Regulator and educator: Ofcom and the origins of “media literacy” within UK cultural policy.

This source preferred by Richard Wallis

Authors: Wallis, R.

Start date: 17 September 2012

This paper explores why The Communications Act 2003 required Ofcom, the newly created regulator, to ‘promote media literacy’. The Communications Act was essentially an instrument of deregulation, principally concerned with the amalgamation of five regulatory bodies into one, and the loosening of rules on media ownership. It is rather surprising then, that it should be given the responsibility for an essentially educative project. Even the choice of the term ‘media literacy’ is odd, being associated mainly with media education in North America, and not much used in the UK at that time. Yet, under New Labour, it became enshrined in statute, despite the fact that, in law, it remained undefined. Where did the concept of media literacy come from? How did it come to be included in the Communications Act? Why was it left undefined? And why was it not assigned to an agency or organisation with a responsibility for education? I address these questions with reference to the need for New Labour to enable the Citizen-Consumer to be ‘armed’ against the various perceived dangers of a newly deregulated media landscape: media literacy seemed like an expedient way to enable the public to protect itself. I also aim to shed light on some of the complexities of policy making: a process in which forethought, intention and planning is as often compromised as it is galvanised by political opportunism, ‘serendipity’, and the peculiar processes of Parliament. This is done with reference to policy documents and interviews with some of the actors involved.

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