A Moral Economy of Independent Work? Creative Freedom and Public Service in UK Digital Agencies

James Bennett, Andrea Medrado, Niki Strange

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Andrew Ross’ study of new media workers at the turn of the millennia positioned their labor as a model for work in the “New Economy:” offered personal fulfilment in the extensive creative freedom granted by their jobs in exchange for a form of precarious labor and self-exploitation which promised, certainly before the dot-com bubble burst, otherwise unimaginable rewards (Ross, 2002). Over a decade later and Ross’ study still speaks to much of the experiences of work in the New Economy, particularly that encountered within the digital agencies of Ross’ study. The digital agencies of New York and Silicon Valley, after all, would sit well with Angela McRobbie’s identification of a “second wave” of the independent cultural production sector that is “more aggressive, commercially driven [and] in hock to the free market and global multinationals” (quoted in Banks, 2007: 459).

By treating “public service broadcasting” as a “cultural field,” however, our study offers a more optimistic account of the balance between creative freedoms and free labor. Drawing on the intersection between work on cultural labor (Banks, 2007; Hesmondhalgh and Baker, 2011) and studies of convergence culture (Jenkins, 2006), we argue that public service can act as a “moral economy” in the digital work worlds of the UK’s multiplatform production sector. Utilising interview and ethnographic data from a study of companies who provide multiplatform content for the UK’s main public service broadcasters, Channel 4 and the BBC, we argue that a moral economy that draws on some of the central tenants of convergence culture – such as collective intelligence, networked collaboration, play, non-hierarchical structures, and open source production – as well as public service as an ethos that is concerned with “making a difference,” social good, ethics, and quality, can inform the labor practices of companies and individual employees working within this sector. In such a model, it may be possible to work with creative freedom, without having to work for free.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMedia Independence
Subtitle of host publicationWorking with freedom or working for free
EditorsJames Bennett, Niki Strange
Place of PublicationNew York
Number of pages19
ISBN (Print)978-1-13-802348-2
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2015


  • Digital Media
  • Digital culture
  • public service broadcasting
  • production cultures

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