I seem to spend most of my waking hours contemplating the concept of cultural identity at the moment, as part of my involvement with next year’s European Capital of Culture programme. In case you missed it in all the London-centric hullabaloo around the 2012 Olympics, Liverpool has been designated Europe’s Capital of Culture 2008 – though you could be forgiven for not noticing as the host city, sitting in the People’s Republic of Merseyside, has still yet to fully recognise the UK, never mind the European Union. Still, having only been in the creative chair for a matter of weeks, one of my key tasks is to remind the nation that this rotational award – rather like the Olympics – cannot be back in Britain for at least 40 years, such is the predicted growth of the EU.

Like most things European, the concept is relatively simple but the devil is in the delivery. Each member state is asked to spend a year promoting both its indigenous and EU-wide culture. At the same time, a non-member state is invited to do likewise: in 2008 that will be Norway, with Stavanger its designated host city. The idea is that if we share our culture we become multicultural. And the more multicultural we become, the more collegiate, co-operative and communal.

But what is culture? The EU’s own definition – in Article 5: Decision 1419/1999/EC, should you want to look it up – talks about the arts, literature and shared lifestyle. But whose arts? Whose literature? Whose lifestyle? In short, whose culture? Any suggestions gladly received.

This question has a lot to do with the role of a nation’s cultural institutions themselves and that applies no more so than to our primary public service broadcaster, the BBC. I am having an interesting debate with the BBC at the moment – a £4.4bn public institution, incidentally – around why it is that it already has a task force in place to look at a 14-day sporting event in 2012, yet seems to have done very little preparation for a 12-month cultural event that is supposed to showcase the best of British and European culture. I have always been a supporter of the licence fee mechanism but now I am beginning to be won over by the idea that that cultural fund should be allocated more widely than to a self-sustaining bureaucracy that seems to put global sporting rights ahead of its role as national cultural curator.

In Bristol recently I visited the Watershed Media Centre, partly because it was launched in 1982, the same year as Brookside, which I created. Here was another reminder of how cultural identity shifts through time. Bristol, like Liverpool, was once a big maritime community and where there were once docks stand the bars, restaurants, galleries and apartments that now adorn most of Britain’s waterfronts – a reminder that, for cities to survive, they cannot dwell on their past but must constantly reinvent their own future.

That future for many cities is no longer about being close to land, capital or raw materials. Instead the drivers for investment and the means of production are now measured more in terms of lifestyle and quality of life. This is why the south-east – and London in particular – will always remain overheated and to some extent London will become more and more connected to a global rather than to a UK market.

Just as 25 years ago saw Bristol’s Watershed launched as the first media centre in the UK, so did Channel 4 become Britain’s newest terrestrial broadcaster, even if it was slightly upstaged by the launch of Rupert Murdoch’s Sky satellite system. It was interesting to reflect at Channel 4’s anniversary bash on October 30 which had had the greater cultural impact and which retains more of its original identity. I would suggest that both accolades go to Sky as its commercial sense and adoption of new technology – seen in the development of pay TV for films and sport, for example – have driven market change, whereas the restrictive nature of Channel 4’s public-service remit has forced it simply to follow. Ironically, priced out of film and sports acquisitions, Channel 4 has resorted to increasing amounts of so-called “reality TV” that has undermined its original remit to serve unrepresented minority interests. That restrictive public-service remit, which is also wrapped round the BBC and ITV, has itself distorted the market, giving Sky a fairly comfortable ride.

Isn’t it time, then, as we approach the digital switchover, to ask why we continue with this muddled thinking about mixing commercial television with public service? Shouldn’t we by now be culturally mature enough to dismiss the “market-failure” argument that continues to dog broadcasting? Just as this newspaper sits in a market that also supplies the Daily Sport, shouldn’t we now allow commercial television to be simply that: truly commercial? Freed from public service commitments – or inhibitors – the commercial broadcasters may just give Sky a run for their subscribers’ money and create a much more vibrant media landscape.

Thoughts on cultural identity, by necessity, lead to reflections on the very notion of identity itself and, increasingly, not just on how we define our identities but on who actually owns them. As we drift into a digital society there is a creeping assumption that our identities are somehow owned not by ourselves but by the state. Through insistence that we have some form of electronic ID, we are slowly being electronically tagged and refusal to comply is met with threats of fines or exclusion. This is happening both in commercial and public arenas but the underlying concern is that, while the state has set out some parameters for protection of personal data, ownership of that data is vague. For instance, do you, your doctor or the NHS and, by extension, the state, own your personal medical records?

The assumption seems to be that ultimate ownership rests with the state, as more and more legislation appears under the guise of, for example, preventing money laundering or enabling local taxation. This is a big subject for a big debate but the point is a simple one.

After our ancestors spent hundreds of years fighting for the right to own their own lives in the ”real” world, we need to do the same in the digital one. Having got rid of physical serfdom, we must not succumb to serfdom in cyberspace.

Phil Redmond delivered the opening lecture, “Whose identity is it anyway?”, at BBC Radio 3’s festival of ideas, Free Thinking. Radio 3 will broadcast an evening of Free Thinking programming on Saturday from 8pm and every night this week from November 11 between 9.45pm-10.30pm. www.bbc.co.uk/freethinking

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