Sea Containers – ‘Digital Audiences and the Media of Tomorrow’

Making the most of a mild and clear November evening on the South Bank, over 50 alumni gathered in the modernist surrounds of Sea Containers House to chat, network, enjoy good food and drink and take part in a discussion about the changing media landscape.

From our 12th floor function room, guests were treated to a panoramic view of the city, taking in the city lights of the West End, Westminster and the City. The setting was a perfect compliment to our event theme, Sea Containers is now tenanted by global communications giant WPP who have gathered together a range of visionary multi-media agencies to form a new creative-hub on the South Bank. Foremost among these is our host for the evening, Ogilvy and Mather, represented tonight by alumnus and Chief Executive Officer, Paul O’Donnell.

Paul welcomed alumni to the venue before handing over to our Chair for the evening, leader of our London Alumni Group, Dr Jane Bennett-Powell. Jane first welcomed Mike Morris, founder of Cue-Card Media and former Managing Director of Channel 4’s commercial arm. Taking a wide view, Mike spoke with great insight and knowledge about the challenges posed to the traditional linear model of TV broadcasting by new forms and patterns of distribution. He also referred to how ambitious, flexibile and tractable FAANG companies (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google) are and how Amazon in particular are not just seeking to occupy a space within a specific industry and build their market share; they have a wider ambition to capture a percentage of total retail sales and thereby total household expenditure. Although Mike was relatively sanguine about the prospects for film in this market, his vision for the small screen pointed towards a long-term decline for TV broadcasting in its current form.

Kate Valentine, a director and creative and the driving force behind Digital Drama spoke with great passion about the opportunities created by new methods and channels for the production and distribution of media, linking this to the largely grant-funded environment in which she operates. Given her community focus, Kate’s creative impulse is very much on democratizing the process of production and making the whole collaborative process the essence of the project itself. In this approach, success depends less on achieving certain targets for viewing figures and more on ensuring that communities and individuals are equipped with the support and the means by which to tell their own stories.

Our final speaker was Dan Nolan, a Budapest-based journalist and Guardian correspondent. Dan presented a fascinating case study based on his experiences in Hungary where he has seen traditional media outlets and online space becoming dominated by an increasingly authoritarian government that seeks to censor opposition and control public debate. Dan illustrated his theme by recounting an incident when, for reasons presented as procedural, he was prevented from asking a question at a Hungarian government briefing. Dan was later pilloried on an official website for being a political activist and not a professional journalist.

Despite the narrowing space for investigative journalism that Nolan described, he also indicated that online platforms remain an important space for expressing opposition and pursuing more objective reporting.  Highlighting examples of cross-border collaboration and crowd-funding as key counterpoints to official narratives, Nolan also highlighted the doubtful advantage of seeking to control an unbounded public space over the long-term.

The quality of the questions and interaction of the audience is always a strong indicator of the quality of the presentations and a lively Q&A with alumni followed, covering a broad range of media topics, including the state of global media and funding sources for creative media.

This is the second media-focused event that we have delivered with alumni in the last two years and the experience has further underlined the need to continue to explore the development of mass-media as it progresses. This is an area that can, by turns, be immediate and relatable or distant and alienating to the human experience. Whether we consume it actively or passively, it continues to shape the parameters of the world in which we operate.

The debate is far from new, in 1957 Richard Hoggart, then an extramural lecturer at the University of Hull, published The Uses of Literacy in which he lamented the destruction of close-knit communities and groups in the face of government or corporate mass-media. To Hoggart, the antidote was popular culture, which displayed an integrity that could never be derived from mass-media. Over 60 years on and we still evaluate media platforms according to their democratizing or homogenizing effect – their ability to give a voice to the voiceless or to further elevate the powerful to impose their worldview. This was the essence of our event; FAANG companies, politicians, creatives and communities, among others, are all seeking to project their voice across a practically unlimited public space – but who will we choose to listen to? and, more to the point, is it a genuine choice?

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