It's Time to Stop Conflating Interest With Identity in Broadcast Law and Regulation

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Is our race, sex or sexual orientation simply a matter of collective interest? Do the characteristics that define our identity rest on a set of fundamental facts that goes beyond what we might regard as a passing interest? This is the question posed by Ofcom’s note to community broadcasters giving advice about the updating of community radio stations’ key commitments. Frankly, it’s astounding that Ofcom continues to conflate matters of identity as matters of interest, and that the UK broadcasting regulations have not been updated to reflect the distinctions and protections advanced in, for example, the Equality Act 2010.

This fissure came to the fore today when Ofcom issued a note to community radio stations in the UK, outlining and clarifying the process of changing a station’s ‘key commitments’. Key commitments are a set of criteria that define the nature and form of a community radio station, that determine its public purpose and the people or groups of people that each station serves.

Ofcom states that:

“Community radio stations typically cover a small geographical area with a coverage radius of up to 5km, and are run on a not-for-profit basis. They can cater for local areas or for specific communities of interest – such as a particular ethnic group, age group or interest group. For example, some stations cater for dance or experimental music, while others are aimed at younger people, religious communities or the Armed Forces and their families. Community radio stations are also designed, and required, to deliver social gain to their target community, for example through training, access to facilities and the discussion of issues which are important to the community.”

It is worrying that Ofcom is using such outdated terminology to define how communities are characterised, and therefore how community radio is regulated. While Ofcom has stuck to the language used in the successive layers of broadcasting and communications legislation, it’s concerning that both the government and Ofcom have failed to update this language in line with contemporary policy practice and expectations of equality.

This indeterminacy of language is sowing confusion and muddying the purpose of community radio. It is making it much more difficult for communities of identity to engage with Ofcom, and other organisations related to the development of community radio to give appropriate advice because they are conflating ‘interest’ with ‘identity’. As a gay man, my identity is a matter of fact, not a matter of passing interest. How many communities of identity are being disadvantaged because of this conflation?

The Community Radio Order 2004 defines the purpose of community radio as providing a local service, which serves a community that is defined as: either a group of people who live or work or undergo education or training in a particular area or locality; or a group of people who (whether they fall within the previous category) have one or more interests or characteristics in common.

A community radio service, then, is required to provide significant social gain in relation to the needs and concerns of those communities. Social gain is defined as the achievement of several objectives, including:

  • The provision of sound broadcasting services to individuals who are otherwise underserved by such services,
  • The facilitation of discussion and the expression of opinion,
  • The provision of education or training to individuals not employed by the person providing the service,
  • The better understanding of the particular community and the strengthening of links within it,
  • The delivery of services provided by local authorities and other services of a social nature and the increasing, and wider
  • dissemination, of knowledge about those services and about local amenities,
  • The promotion of economic development and of social enterprises,
  • The promotion of employment,
  • The provision of opportunities for the gaining of work experience,
  • The promotion of social inclusion,
  • The promotion of cultural and linguistic diversity,
  • The promotion of civic participation and volunteering.

It’s way past the time when these definitions should have been updated. Communities of interest and communities of identity are not the same, and are potentially incompatible in the following ways:

Communities of Interest:

  1. Definition: Communities of interest are groups of people who share a common interest or passion.
  2. Focus: These communities revolve around a specific topic or subject and are centred on exchanging ideas, thoughts, and information related to that interest.
  3. Membership: Participation in a community of interest is based on the shared interest, and members may not necessarily know or care about each other outside that interest.
  4. Geographical Boundaries: Communities of interest are not defined by a specific geographic area but are formed around the common bond or entity.
  5. Online Presence: They can exist both in physical spaces where individuals meet in person and in virtual spaces where people connect and communicate through the internet and various messaging tools.

Communities of Identity:

  1. Definition: Communities of identity are groups of people who share a common identity or experience.
  2. Focus: These communities are based on shared characteristics such as race, ethnicity, gender, or shared experiences like homelessness.
  3. Membership: Membership in communities of identity is based on the shared identity or experience, and individuals within these communities often have a strong sense of belonging and connection to one another.
  4. Geographical Boundaries: While communities of identity can have a geographic component, they are primarily defined by the shared identity or experience rather than a specific location.
  5. Social Dynamics: The shared identity or experience shapes various facets of the social dynamics within communities of identity.

Communities of interest are formed around a common interest or passion, while communities of identity are based on shared characteristics or experiences. Communities of interest focus on exchanging information and ideas related to the shared interest, while communities of identity foster a sense of belonging and connection among individuals who share a common identity or experience.

As the Government puts the Media Bill through parliament, attention needs to be given to the Community Radio Order that is expected to follow. It’s essential that this conflation is sorted out, and that our broadcasting, communications and media legislation and regulations are brought into line with the fundamental principles of human rights and equality legislation. We need a robust and clearly defined set of principles that give an unequivocal indication of who can access and participate in community radio. We need to end the conflation of interest with identity because this will not facilitate the goal of greater inclusion of people who are marginalised in mainstream and industrial forms of media.