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Public Broadcasting Services Can Deliver Democratic Values. Few Do.

There was a time (nobody under the age of 30 can remember it) when public service broadcasters ruled the roost. They were well-funded, comfortably tied to establishments, and enjoyed approval—or at least were not resisted—to degrees that were unhealthy for everyone involved.  And we were all involved, because there were so few alternative providers of television programs about our own societies, in our own languages.

How this has changed. Like other traditional media, most public broadcasters now struggle for stable funding and loyal customers. Strapped for cash, they cannot be selective about their statutory duties to inform, educate, and entertain the people. Investment in technology is lacking. Internal morale is usually low. Flagrant politicization is no longer calmly endured by the audience, which deserts them for new platforms. Younger people especially are unimpressed by public service output, offline and even online. 

Public service broadcasting in most European countries seems to be a vestige of the postwar social model: something that has mysteriously outlived other features of that model, such as public ownership of utilities, robust regulation of financial services, and the dream of full employment, but is equally doomed.

Yet public service broadcasting does deliver important social and democratic values. This is true beyond the handful of countries where national broadcasters have a solid reputation for quality and impartiality, like in Britain. Comparative research cited in a 2012 report by the British Academy argued strongly that exposure to their news increased political knowledge among all sections of the population, even those with low levels of interest in politics; that their news output is more plentiful and more likely to be “hard”; that they show more domestic content; and that the good ones can drive up quality across an entire media system.

The Mapping Digital Media research, coordinated by the Program on Independent Journalism of the Open Society Foundations, found that share and reach of state and public service broadcasters fell in most of the 56 countries it studied between 2005 and 2010.

This study also assessed the performance of public service media in Central and Eastern Europe as bad. Many governments have transformed the state media, not into independent broadcasting services run by professionals to serve the public, but into their propaganda machinery. However, the latest research into the record of international support for media reform in the Western Balkans concluded that societies and institutions that received a stronger push through external assistance or even direct intervention were able to “travel” faster and further from the state-owned media model to the public-service model than those that were primarily driven by domestic, endogenous drives for change. Things may be grim, but they would be worse without outside help.

The real news is that well-run, trusted public service broadcasters can still thrive, and they do so in Canada and Sweden. Established public service broadcasters that have developed a compelling offer on new platforms are now among the very biggest providers of news. In Asia, Japan’s NHK remains a paragon of solid public service journalism. It delivers copious amount of news programming and is generally viewed as the most trustworthy source of information in the country.

Other remarkable cases are Thailand, where Thai PBS has pioneered genuine public service broadcasting in Southeast Asia, and Uruguay, where digital policy has found creative ways to extend and diversify public service output. Praise has also been earned by public service television in tiny Moldova, a republic sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine. After the communist party lost power there in 2009, the public broadcaster transformed its editorial policy and began to produce increasingly independent journalism.

Across the world, voices calling for reform of the woeful public service media are becoming louder. Agustín Ramírez, head of the Mexican Association of the Right to Information (AMEDI), slammed the Congress in June 2014 for excluding public media from telecommunications reform. In Egypt, local civil society groups have loudly voiced their concerns for the future of the public broadcasting dinosaur, ERTU, which two years ago employed a staff of 46,000—double the BBC’s worldwide staff.

By and large, the state-to-public media transition has been badly served by governments. It always needed—and never had—national consultations of the kind that precede a broad constitutional reform. Public broadcasting can shape a nation’s values and quality of citizenship as much as its main laws and regulations. Hence, any reform should perhaps focus less on how the ideal institution should be, and more on the inclusive process for building it.

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