Emerging Scholar's Corner

Helen Jay

Helen Jay is a doctoral student in the Media and Communications department at the University of Westminster. Her research project is focused on whether the ‘public service’ intervention in UK broadcasting policy can inform contemporary policy on digital platforms. Prior to her PhD, Helen was Head of Policy and Corporate Affairs at Channel 4, where she was responsible for managing all of Channel 4’s relationships with Government, Ofcom and Parliament and developing Channel 4’s response on public policy issues.

Can you tell us about your PhD project?

I am a part time PhD media and communications student at the University of Westminster. There has been considerable analysis in recent years of the consequences of ‘digital dominance’ and the need for greater regulation of digital platforms. However, both the academic literature and the wider policy debate has tended to have a narrow focus on minimising ‘harms’ rather than addressing the wider structural incentives of the digital platforms or whether alternative, non-commercial models should be developed. This is in contrast to UK media policy, which has sought to deliver positive ‘freedoms’ such as democratic and cultural outcomes through the public service broadcasting intervention.The aim of my research is to evaluate the parallels between these two approaches, using historical analysis and interviews with policy-makers and technology experts to understand how the rationale for interventions in broadcasting and digital policy compare, the dynamics that have influenced policymaking and what a ‘public service’ intervention for digital platforms could look like. 

What motivated your research?

I am a passionate believer in the goals of public service broadcasting and spent many years working within industry as an advocate for it – including as Head of Policy for Channel 4, a UK public service broadcaster that is publicly owned but commercially funded. It struck me that within broadcasting we were continuing to have endless debates amongst ourselves about the ideals and practices of PSB, and elsewhere in the forest policy-makers were tying themselves in knots on how to regulate the monopolies of big tech, tackle disinformation, data breaches and online harms. However, very few people in the policy space were trying to pull those threads together and ask whether more structural, non-commercial interventions could be possible in the realm of digital communications, such as social media and search. I therefore wanted to be the person to do that! 

How can your research contribute to the study of Public Service Media?

Understandably, lots of contemporary PSM scholarship and policy debate has tended to focus on itself and its future – how public service broadcasting can survive political threats and digital transformation and evolve into a strong and sustainable public service media system. Based on my industry experience, I can confirm that this is definitely much needed work! But I am also interested in looking at PSB as a comparative policy model – what can we learn about the factors that influenced its creation and development, and can these factors be replicated to provide an alternative to digital dominance? This approach pulls questions about the future of public service media explicitly into debates on digital policy and digital governance, and brings together historical scholarship with the objective of informing and understanding future policy options.

What are the main challenges you are facing in your research? Is any of them related to being a young scholar?

As a part-time PhD student, my main challenge is one of balancing lots of different commitments – my research, my paid work, my family life…I know that will be an ongoing challenge! My experience of starting a PhD after many years in a professional career also brings with it many pros and cons. On the one hand, I have an insight into the sector I am studying and access to senior level contacts I can utilise in my research. On the other, there is lots to catch up on – academic developments in the field, researcher skills and tools. I am still trying to get my head around the right reference management software to use! I am also still trying to build my academic network and connect with like minded academics – so am grateful for the opportunity to be included in this newsletter! 

Is there any (emerging or senior) scholar that has particularly impacted your work in any way? Who and why?

Lots! My research is very influenced by the tradition of political economy of communications, and in particular some of the founders such as Graham Murdock, Peter Golding and Nicholas Garnham. They did so much to examine the relationship between media and democracy, the different roles of public media and commercial media and how policy decisions in media and communications systems are shaped. These are the central themes within my research. I am also influenced by more contemporary scholars such as Victor Pickard and Ethan Zuckerman, who are advocating for non-commercial alternatives to big tech in the US and Canada, and my colleagues in CAMRI at the University of Westminster, who published a manifesto for a ‘public service internet’.