Public service television, it is widely held in democratic societies, is needed for the correction of market failures. It is the job of the state to provide content that commercial media fail to. In particular, public service television is to air unbiased political news, culture and art, minority programming, and to enhance social cohesion – in short, to improve media pluralism by filling the gaps prevalent in the media landscape. But does public service television really improve media pluralism? This piece argues that in the former communist countries the contrary may be true.
While in theory few would question the view that state intervention into the media market may be warranted, the practice of public service television has been criticised on multiple grounds. Even in established democracies with a long tradition of politically independent public service broadcasting such as the United Kingdom, concerns have been raised regarding the choice of the public service mission: some analysts consider the vocation of “education and elevation” elitist and paternalistic in nature. Public service television has been even more controversial in young democracies where political parties have often taken control of it and, as a result, its news services were politically biased and its programming was ideologically motivated.
What goes wrong
New parliamentary majorities in young democracies tend to adopt new media regulation. This is what happened in Bulgaria under Ivan Kostov’s government in 1998, in Romania under Adrian Năstase’s government in 2000, in Poland under Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz’s and Jarosław Kaczyński’s government in 2005, in Slovenia under Janez Janša’s government in 2005, and in Hungary under Viktor Orbán’s government in 2010.
While few would question the need to adjust media regulation to meet the needs of swiftly changing media landscapes on a regular basis, critics in these cases argued that new regulation was driven by different motivations. In particular, the reorganisation of the supervisory bodies of public service broadcasters was used as an excuse to dismiss the old members of these and to appoint new ones. Public service media were captured by ruling parties via the establishment of new, informal, nomenklatura systems, that is, the use of political criteria when selecting and appointing board members and senior managers.
An alarming outcome of party capture of public service media was that strategic and executive decisions came to be made by party loyalists rather than professionals dedicated to the public interest. News programmes were often shaped to meet party needs and became channels of pro-government propaganda; other programmes were outsourced for production to friends’ companies.
Quality of programming was forgotten in the process; public service broadcasting gave way to party service broadcasting.
What is mimetic transplantation and why it often fails
It is now a commonplace that media systems are largely influenced by political systems. The public service experience in young democracies is widely seen as evidence of the failure of “mimetic transplantation,” that is, of a vein attempt to import a part of the Anglo-Saxon media system in young democracies without importing the political system along with it. Arguably, at least two conditions should hold for public service television to be successfully established in new democracies, including a consensus-based political culture and a consolidated party system – but neither of these is present in the former communist countries.
A consensus-based political culture would imply moderate pluralism in the political sphere, that is, an understanding of the base norms of democracy shared by all major political actors, including, among other things, human rights and liberties, the freedom to enterprise, and media freedom and pluralism. By contrast, most countries in Central and Eastern Europe have polarised pluralist political landscapes; political and ideological differences among the major political actors are often unbridgeable. While public service television is meant to build social cohesion, a minimum of consensus must pre-exist for it to be operational. Without this, no efficient public service mission and strategy can be elaborated and implemented.
A consolidated party system would imply a high level of public trust in political parties, a low level of electoral volatility and, most importantly, a high number of party members engaged in party building and organisation. But young parties in young democracies are often lacking these. As a result, party systems are fragile, and parties come and go. In an attempt to compensate for their feeble social roots and to stabilise their position, parties tend to capture the state and the media, and to exploit and channel the resources of these to party cadres and clients in exchange for past and future services. Public service broadcasters, media authorities and national news agencies are among the key targets of party capture. As a result, airtime, radio and television frequencies, positions on the boards of public service broadcasters, media authorities and national news agencies, and state funding dedicated to programme production and advertising often fall prey to parties in young democracies. The key means to achieve this is party capture of media policy, which, in the form of regulation fit to meet the ad hoc needs of particular interest groups, is widely seen as a means to redistribute state resources among party cadres and clients, while other stakeholders such as professional bodies and civil organisations are often excluded from policy making.
Because parties are week but have a de facto monopoly over policy-making, public policy is often turned into party policy and is used as a means of party patronage and clientism.
Distorting the market
In an attempt to help public service broadcasters improve media pluralism, the state maintains privileges for these institutions: it reserves frequencies for and channels taxpayers’ money to them, and imposes must-carry rules on cable operators.
But party capture of the state and of the media means that both the state and the media are instrumentalised to serve particular interests rather than the public good. Public service television uses important media resources without meeting its mission. Because its programming is driven by political considerations and the ad hoc needs of party cadres and clients, it has no long-term strategy and does not fill the gaps prevalent in the media landscape. Political propaganda and ideological indoctrination are not what public service broadcasting should be about.
At the same time, however, the resources used by public service television, including broadcasting frequencies, funding, and advertising revenues, are greatly missed by its commercial counterparts, particularly in small and medium-size countries where both audience and advertising markets are limited, as in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovenia.
The state does not correct market failures but distorts further the market.
But what to do about it?
Is there an instant remedy to the problems of public service television in many of the former communist countries?
If the argument above holds, there isn’t. The performance of public service television cannot be improved instantly by legal reform. Media policy and regulation are, in fact, not the cause but the outcome of the problem. They are a direct consequence of the general political setting in young democracies. Parties’ feeble social roots push parties to capture the media, including the capture of media policy and regulation. Media law will remain the prey of parties at least as long as a consensus-based political culture and a consolidated party system emerge.
Under these circumstances, the best thing that could be done is to close public service television down for good, and to release the sources it is provided with, including broadcasting frequencies and state funding dedicated to programme production and advertising, for use by private broadcasters.
But then, again, the political will to do so is missing. Public service television will likely remain an unresolved issue for a long time to come.