Broadcasting in the public interest: from state control to public service Prof Steven Barnett, University of Westminster (based

on presentation to Cairo Conference on Rebuilding Egyptian Media for a Democratic Future, 31 March 2011) A successful public service broadcasting environment should have four main objectives: to be long-lasting rather than ephemeral; to be deep-rooted within the cultural and democratic psyche of the nation; to be resistant to political forces which (for whatever reason) might seek to undermine it; and to be resistant to commercial competitors who will seek to marginalise it and minimise its impact. In order to achieve these objectives, a successful PSB environment must appeal to three crucial “stakeholder” groups. 1. The citizenry: trust and relevance. The nation’s citizens must be convinced that its broadcasters are trustworthy and are relevant to them in their everyday lives. To achieve this, broadcasters and regulators must ensure that        Information and reporting will be accurate, fair and not distorted by any deliberate political or ideological bias. Equally, reporting will not be filtered through the self-interested political or commercial agendas of media owners and proprietors. Any mistakes or inaccuracies will be willingly acknowledged and rectified. Complaints from viewers, listeners or online users will be handled fairly according to transparent guidelines and complaints procedures. All citizens can participate in an uncensored, unmediated communicative space which fosters free speech and self-expression. No minority groups or individuals will be be demeaned or belittled through negative representation or through participating in this public space. All users – whether of TV, radio or online – can relate to the broadcasting service and believe that it properly serves “people like me”

2. Media producers: opportunity and protection. Content producers must believe they have adequate opportunity (and remuneration) for the creation of programme or online content of the highest quality, according to transparent standards of professional editorial practice. To achieve this, broadcasters and regulators must ensure that      Clear editorial codes of conduct are established and implemented, which define professional creative and journalistic expectations. There is overt encouragement of creative innovation and ambition, including importantly the right to fail. All codes and frameworks for professional practice are applied across all programme areas, not just journalism. A culture is developed which fosters integrity, fairness, proper representation of minorities, and high quality. There is legal protection from both state and proprietorial intervention, including statutory impartiality rules

3. Elite groups: respect and reassurance. Elected politicians, government ministers and opposition parties – as well as key opinion formers such as the judiciary and armed forces – should feel reassured that the broadcasting environment is properly accountable, but must also respect its independence even when they profoundly disagree with editorial content. To achieve this will will require that a number of conditions are met:       Constitutional mechanisms need to be introduced which guarantee broadcasters and their journalists protection from political interference. These mechanisms must fit comfortably within the new democratic and constitutional processes of the nation. Any new constitutional arrangements must inspire confidence in politicians and other elite groups that the system is democratically accountable. These groups must, in return, respect those arrangements and not seek to undermine them. This applies not only to elected politicians and ministers, but religious leaders, teachers, the judiciary and senior members of the army and police force. One of the conundrums for all broadcasting systems – especially in emerging democracies – is how to reconcile political accountability with operational independence. Getting this right will be a vital step to success.

The key to embracing these three stakeholder groups, and therefore achieving an effective and sustainable public service environment, is the implementation of five core strategic imperatives: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. Establish clear PSB principles Apply them to the system, not a single PSB Think creatively about funding Establish a strong regulatory system Embed the public broadcaster, don’t marginalise it

Each of these is explored in more detail below. 1. Establish clear PSB principles Public service broadcasting has been through countless attempts at definition and redefinition in mature democracies, but perhaps the most relevant and contemporary approach was outlined by the by the UK converged regulator Ofcom. In its 2005 Review of Public Service Broadcasting, Ofcom articulated four PSB purposes for the UK which are easily adaptable to suit the cultural and democratic requirements of other nations:1 i. To inform ourselves and others and to increase our understanding of the world through news, information and analysis of current events and ideas. To stimulate our interest in and knowledge of arts, science, history and other topics through content that is accessible and can encourage informal learning.

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To reflect and strengthen our cultural identity through original programming at UK, national and regional level, on occasion bringing audiences together for shared experiences. To make us aware of different cultures and alternative viewpoints, through programmes that reflect the lives of other people and other communities, both within the UK and elsewhere.

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2. Apply them to the system, not just a single public broadcaster There is a mistaken assumption that public service broadcasting (PSB) and a publicly funded broadcaster are interchangeable concepts. In fact, they are fundamentally different. Although a publicly funded broadcaster is an integral and more obviously accountable element of any nation’s broadcasting ecology, PSB is a motivating and more all-encompassing philosophy which can and should apply (to varying degrees) across the board. This both ensures that broadcasting itself (and its online extension) is conducted according to principles which are democratically rooted rather than simply market-led, and provides institutional support for the publicly funded broadcaster which is not then left to “pick up the pieces”. More specifically, in pursuit of such objectives:      PSB obligations can be applied to the commercial sector in return for advantages such as free access to spectrum. Such obligations might include a properly funded peak-time news service or original children’s programmes. All broadcasters should be required to carry a minimum quota of home-grown programming, thus reducing dependence on imports (especially from the US) and enhancing national culture. Other incentives to the commercial sector might include additional spectrum for high definition services or guaranteed slots on Electronic Programme Guides. Commercially funded broadcasters do not have to be privately owned: Channel 4 in the UK is commercially funded but is publicly owned and run on public service principles set by Parliament. Other potential public service ownership models include Trusts or cooperative ownership, which can be particularly effective for initiatives rooted in local communities such as community radio.

3. Establish a strong and effective regulatory system There is little point in imposing public service programme obligations without an agreed and effective regulatory framework to scrutinise them. This is probably the most difficult but most essential element of the public service framework, and it is important to recognise that regulation here is being used in a positive sense – that is, to foster certain types of public interest content – rather than in the negative sense of ensuring that content does not offend against general standards of taste and decency.  An appropriate regulatory body must have parliamentary authority, be adequately resourced, and have a system of accountability to Parliament. Its senior staff, in particular, should command respect througout the industry.

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Its regulatory obligations should be clearly mandated to ensure that its actions will not be arbitrary or unfair but rooted within a clearly articulated mandate laid down by Parliament. A crucial part of these obligations should be the regular collection of data, using transparent, reliable and agreed methods of empirical measurement. These should include, but not necessarily be limited to, hours of and investment in original production, diversity of programme genres, audience size and composition, audience attitudes and appreciation, and number of hours devoted to news and information programming. Particular attention should be paid to gathering investment, output and audience information for peak viewing and listening times, and for ease of online access. Editorial codes should be developed on the basis of consultations with stakeholders, and should be regularly updated. Non-fulfilment of regulatory obligations should be punishable by a range of sanctions from warnings and fines to confiscation of broadcast licences.

An effective regulatory framework is a vital safeguard for achieving those public or civic purposes which free market solutions are ill-equipped to perform. This analysis is not confined to the cultural industries, but can equally be applied to other areas of public life where the public interest can be swamped by market-led approaches. One of the most persuasive proponents of this argument is Robert Reich, former Secretary of State for Labor under President Bill Clinton, now Professor of Public Policy at Berkeley, who said recently: “Markets have become hugely efficient at responding to individual desires for better deals but are quite bad at responding to goals we would like to achieve together. As companies are pressured to show profits, tougher measures are needed to guard public health, safety, the environment, and human rights against the possibility that executives may feel compelled to cut corners.”2 4. Think creatively about funding One of the most difficult issues is how to generate revenue both for a public service broadcaster, and to sustain public service programming on commercially funded channels which might not offer immediate commercial return (and will therefore be less attractive unless mandated and resourced). International experience tells us that there are a number of possible approaches.    While a household licence fee works in some countries, it is by no means the only option nor necessarily the best in an emerging democracy. In particular, there may be other and more palatable ways to levy a household tax for broadcasting: perhaps through an addition to utility bills, through a small sales tax, or additional taxes on tobacco and alcohol. One option is to introduce a mixed licence fee and advertising system, which reduces the household burden. It does, however, reduce the revenue available to the commercial sector.

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Charges may be levied for access to terrestrial spectrum by commercial operators, though this reduces the scope for imposing programme obligations which may be less profitable. A small levy may be imposed on Internet Service Providers (ISPs) or mobile phone operators, following the principle that they benefit from their customers’ access to broadcast services (this has recently been implemented in both France and Spain). By the same principle, a small levy might be imposed on domestic broadband bills, as a means of raising revenue from the consumer as well as ISP supplier. Most European countries impose a levy on recording devices – such as TiVo, Sky Plus, DVD recorders etc. – on the basis that their sale or rental is primarily driven by the attraction of broadcast material. There is growing support within Europe to generate fees from search engine or news aggregator such as Google and Yahoo, on the basis that they recycle news and information from the major news organisations.

There will inevitably be vocal objections to the prospect of any kind of taxes or levies, not only from the electorate but from the big corporate players who will complain that any financial burden will dampen demand and therefore weaken the economy. These objections will be magnified by press interests which might have ownership interests or aspirations in broadcasting. BUT This is ultimately about providing adequate resources for a medium which will contribute hugely to celebrating and enhancing national identity, history, language, culture and religious diversity as well as cementing the new democracy. In other words, it is ultimately about funding the foundations of a healthy democratic and cultural future – and therefore as important as investing in health, education and defence. This is a difficult message to convey to legislators (and indeed has proved almost futile during recent debates in the UK), but it is vital to state the case vigorously and repeatedly. 5. Embed the public broadcaster….. A publicly funded broadcaster – whether or not it is part-funded through commercial revenues – must be culturally rooted in the everyday lives of its viewers, listeners and online users.   It should therefore appeal to a wide variety of tastes and interests and offer “something for everyone”, from situation comedy, original drama and a variety of sport to serious news, documentaries and arts programmes. Its content should embrace themes which appeal across different regional, ethnic, religious and demographic groups. It should not be seen as the broadcaster of choice solely for, say, the metropolitan centre or the ruling elite or the over 50s. Young people, rural communities, religious minorities and the poorly educated must all feel culturally included. It should not be afraid of embracing the popular or competing for ratings. There is always room for content which is unashamedly popular while

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avoiding the worst kind of trivialisation or sensationalism which can sometimes characterise commercial television. An important benchmark here is the BBC which was in the vanguard of new British comedy in the 1970s, started a new soap opera in the 1980s, and still schedules popular light entertainment shows (such as Strictly Come Dancing) in peak viewing times. It follows that the public broadcaster must have significant size and scale (and the resources to ensure that this is sustained), and be sensitive to changes in audience taste. As well as ensuring that the broadcaster is properly attuned to its users, a significant audience share serves as some protection from political interference. If the audience loves you, the politicians can’t touch you.

…..don’t marginalise it  There are plenty of international examples of publicly funded broadcasters which have not heeded these lessons and now operate at the margins of national life: ABC in Australia, CBC in Canada, PBS in the United States, for example, all have small audience shares and are dwarfed by commercial networks. Consequently, they are often dismissed as cultural backwaters, distant from the mainstream of their respective countries, with barely any influence on the quality of democratic debate or on helping to create a sense of shared national identity. As well as being culturally insignficant, these broadcasters are constantly vulnerable to cuts in funding and impotent against government decisions to pare back budgets. These cuts form part of a vicious circle, resulting in less investment in homegrown talent and programming. As a result, popularity declines still further and the broadcaster becomes more marginalised.

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This model of public broadcasting, which confines a poorly funded and politically vulnerable institution to the margins of public life, is the natural consequence of applying what is often knows as the “market gap” theory to broadcasting. This approach is enthusiastically embraced by free marketeers who are convinced that, with very few exceptions, the market-place is a universal panacea for fulfilling private and public demand. While often adopted as an act of ideological faith in the US – and, increasingly, in some European countries – experience tells us that such an approach is both culturally and economically risky. Particularly in new and emerging democracies, a mixed economy of commercial funding, public funding, and a robust regulatory framework offer the best hope for protecting free and diverse speech and for promoting national identity and a vigorous, confident national culture.
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Ofcom’s Second Public Service Broadcasting Review (Phase One: The Digital Opportunity), Ofcom, April 2008, p19. 2 Robert Reich, Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life p126

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