Review of Ofcom's media literacy programme 2004-08

19 December 2008

Executive summary

Why promote media literacy?

Society is becoming increasingly reliant on digital communications technology. The world around us is changing rapidly; the various media and communications technologies are becoming an integral part of everyday life. Knowledge of their use is increasingly a prerequisite to effective participation in society and in the economy.

When the traditional models of content regulation become less effective in minimising potential harm and offence we must turn to parents, carers and individuals to take more responsibility for what they, and children, see and hear on television, radio and online.

The increasing importance of media literacy, not just for individuals but for society as a whole, is reflected in important initiatives such as the recent formation of the UK Council of Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS). In addition, one of the priorities of the Government’s Digital Britain Report will be to take a fundamental look at media literacy in the UK . Ofcom looks forward to working with the Government on this new initiative, and our future media literacy programme will be informed by its conclusions.

Ofcom’s intention to review its activity to promote media literacy was included in the draft Annual Plan, published for consultation in late 2006.

The media literacy landscape

Ofcom uses the following definition of media literacy:

Media literacy is the ability to access, understand and create communications in a variety of contexts.

Ofcom's work to promote media literacy is intended:

  • to give people the opportunity and motivation to develop competence and confidence to participate in digital society; and
  • to inform and empower people to manage their own media activity (both consumption and creation).

Ofcom’s approach has been to provide leadership and to influence stakeholders - including policy makers, education, industry and the voluntary sector - to promote media literacy for all members of society.

The duty to promote media literacy, placed on Ofcom by the Communications Act 2003, includes the promotion of media literacy relating to content made available by broadcasting and on the fixed and mobile internet.

Developments in Europe also affect Ofcom’s delivery of media literacy. In some cases this is because Directives become enshrined in UK legislation. In others, EC Communications and Recommendations set a wider European context, within which the UK is an active player.

The story so far

We have put media literacy clearly on the agenda of all stakeholders. We provide leadership and stimulate debate with a wide community, and speak at conferences and events throughout the UK , in Europe and beyond. We also add value to existing media literacy activity, catalyse new work, and promote and direct people to advice and guidance on new communications technologies. Ofcom has established effective partnerships with key stakeholders in government, education, the voluntary sector and the industries.

Ofcom is an evidence-based regulator, and we use our portfolio of research to define priorities for action, both for Ofcom and for our stakeholders. Research helps us identify the skills gaps and issues, directs our activity and measures our progress towards achieving our goals.

Working with industry we have helped develop a set of common principles for providing viewers with information about content which may contain potentially harmful or offensive material.

We prioritise those areas where we consider we have a statutory responsibility, followed by areas where we should partner, and then areas where we can facilitate activity (such as providing evidence from research) without formal partnership funding.

Building the evidence

Our research is designed to help Ofcom and our stakeholders identify skills gaps and media literacy priorities. Having published the second Media Literacy Audit, we considered it appropriate to undertake a review of our research programme – its focus, methodologies and accessibility. This review is under way and the findings will shape our future work.

Building partnerships

Taking the lead

No single organisation can be effective in reaching all sections of society - and different people will have different media literacy needs. Ofcom has demonstrated over the last four years (2004 – 2008) that a range of partnerships can be effective in addressing people’s media literacy needs. Much of this work has been behind the scenes, with partners and stakeholders. We will continue to invest in the development of effective partnerships.

We plan to undertake the following activity through our partnerships with key stakeholders:

Content management

Content management systems (including filters) provide the potential to empower people to control the content they access over the internet and mobile services. An area of particular concern is the ability of these systems to provide adequate protection to vulnerable members of society, such as children.

Ofcom, in partnership with the Home Office and industry, has developed a British Standards Institution (BSI) standard for internet content control software (Internet safety – Access control systems for the protection of children online(PAS 74:2008)). The award of the first Kitemark, expected in 2009, will provide an opportunity for the industry, in association with Ofcom and the Home Office, to launch a campaign to raise awareness of the availability of these tools, as well as those already deployed on other platforms, such as PINs on television broadcasts and age verification and filtering on mobile phones.

Content information

It is important that viewers and listeners can access adequate information about content, so that they can choose whether it is appropriate for them, or those in their care, to watch or listen to. The Broadband Stakeholder Group and the UK ’s top broadcasters and content providers, with the support of Ofcom, have developed a set of common principles for providing viewers with information about content which may contain potentially harmful or offensive material.

Ofcom will encourage and support industry members to raise people’s awareness of these sources of information to manage their viewing experience.

Critical awareness

Our research suggests that young people in particular tend to take at face value the information they access online, without necessarily considering the truthfulness, balance or motivation of the author. We establish partnerships with those stakeholders, particularly in education and in broadcasting, who can promote greater critical awareness of media.


Jointly with the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) we will undertake an audit of government departments and relevant agencies to map the policy agenda and priorities for the promotion of media literacy in the education sector.

Safety and security

We will support the work of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS). We will work closely with Get Safe Online to support its provision of information to people on how to protect their PCs and transact safely and securely online.

Mapping activity to promote media literacy

Ofcom has begun work on creating a resource which will inform Ofcom, and stakeholders, about the activity occurring across the UK to promote media literacy. The project will create a public, searchable, web-based database of organisations, projects and activities that promote media literacy in the UK .

Evaluating activity

We continue to support the work of the Media Literacy Task Force and will publish an evaluation toolkit for media literacy projects and activity. We will also offer support to the Task Force in its work to promote media literacy.

Working across the  UK

We will continue to support the efforts of national organisations promoting media literacy issues which align with Ofcom’s priorities. These partners will include organisations such as the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE), and its partner agencies in the nations.

Ofcom will support the work of media literacy networks in the UK , as a vehicle for stakeholders in the devolved nations to work together and share best practice. The networks are also able to target activity to address nation-specific issues. We will continue to support and encourage the networks as an effective way of promoting media literacy.

Supporting citizens and consumers

We will provide information for those audiences who are not connected to the internet – and for other hard-to-reach audiences. This information will be made available through existing support networks such as Citizens Advice, UK online centres, libraries and museums.

In order to extend our reach we will continue to develop relationships with organisations building social capital, and work with them to highlight media literacy as a route to empowerment for their members and users.

We will develop a citizen- and consumer-focused section of the Ofcom website. This will be a user-friendly and accessible route for people who are connected to the internet to seek advice on issues related to media literacy and consumer protection. These web pages will also be a signpost to partner websites, offering quality information for citizens and consumers.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) provides ongoing funding towards the development and promotion of media literacy by Ofcom. Ofcom's annual media literacy work programme is agreed with DCMS ministers.

As well as the work funded by DCMS, Ofcom undertakes and fully funds a range of work that promotes media literacy. This includes activity in relation to Code development and implementation, consumer research including ease of use and uptake of technology, complaints and enquiries to the Ofcom Advisory Team, development and promotion of information and advice relating to digital technologies and liaison and lobbying of industry and political opinion formers in the UK and Europe.

Government programmes

Digital Britain

Media literacy has an increasingly important role to play in the UK ’s social, cultural and economic development and Ofcom welcomes the Government’s announcement that media literacy will form one of the key strands of the Digital Britain report, announced in October 2008.

The work to promote media literacy that Ofcom has undertaken to date reflects its current duties and levels of resources. We look forward to working closely with the Government to develop a broader view of the factors that affect media literacy, the contribution that improvements in media literacy may bring, and the ways in which the UK ’s media literacy can be developed.

We are pleased that media literacy initiatives arising from the Digital Britain report, may form part of a wider, more coordinated approach to empowering citizens and consumers to ensure that they are fully equipped to take advantage of the opportunities that convergence brings.

We believe that increased focus from Government will help to create a more sustained and far-reaching programme of support for citizens and consumers across the UK – ranging from IT skills to the confidence to understand and manage the opportunities and dangers associated with online content and services.

Ofcom’s future media literacy programme will be informed by this wider approach.

UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS)

In September 2007 , the Government commissioned Dr Tanya Byron to lead a review of the risks children faced from exposure to harmful or inappropriate material on the internet or in video games. Dr Byron recommended the creation of a UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) as a forum in which government departments, stakeholders and industry come together and jointly contribute to the development and delivery of the Child Internet Safety Strategy. Ofcom will be a key partner and support UKCCIS.