The Useful Imaginary of Independence in British Broadcasting

Authors: Rawstrone, K.

Start date: 4 September 2014

This paper argues that the term ‘independent’ in British broadcasting, rather than defining or determining some ontological ‘thing,’ actually serves to facilitate the political, social and economic interests of a powerful minority. That there can be no such thing as ‘true’ independence does not prohibit its usefulness as a discursive tool.

Considering three phases in British broadcasting in which the term was key: the determination of the BBC’s editorial independence in the 1920s; the introduction of “Independent” commercial television in the 1950s; and the stimulation of the independent television production sector in the 1970s and 80s, the paper interrogates the social and economic interests being declared and served in the name of ‘independence.’ Three levels of analysis are considered: the macro-level of the nation-state; the meso-level of institutions; and the micro-level of the individual. It is argued that individuals and groups seek to shape, access and mobilise the authority of institutions in order to serve their own ideological or instrumental interests. In order to do this, the dominant discourses of the ordering of society and the distribution of resources – democracy; the public interest; cultural integrity; the market - are called upon as incontrovertible founding and guiding principles.

In each of the three sites of enquiry, the term has a different meaning but, taken as a whole, the usefulness of the concept of independence is that it appears to support the dominant ‘national imaginary.’ In order to anchor the methodology in contemporary practice, I consider its application to interviews with Grace Productions, a regional micro-indie specialising in factual programmes. Independent producers exist in a network of negotiated dependencies. Their independence, while fundamentally unachievable must, though, have usefulness in that it serves a number of declared and actual interests. I consider what these interests may be and, therefore, "What is the usefulness of the independent television producer?"

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