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Unscramble that screen

Decoding the messages we receive is vital for 21st century living. Martin Whittaker joins the debate over the digital divide

Does it matter if we're not media literate? Do people really need to be educated to make informed decisions on how to use what is, essentially, a piece of furniture in the corner of their living rooms? Or, as the Daily Mail might put it, is this the nanny state gone mad?

There is after all, another button apart from the red one - the off button.

As Groucho Marx once said: "I must say that I find television very educational. The minute somebody turns it on, I go to the library and read a book."

Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, upset academics last year when she asserted that media literacy will become as important a skill as maths or science. Decoding it will be as important to our lives as citizens as understanding great literature is to our cultural lives, she argued.

Her comments upset the Campaign for Real Education. It warned that such an attitiude could encourage youngsters to turn their backs on academic subjects such as maths and science in favour of media studies.

And then there is the media itself. While some tabloids feed readers a constant diet of stories on soap stars and celebrities, others carry reports blaming television for everything from aggression and violence to encouraging poor eating habits in young people.

Bizarrely, yet more studies claim such reading is beneficial. A well-publicised research report from Reading University found that slumping in front of the television before an exam gave students' brains a gentle work-out and helped them do better in IQ tests.

And a new book - Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson - is causing controversy in the United States by claiming that, far from the dumbing-down effect that many assume, mass culture is actually improving people's intelligence because it is becoming more intellectually demanding.

Given such contradictions, is it any wonder then that many are still refusing to join in the digital revolution? The Government argues that digital TV brings many advantages, including interactive services, and better sound and picture quality. But many remain unconvinced.

With the switchover from analogue to digital TV due to be complete by 2012, 40 per cent of people in the UK still do not have access to digital, multi-channel TV. And, according to the former Department for Trade and Industry, research has found that 13 per cent of households were classified as "unlikely to get digital TV and cannot be persuaded." The study found that the announcement of a switchover would trigger more to convert, but would still leave 5 per cent who were digital refuseniks. A big barrier is the cost and complexity of converting to digital.

The charity Help the Aged is concerned that it will be the elderly who will miss out most - particularly as the Government, public agencies and service providers see technology as a cheaper way to deliver services to the public.

David Sinclair, the charity's policy manager, argues that, as digital TV services increasingly offer Internet access, there is a great opportunity to address the digital divide for older people. But he doesn't think the Government is listening.

"I find it quite frustrating the lack of interest inside Government for taking this agenda on," he says. "Technology has the potential to reduce exclusion - if you look at the BBC, it is moving more and more learning content onto digital TV.

"The risks there are that the people who aren't accessing the internet are the people who have the lower educational skills anyway. So that you end up potentially excluding more, rather than the technology being able to address education."

The development of digital technology and interactive, multi-channel TV has sharpened the debate over its influence: is television destructive, ruining the art of conversation? Or does it, as Lord Reith once said of the BBC, "educate, inform and entertain"?

Digital TVhas prompted talk of a new literacy, which some argue will become as important in everyday life as reading and writing. The new skill is media literacy.

If the term sounds rather New Labour, that's because it is. In 2001, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport issued a policy statement, which demanded that broadcasters and other sections of the media should think about their own responsibility to foster well-informed and critical viewers. In addition, Ofcom, the new independent regulator for the UK communications industries, has been given a legal duty to promote media literacy under the Communications Act 2003.

The broadcasting industry is taking its responsibility seriously. A big concern is that as interactive, digital TV opens up access to potentially hundreds of channels, it is the public who have to become their own regulators.

We are no longer a passive audience. Viewers can use their remote controls to choose camera angles and vote for contestants in a quiz show, but also, potentially, to vote in elections.

Another huge issue is the digital divide. As technology converges, the television set will increasingly give the public access to the Internet and e-mail. A Niace survey found that people spend three hours a day watching television, more than they do any other activity apart from sleeping and working.

Women, those aged 55 and over, and the lowest socio-economic groups have the lowest access - largely mirroring those who do not have access to the Internet.

Professor Naomi Sargant, vice chairman of MediaWise Trust and a member of Niace, says there is an unacceptable assumption among much of the media that everyone has access to the Internet. "It is quite discouraging for such groups who are typically heavy TV viewers to be continually told that they can follow up programmes on broadcasters' websites."

Digital technology has also changed the nature of news gathering. As digital cameras have become more affordable, so the public have a greater role than ever before. The BBC has increasingly opened itself up to public access.

Sylvia Hines, head of New Service Development at the BBC, says: "News coverage of the Tsunami, for example, was hugely enriched by the experiences of people who were there. It's now becoming a much more porous media in that sense.

"The challenge is to make sure authorship is available to everybody rather than just the digitally-savvy few, so that we genuinely havea full range of voices."

But why is this relevant to the learning and skills sector? Niace has recognised an important role for education here. While most media literacy work has focused on children and schools, it is the adults who most need the skills.

Niace says there are many opportunities for colleges and other learning providers to work with the media to use media production technology, to foster critical thinking and to help bridge the digital generation gap.

Media literacy is one of the themes of Adult Learners' Week 2005, when Niace and its Welsh incarnation, Niace Dysgu Cymru, will work with Ofcom to promote media literacy activities, helping learners to set up film or TV discussion groups, for example, or offering access to digital cameras and editing equipment.

Niace has also produced a guide, And now press the red button... *, to encourage colleges and other providers to promote media literacy.

The Learning Skills Development Agency has also recognised a huge potential for digital television to educate. Eighteen months ago it produced a report presenting digital TV as a learning medium, and called for a business model to make TV learning a reality.

It argued that while the percentage of households connected to the Internet may never exceed 60 per cent, it predicted that digital TV will increasingly become the main source of information and services in the home.

"The biggest challenge," it said, "is making TV learning exciting and relevant enough to turn passive viewers into active learners."

Heather Rabbatts, managing director of 4Learning, Channel 4's education arm, says the digital revolution represents enormous opportunities for learners.

"It isn't the role of broadcasters, the British Film Institute or the UK Film Council to replace the education system," she says, "but in conjunction with the education system to find a way of contributing to how people learn and understand the world."

To obtain free copies of 'And now press the red buttonIA Guide to Media Literacy', email

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