A new bill on media literacy?

Bournemouth teacher Julien McDougall, head of the university Center of Excellence in Media Practiceevaluates the conclusions and recommendations of a report of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Media Literacy, which calls for a new Media Literacy Bill.

At the end of March, I attended and written about a Westminster Forum web event on Next steps to fight fake news and improve media literacy. There, the LSEs Sonia Livingstone reminded participants of the fluid and dynamic nature of media literacy and the need for it to facilitate a deeper critical understanding of media, as opposed to what I call solutionist rhetoric. Sonia lamented the lack of a shared evaluation framework, citing a recent study by his LSE colleague Lee Edwards and also stressing his concern, shared by all of us who work in media literacy, that the UK Government Online security bill largely ignores education. Addressing the ‘information disorder requires not only regulation and online resources, but, as I will discuss here, a clear educational policy.

In April, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Media Literacy published a report in the media literacy landscape in England, which concludes by recommending a new Media Literacy Bill as an urgent priority for the government:

Introduce a media literacy bill to support the implementation of media literacy in educational institutions by consulting children and young people on their experiences with media literacy.

However, the context for this is important, lest we raise our hopes too high, too soon. An APPG is an informal cross-party coalition of backbenchers and lords who consider a political issue and make recommendations to the government but have no official status in parliament, and that is perhaps why no mention was made of this work at the forum event, and also why it might not go further. We will see.

Report findings and key recommendations

The APPG paper assesses teachers’ perceptions of students’ media literacy, with 52% saying it is lacking in their students and reporting that only 7% of schools see media literacy as part of their citizenship program. The group concludes with a set of recommendations, driven by this new Media Literacy Bill, as well as a media education officer in each school to supervise the integration of media education into the national school curriculum.

In detail in the report, the APPG has identified issues that we in the media literacy community have long been aware of. These include the small number of students taking GCSE Media Studies (about 20,000) and lack of media education in the citizenship program. The relationship between these areas has been thoroughly assessed by Gianfranco Polizzi on this blog.

But – oddly, in my opinion – the recommendation is both for the GCSE Media Studies learning objective for students to ‘develop and apply their understanding of media in both analyzing and producing media products’ and the key component of Stage 4 of Computing which aims to “develop their capacities, creativity and knowledge in digital media” should instead be located in the English curriculum. How English itself should be reformed to accommodate this is beyond the scope of the report which recommends:

Integrate basic online media literacy skills such as fact-checking, digital media creation and the concepts of disinformation, misinformation and misinformation into the National English Curriculum and differentiate these skills for learners of all ages.

A better plan would be to reform the media studies curriculum to be more directly aligned with the imperatives of media literacy in the digital ecosystem and make it a compulsory subject in every school.

Otherwise, there is an inherent contradiction in, at the same time, finally acknowledging the urgent vitality of media literacy for every child in every school while hiding it in English. The problematic cultural policy regarding media integration in English have been discussed more than once, most recently here by Steve Connolly.

The report’s diagnoses are important and sobering, but hardly surprising. The impact of DfE non-statutory guidance on misinformation is minimal – 47% of teachers had not heard of it, only 14% of schools have implemented the recommendations. New Online Media Education Strategy, with its allocation of funding to stakeholders identified by the mapping exercise, and education, the Online Safety Bill and proposed legislation are included in the APPG report, but not clear that all of this is “associated” with the recommendations here for education.

Other Recommendations

The main recommendation is that this new media literacy bill updates the curriculum, as detailed above, but also:

  • Transform teacher education and CPD with specific media literacy components (this is something we can all support.)
  • A change in culture and ethics to include more links between the online safety bill and the school leadership strategy; the aforementioned leader in every school for ML, but also a collaboration between Ofcom and Ofsted to “update the school inspection framework to extend the duties of protection of schools to include reasonable efforts to educate children to be media savvy and safe online”.
  • A media literacy toolkit should be produced for the DCMS portal; all educational institutions should have a media literacy policy and funds should be allocated to support parents, families, the media and society at large.
  • There’s also a direction for Ofcom to update its definition to include “higher-order thinking skills” and for a UK media literacy forum to “work with global strategic partners like the Commission European Union, the US Department of State and UNESCO”.

The risks of solutionism

These proposed interventions in schools are part of a “broader pathway to build resilience to misinformation.” Solutionist rhetoric is, of course, another case of starting from the wrong place.

As David Buckingham wrote in 2017 on the idea that media literacy is the answer to “fake news”:

This argument clearly presents media literacy as a protectionist enterprise, a kind of prophylaxis. It oversimplifies the problem it claims to solve, overestimates the influence of the media on young people and underestimates the complexity of media literacy.

This has also been supported, from an evidence base of decades of research, by myself and many others like Sonia Livingstone, Steve Connolly and media education associationour own work in PEMF.

Although reference is made to creative engagement with the media and critical reading of the media in a broad sense in the report, media literacy tends to be considered – as it is in the government strategy existing – as focused on the Internet and resilience to misinformation as ‘online harm’, as opposed to the more holistic, agentive and dynamic approach of uses of media education for positive change, which the research and education communities advocate, together with UNESCO, based on decades of research. This latter approach addresses the paradox that unhealthy media ecosystems are caused not so much by a lack of media literacy as by toxic uses. of their.


We can deplore the lack of joint reflection, the absence of any known and meaningful consultation with the research communities on media literacy and the way in which the reductive and protectionist regulatory framework of the online media literacy strategy will be most likely repeated here. But to conclude, the main conclusion – that UK schools are failing to educate children to engage critically with the media – is fair, and welcome. Similarly, the central recommendation – that every school should be mandated to educate children about the media. And there is no argument against introducing a media literacy bill and the elements it would mobilize – teacher training, a resource toolkit and the inclusion of media literacy in how schools are assessed.

However, whether this happens in English (as proposed), via a new media literacy subject and qualification or via a reform of what already exists (making media studies a compulsory subject) is very important. Advising the Government on the urgency of tasking the DfE with implementing a Media Literacy Bill while hiding media literacy teaching and learning within English is contradictory. Media literacy should be learned by every child in school as a separate core curriculum. This would be welcomed by parents, the students themselves and the majority of school leaders, I am sure. Anything less is a missed opportunity.

This article reflects the views of the author and not those of the [email protected] blog nor those of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The featured image: picture by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

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Donnie J. Milburn