In July 2021, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport published its new Online Media Literacy Strategy. The Strategy is designed to go alongside the Online Safety Bill, which is currently pending, and sets out how the government is going to support media literacy alongside the other measures in the Bill.
Broadly speaking, the MEA welcomes this renewed emphasis on media literacy in government communication policy. In an increasingly media-saturated, commercialised communications environment, a high level of media literacy should be a basic requirement for citizenship. However, we feel that the published strategy is unduly limited and lacking in ambition. In particular, there is a need for a broader and more comprehensive conception of media literacy; and for much greater recognition of the central role of education in this respect.
The MEA believes that media literacy should apply to all media, not just to digital media; and that it involves a broad range of knowledge, skills and understandings that go well beyond a narrow preoccupation with internet safety. Current concerns about online harm do undoubtedly need to be addressed. However, a comprehensive media literacy strategy requires a wider definition of what it means to be literate across all forms of communications. It should entail a democratic entitlement for all members of society to be able to use, create, critique and challenge digital and media texts. Rather than focussing solely on negative aspects, it should also support people’s ability to make the most of the positive affordances of online culture.
We are also concerned that the Strategy relies so heavily on voluntary sector agencies, and on the activities of commercial media companies, while making very little reference to work in the formal education sector. In our view, any argument for media literacy without a sustained and rigorous programme of media education in schools is unlikely to amount to much more than good intentions. We believe that media education should be part of the compulsory core curriculum for all children and young people from primary through to the secondary years of education. There is a long history of good practice in this field in the UK, and there are many hundreds of specialist Media Studies teachers (many of them in the MEA) who are engaged in front-line media literacy work every day, and who have the expertise and experience to deliver it.
While it does not mention Media Studies at all, the Strategy document identifies a number of other subject areas where it argues that media literacy should be part of the curriculum, including Computing, RSHE, Citizenship and English. However, it falsely assumes that such work is already happening. Our experience suggests that media education in schools has been increasingly hampered by the lack of time and space in the school curriculum and the myriad initiatives and changes faced by teachers in recent years. For example, the 2014 version of the National Curriculum excised all references to work with media texts from the English programmes of study. This makes for a worryingly contradictory state of affairs for teachers, who might be encouraged to undertake media literacy work within English by the DCMS policy, but at the same time prevented from doing so by the DFE requirements.
This points to the need for a more ‘joined-up’ approach to media literacy policy, which encourages collaboration between the various agencies highlighted in the Strategy and the ongoing work of teachers in schools. Much of what the government wishes to achieve would be immeasurably enhanced by acknowledging and supporting media literacy education in the formal education sector, both through specialist Media Studies courses for all children and young people and through more comprehensive and systematic provision, particularly within the core compulsory subject of primary and secondary English.