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Tessa Jowell’s farsighted vision for media literacy was ahead of its time

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Forward thinker: Tessa Jowell in 2007. More Than Gold UK, CC BY-NC

By Dr Richard Wallis, Bournemouth University

The untimely death from cancer of former UK Labour cabinet minister, Dame Tessa Jowell, has triggered a wave of tributes from across the political spectrum. Her vision for securing the 2012 Olympics for London, her formative role in New Labour’s flagship Sure Start scheme, and most recently, her campaign for cancer research, have all been given many column inches.

By contrast, Jowell’s less certain legacy as principal advocate for media literacy is barely given a mention. It seems to have been quietly forgotten that it was Jowell, as secretary of state for Culture, Media and Sport, that pushed through parliament the Communications Act 2003 which enshrined media literacy in law, and gave to Ofcom – the (then new) media “super-regulator” – the responsibility to “promote” the idea.

Media literacy existed as a New Labour policy well before Jowell’s turn at the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS). Her predecessor, Chris Smith, believed that the concept was a useful one for “arming the citizen-consumer” of media, to make responsible choices in a period of increasing deregulation.

To the dismay of some of her own policy advisors, Jowell seized the concept, made it her own, and became a fervent advocate at every opportunity. In an address given at BAFTA the year following the Communications Act, she referred to media literacy as “a coming subject” and one that “in five years’ time will be just another given”.

Misplaced optimism

With the benefit of hindsight, Jowell’s optimism seems to have been misplaced. Media literacy, arguably, has never been lower on the political agenda. The plethora of initiatives that sprang up in the wake of the Communications Act have largely withered on the vine – and the process of recent reforms to the popular Media Studies A-level have seen the subject savagely “strangled”.

Yet Jowell’s argument for media education has never been more relevant. “It is important,” she insisted, “that we know when we are watching ‘accurate and impartial’ news coverage and when we are not”. These are prescient comments when you consider that they were made more than a decade before “post-truth” became the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year (in 2016) and when terms such as “fake news” or “Leveson Inquiry” had yet to pass anyone’s lips.

Jowell believed that education in media opened opportunities that could enrich the experience of individuals and society – but she was equally exercised about the role that education had to play in protecting against some of the dangers of modern media. She thought that media were dominated by powerful and potentially harmful commercial and political interests. She believed that children, in particular, should be provided with “critical life skills” to guide their media consumption.

“It is transparently important,” she told a media literacy seminar in 2004, “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”. She went on to ensure that, from 2006, the BBC Charter also contained requirements to promote media literacy.

Where did it go so wrong?

The key to understanding the marginalisation of media literacy as government policy is the role of the Department for Education – once known as the Department for Education and Skills(DfES). Media education was not seen as a serious curriculum priority at the DfES, and – despite New Labour’s early insistence on “joined-up government” – enthusiasm for media literacy never spread beyond the confines of DCMS.

There was widespread ignorance about media education among civil servants within DfES, many of whom had had highly traditional educational experiences themselves. A preoccupation with “driving up” standards, measurability and international comparison provided little incentive for the promotion of a field of study concerned with recognising and understanding forms of popular (or “low”) culture. This was despite the apparent economic value being attributed to the “creative industries” at the same time.




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The byzantine operation of the DfES also made change of any kind difficult – particularly where it touched on what was actually taught in schools. In this case, there was the added disincentive of a policy being driven by a separate –and junior – department. Ultimately, media literacy was never to be widely embraced as an educational project in the way that Jowell had hoped.

Media literacy remains on the statute book and Ofcom continues to have a responsibility to promote it. But the way it is defined – and the level of resources provided to support it – ensure that it has largely been reduced to a form of market research, an undead policy. Jowell once proclaimed:

I believe that in the modern world, media literacy will become as important a skill as maths or science. Decoding our media will become as important to our lives as citizens as understanding literature is to our cultural lives.

It may be too much to hope that media literacy could yet be reclaimed as one of Tessa Jowell’s essential legacies.


Richard Wallis, Principal Academic in Media Production, Faculty of Media & Communication, Bournemouth University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Digital entertainment students in ‘Research Jam’ to aid the work of Dementia Institute

Students from the Centre for Digital Entertainment (CDE) took part in a two-day Research Jam to put their skills to the test to create apps or games with the purpose of enhancing the work of Bournemouth University Dementia Institute (BUDI).

The Centre for Digital Entertainment is a centre for doctoral training and collaboration between the universities of Bournemouth and Bath, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

The intention of this year’s CDE annual event, also attended by academics and industry professionals, was to bring the focus back to the skills and knowledge the CDE Research Engineers are gaining during the four year programme, and inputting it into a creative process that could benefit society.

CDE Research Engineers During ResJamProfessor Jian Jun Zhang, Deputy Director of CDE at Bournemouth University, said, “This year we wanted to push our students a little harder and by using their expertise and teaming up with BUDI, we hope to have a societal impact through the work we are doing”.

The two day event, which took place in the beautiful Italian Villa, included a talk from the BBC’s Research and Development department and Dementia Friends training from BUDI, before students were split into groups and each asked to create an app, game or interface that would either raise awareness for, or assist people with dementia.

An integral part of the programme is the three year industrial placement.  Ian Stephenson, a Senior Lecturer in Computer Animation and part of the CDE, said, “These postgraduate students have been working in companies like the BBC and Double Negative, once a year we bring them together. This year we have partnered with BUDI to look at the topic of dementia. We want these young engineers to build something that addresses the issue of dementia in society – to put their technical skills to use for the benefit of society.”

The event started with presentations from the BBC’s Research and Development (R&D) department and Bournemouth-based company 3 Sided Cube, giving the students an insight into work processes around digital content creation before the teams got to work.  After seeing the presentations and collating information, the teams had a little under 24 hours to research, create and present their ideas.

The teams were asked to work on one of three main areas within the theme of dementia; physical stimulation to keep people with dementia active; social stimulation to increase interaction, and generational interaction, for people with dementia; or a piece of technology to challenge public view of dementia.

Becky Gregory-Clarke BBC R &DBecky Gregory-Clarke (pictured) from the BBC’s R&D team said, “The BBC R&D team has a strong link with the CDE through student placements and we’ve been ‘workshopping’ around the idea of dementia too, so it was great to come along and see these students at work. It’s really great for students to get involved in events like this because at the BBC we do things like this as a part of our work day too, so if you can get used to brainstorming and working like this now it can really hold you in good stead for your career in the future too.”

Shakespeare festival: open call for digital ideas

British Council

What is it about?

BBC Arts Online and the British Council, supported by the GREAT Britain campaign, are collaborating to enable audiences, in the UK and overseas, to experience and discover the best of British Shakespeare in all art forms. The plan is to open with a 24 hour live-stream on 23 April 2016 and to offer new content on a regular basis over six months.

The British Council, on behalf of the GREAT Britain campaign, is calling for ideas from artists and cultural organisations across the UK. Funding is available for international rights clearances and to support the production of new content.

Five key cultural organisations are already working with  to provide world-class content – Shakespeare’s Globe, The Royal Opera House, the British Film Institute, Hay Festivals and the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Shakespeare400 consortium coordinated by King’s College.

The content will be hosted on BBC Shakespeare Lives (bbc.co.uk/shakespearelives ) and promoted internationally by BBC Worldwide online ( bbc.com/culture) so global rights need to be cleared . The campaign will be supported by social media campaigns in order to drive audiences to this unique festival.

This is an unprecedented partnership project for the BBC and the British Council and  believe it has great potential for all organisations involved to increase their international reach and reputation.

How can I get involved?

We are particularly looking for ideas which appeal to younger audiences and convey the diversity and creativity of the UK’s Arts sector. If you are interested in applying, please complete the attached form.

APPLICATIONS CLOSE TUESDAY 16 FEBRUARY 2016

Click here for more information including the application form.

What would TV look like without the BBC? Get involved!

The British Academy will be one of the partners of a major inquiry into the future of public service television, chaired by Lord Puttnam.british_academy_logo

The Inquiry, www.futureoftv.org.uk, which is based at the Media and Communications department, Goldsmiths, University of London, is set up to consider the nature, purpose and role of public service television today and into the future. It aims to address ways in which public service content can be most effectively nurtured taking into consideration a growing range of services, platforms and funding models.  More details can be found here.

There is an exciting opportunity to attend a free event where you can join a panel of policymakers and practitioners as they take on this hotly debated topic to consider how this British institution should be funded.  Details are as follows:

Tuesday 15 December 2015, 6-7.30pm
The British Academy, 10-11 Carlton House Terrace, London, SW1Y 5AH

Chaired by Lord (David) Puttnam, former Deputy Chairman of Channel 4 (2006-12)

Confirmed speakers:
Greg Dyke, former Director-General of the BBC (2000-4)
Claire Enders
, founder, Enders Analysis
Brian Eno
, musician and producer; delivered the BBC Music John Peel Lecture 2015

More details and how to register can be found here. bbc-blocks-dark