Community Media Discussion – Evaluating Equalities

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This week in our Community Media Discussion, we’ll be chatting about how community media can play a role in challenging and addressing social inequality and the marginalisation of people who find themselves being excluded from civic discussion and cultural representation. Over the coming weeks, we are going to look at how community media can play a role that advances people and social groups who are protected in the 2010 Equality Act. How can we measure and account for the practical change we bring about, not just in the things we make and share, but in the platforms that enable different communities to represent themselves.

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The purpose of community media is to champion and strengthen inclusion in social and cultural representation and civic discussion. In a world where people with differing social identities and personal characteristics are not adequately represented in our mainstream media, there needs to be a countervailing force towards inclusion that is directly driven by groups of overlooked minority people and communities themselves. Because we might be from non-majority backgrounds, or have divergent social identities and needs, it shouldn’t mean that our views, experiences and contribution to society should be any less likely to be shared, understood or validated. Community media, therefore, is about social equity and justice with and across media.

Community media, in its more progressive practices, acts as a counterbalance to the corporate and industrial forms of media that dominate the market, and through which sizeable assumptions are made about society that result in people from minority communities being frequently overlooked, silenced and marginalised. Our mainstream media, we are frequently told, has one recognisable purposes: to serve the demands of the majority and the accepted population norms. As a result, our media has been conceived and constructed to serve a very narrow idea of social need and personhood, and has become adept at doing this in ways that are profitable in a globalised market.

Typically, the consumer and the property holder are the ground-zero of mainstream media conceptual frameworks. This is where the consumer market in contemporary society sits. Think about what it means to hold a streaming account for a media service? A streaming account requires a recognisable home that supports a minimum level of internet provision, along with a predictable sense of financial stability. Getting online with a data account capable of supporting any streaming services is a relatively new phenomenon, so the disparity between different consumers who use these services, and those who don’t, remains considerable. It is unfortunate, then, that equity of access to media is no longer in the foreground of thinking of the BBC and other media providers.

Community media, however, recognises that access to media platforms is as important as the content that is broadcast and shared itself. If part of the established media ecosystem and infrastructure is devalued, such as the retirement of analogue radio in favour of digital media, and despite the complications, then we undermine the ability of the most insecure and marginal people in society to maintain access to the same services that the wealthy take for granted. An obvious question to ask is, then, has anyone done an equality assessment that looks at the impact of these proposals, not just on mainstream consumers, but on people who form minority communities?

As is frequently argued by progressive community media advocates, our media can be much more than simply an entertainment complex for a select few. As well as being a carrier of information, our media is also a platform with the potential to facilitate dialogue, learning and understanding. Our media industries and the government agencies that regulate them, however, must be much more open to multiple perspective and experiences, and thereby much more inclusive and representative. We just have to accept that to do this, we need to think and act in very different ways than those who at present run our mainstream media would acknowledge is possible. We have to go beyond the consumer model of information exchange and commercial transaction, and we have to build an infrastructure for citizenship and purposeful social change.

The people who advocate for more inclusive ways of communicating, within and between communities, try to do things, then, in a range of different ways. In principle, community media addresses media inequity and the lack of diversity of representation as a matter of human rights, but it also sees the need for creative and innovative forms of collaboration and engagement. The market and our perception of citizenship are not the same thing, even though they are often conflated in the practices of government and regulators. Progressive community media advocates, then, and in many ways, seek to overturn the lazy assumptions that are made about the large numbers of people who cannot confidently articulate their own experiences and view of the world.

That’s the theory, but how do we know that community media is doing this in practice and really making a difference? How do we know that both the content and the practice of making and sharing media with a community focus is having any real and measurable effect? How do we know that community confidence and the willingness of the marginalised people to engage in the civic realm is changing? What if things are staying the same, and our efforts towards greater inclusion are stuck with the dial remaining unmoved? Would it be possible to audit and account for the way that we use community media to make a difference? If community media promotes diversity, inclusion and the empowerment of different voices in our media, where are they, and what changes are we seeing as a result?

The 2010 Equalities Act recognises that certain people and social groups need social protection. What the Act calls ‘protected characteristics’, recognise that some people are likely to be discriminated against because of their personal and social identities and characteristics. The characteristics that are protected by the Equality Act 2010 are: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage or civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation. The Act also provides for protection against discrimination by association, and provides protection for people who are discriminated against because someone close to them falls under the definition of one of the protected characteristics. 

Public bodies have a duty under the act to eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment, victimisation and any other conduct prohibited under the Act, and which can lead to these unlawful actions. The Act also places a duty on public authorities to advance equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not, and to foster good relations between those who share a protected characteristic and those who do not. Some of this work is preventative, and can be resolved through things like education, while in other ways the work is structural, and must be addressed by changing the way that public services and systems are designed to operate.

The tension of implementation of the Equality Act, it might be noted, is between the reporting system that tells us what is going on (understood through surveys etc), and the results we see in the way that society is changing (as a social experience). A diversity questionnaire might be mandatory for operators of certain types of public services, but it tells us very little about the social benefit and gain that is realised as more inclusive forms of social interaction are fostered. Intentions are one thing, outcomes and change are a different thing to bring about altogether.

Over coming weeks, our community media discussion is going to focus on the way that community media makes a practical difference based on different ways that support for inclusion, diversity and empowerment are demonstrated. We will discuss what is meant in the terminology and language use of equalities, while thinking about practical examples that can help us to work through the challenges we all face in practice. We are going to ask questions about how the Equality Act affects community media, not just based on the content we produce, but also on the way that we make that content. Ofcom, the media regulator, has a handle on what community radio stations, for example, say and do on air, but they don’t often look at what is done in the studio or the meeting room.

We’ll discuss our experience and understanding of the following concerns:

  • With media, Ofcom does not regulate for off-air activity, only on-air activity.
  • How do community media groups know that they are doing an effective job?
  • What are the corresponding points that ‘intersect’ across different forms of media?
  • What is the difference between the way people are defined by identity, place and interest?
  • What form of engagement do can we recognise and give credit to?
  • What are the associated factors – such as educational attainments, economic capacity or health and wellbeing?
  • How do we deal with the clustering of different social characteristics associated with different social groups – a syndrome of multiple indices of deprivation, for example?
  • What form does equitable media access take?
  • What forms of media self-representation by people of protected characteristics take?
  • How can we make sense of these different approaches to media, and account for what difference it makes?

Ultimately, we want to know what would be an effective way of undertaking and making sense of an equality assessment for different types of community media group and project? There will be many difficult conversations, and examples that seem contradictory, but if we value the goal of a sustainable and integrated society with shared and common values that can address the needs of the future, then this will be a valuable experience.