Seminars on public service media in Europe are neither rare nor always interesting, but last weekend's get-together in Oxford was well worthwhile for several reasons.
Paolo Mancini, a world expert on this topic, mounted an unexpected defence of Italy’s much-reviled public service broadcaster, RAI. The BBC paradigm of 'impartiality' should not, he warned, be seen as universal or exclusive. Surveys show the British public wanting television news to be impartial, which is a statutory requirement in the UK anyway; but the Italian public expresses no such preference. On the contrary, Mancini said, the Italian public is intensely partial. Accordingly, RAI is right to offer 'a plurality of partialities' on its three terrestrial TV channels.
The trouble with this, as other participants pointed out, is that it leaves no room for impartial information; revealingly, Mancini had no reply to these objections. If a public service broadcaster cannot deliver honest reporting, how can it be justified at all? Tim Gardam conceded that the BBC model of impartiality may lead to grey, consensus-seeking journalism at worst, but it also encourages "a curiosity about the other", where the approach blessed by Mancini fosters the expression of a-priori opinions.
A lecture by RAI president Paolo Garimberti was just as disheartening. While he admitted that RAI had grown dangerously close to power, he also claimed that different news output on three channels amounts to pluralism. The quality of the news is, apparently, irrelevant. When a student asked about the image of women on RAI, clearly referring to the endless beaming ‘hostesses’ with hourglass figures and bleached teeth, Garimberti said simply that those women want to work for RAI.
Auksė Balčytienė, who sits on Lithuania’s national broadcasting council, said that "public service ethos" in her country means national values, purity of language, and the wealth of cultural inheritance. This definition sounds strange and even vaguely threatening beside the usual emphasis on cultural diversity and pluralism. Compare the BBC charter: the first purpose of the BBC is to sustain citizenship and civil society.
But there is no real contradiction. Public service media have always been strongly national. Recently, my namesake at the BBC, director general Mark Thompson, said "People want guaranteed access to a reliable source of trustworthy news; quality … programming in the area of culture and knowledge … which [tells us] what it is to live in this country, to be British. ... The challenge is, what do you have to do now, given the way media is changing, to meet that public expectation?" (See Andy Beckett, “What do we want from the BBC?”, The Guardian, 2 March 2010.)
The Open Society Institute 2008 report Television Across Europe: More Channels, Less Independence found that public service media across Central and Eastern Europe are locked into a crisis that could prove to be terminal. Suffocating under political control, lacking funds, public trust, professional credibility and a vision for the future, it is hard to see how these institutions can be made ‘fit for purpose’ when even well-resourced public media in western Europe struggle to justify their privileged revenue streams, and audiences have access to so many other media platforms.
Over the years, OSI has done as much as any media donor – and, surely, more than any other US-based donor – for the cause of public service media. Yet the costly attempts to convert the old state broadcasters have not succeeded. It is high time for radical thinking on how quality public interest content, which commercial operators won’t provide, can be delivered to European audiences with little if any faith in established public service outlets.