea of public service broadcasting was ‘strongly challenged for the first time. For broadcasters who had taken “public service” for granted, life suddenly became uncomfortable’.
(Curran and Seaton Power Without Responsibility: The Press and Broadcasting in Britain. Fifth Edition 1997:209).

“Broadcasting was one of a number of areas -the professions such as teaching, medicine and the law were others -in which special pleading by powerful interest groups was disguised as high-minded commitment to some greater good” Margaret Thatcher wrote in her memoirs.
(quoted in Tom O’Malley, Closedown? The BBC and Government Broadcasting Policy 1979-92. 1994:67)

Broadcasting Act 1981

The 1981 Broadcasting Act required the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) ‘to provide TV and local sound broadcasting services as a public service for disseminating information, education and entertainment (Section 2). In its submission to the Committee the IBA wrote “The essence of public service broadcasting is that it is not determined by market forces alone. The IBA ensures that programmes are sufficiently insulated from advertising pressure”.
(O’Malley Closedown 1994:103)

Broadcasting Research Unit 1985

In 1985 the Broadcasting Research Unit defined public service broadcasting as involving:

Peacock Report 1986

The following year the Peacock Committee argued that ‘public service’, should be seen as a compensation for ‘market failure’.
“The best operational definition of public service is simply any major modification of purely commercial provision resulting from public policy. If a full broadcasting market is eventually achieved…the main role of public service could turn out to be the collective provision…of programmes which viewers and listeners are willing to support in their capacity of taxpayers and voters, but not directly as consumers”
(Peacock 1986, para 580).

The Peacock Report, writes media historian Tom O’Malley, ‘redefined matters of social and cultural policy in terms of commodity exchange’ and ‘shifted the definition of broadcasting itself from a public good to a private commodity’, effectively stripping ‘public service of its cultural and social connotations’
(O’Malley Closedown 1994: 97 and 102)

Competition and Consumer Sovereignty

‘Ideal consumers…are driven by the desire to consume -not to think, excel, reflect, enjoy, select, reject, rejoice or weep, but to consume television and radio programmes’.
(O’Malley Closedown 1994:105)

“We were seeking not simply to remove various controls and impositions, but by doing so to change the entire culture of a nation from anti-profits, anti-business, government-dependent lassitude and defeatism to a pro-profit, pro-business, robustly independent vigour and optimism….. based on self belief and the will to succeed’.
wrote Nigel Lawson, Chancellor of the Exchequer 1983-1989.
(quoted by Marquand 2004:104-5)

Rupert Murdoch 1989

By the mid-1980s satellites could broadcast potentially hundreds of television channels, either directly through a personal dish or via a network of specially laid cables. The public service system of terrestrial broadcasters, which depended on regulation as a defence against market pressures, was challenged by the new competition. Rupert Murdoch was at the forefront of a campaign to let market forces rip.

'This public service television system has had, in my view, debilitating effects on British society, by producing a television output which is so often obsessed with class, dominated by anti-commercial attitudes and with a tendency to hark back to the past' he declared.
(Murdoch, 1989)

Murdoch had launched Sky Television on the Luxembourg-based Astra satellite in 1989, and had a controlling interest in media enterprises around the globe.

Campaign for Quality Television 1988

The Campaign for Quality Television was set up in 1988 by a group of ITV producers and public figures worried about the effect of forthcoming legislation. They campaigned for guarantees that the range and quality of programmes would not be sacrificed in the rush for profits.
(Andrew Davidson Under the Hammer: Greed and glory inside the television business London:Mandarin 1992:17-26)

Broadcasting Act 1990

‘Mrs. Thatcher’s 1990 Broadcasting Act [was] perhaps the worst piece of legislation of the last 50 years’ writes Ray Fitzwalter. The Act relaxed the public service obligations on ITV.

‘As long as the leaders failed to see that broadcasting is the central cultural – not economic – experience of our age: if their first and last criterion was maximising returns, then it was inevitable that broadcasting, led by ITV, would lose its range and diversity of programming and thus decline’.
(Fitzwalter 2008)

The public sphere and public space

Public space is not understood agonistically as a space for competition for acclaim an immortality among a political elite: it is viewed democratically as the creation of procedures whereby those affected by general social norms and collective political decisions can have a say in their formulation, stipulation and adoption…..The public sphere comes into existence whenever and wherever all affected by general, social and political norms of action engage in a practical discourse, evaluating their validity’
(Seyla Benhabib ‘Models of public space’ 1992:87).

‘The necessary defence and expansion of the public sphere as an integral part of a democratic society requires us to re-evaluate the public service model of public communication, and while being necessarily critical of its concrete, historical actualisation, defend it and build upon the potential of its rational core in the face of the existing and growing threats to its continued existence”
(Nicholas Garnham ‘The media and the public sphere’ 1986: 53)
Back to the top»


Benhabib, S (1992) ‘Models of public space’ in Craig Calhoun (ed) Habermas and the Public Sphere Cambridge, Mass: MIT

Broadcasting Research Unit (1985) The Public Service Idea in British Broadcasting London: Broadcasting Research Unit

Committee on Financing the BBC (Peacock Committee). (1986) Report of the Committee on Financing the BBC. CM9824 London: HMSO.

Curran, J. and Seaton, J. (1997) Power Without Responsibility: The Press and Broadcasting in Britain Fifth Edition, London: Routledge

Davidson, A (1992) Under the Hammer: Greed and Glory Inside the Television Business London:Mandarin

Fitzwalter, R. (2008) The Dream that Died: the Rise and Fall of ITV. Leicester: Matador

Garnham, N. (1986) ‘The media and the public sphere’ in P. Golding et al (eds) Communicating Politics Leicester: Leicester University Press

Leys, C (2001) Market Driven-Politics: Neoliberal democracy and the public interest London: Verso 2001

Marquand, D. (2004) Decline of the Public. Cambridge: Polity.

Murdoch, R. (1989) Freedom in Broadcasting London: News Corporation Ltd

O’Malley, T. (1994) Closedown? The BBC and Government Broadcasting Policy 1979-92. London: Pluto.

Sennett, R (1998) The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, WW Norton and Co.,1998:

Back to the top»