“In these times of growing nationalism, populism and fake news, protecting the core values of public media has never been so important.”

Public Media Alliance CEO, Sally-Ann Wilson, issued a call to action in support of public media worldwide at the Central European University’s Centre for Media Data and Society (CMDS) in Budapest on 1 March.

The speech, as part of a CMDS series of guest lectures on public media, was aimed at encouraging greater collaboration and solidarity in ensuring the future of public media, as services struggle to ensure their core values in the digital media age and against the growing pressures of fake news, populism, nationalism, authoritarianism and the growth of competing and alternative new media.

Key points included the need for better media literacy so that citizens are critically aware of the democratic value public media can offer, but also that public media organisations themselves promote and maintain their core values.

Read the speech in full below:

Good Afternoon. And thank you for inviting me here to the CEU to share my thoughts about public media. It is a great honour and much appreciated.

I will declare my hand upfront. I have spent much of my career as a broadcast journalist, reporting, producing, and making documentary films around the world. As a practitioner, public broadcasting has been my life, although I have also worked extensively in the independent sector.

It is my firm belief that a shared, independent and trusted public media space remains central to effective and informed democracy. But we face a real challenge – what is the best way to provide and guarantee that space in our modern media age?

As the largest global association of public broadcasters, the organisation that I lead, the Public Media Alliance [PMA] has a unique global overview of how public media is changing.

In an era of rapid media convergence, public broadcasting is, in many places, evolving into multiplatform public media. But the role and potential of public media as a system and ideology is, it would seem, no longer widely understood. It appears to be undervalued and is rarely promoted in its own right or for the very characteristics that define it.

“But the role and potential of public media as a system and ideology is, it would seem, no longer widely understood”

In this digital media age, there is much to be excited about. New media technologies provide boundless opportunities for innovation. We live in a media centric age.

But, based on what I witness worldwide, I believe that there is also much to fear.

As humans we are great at innovating, great at selling new technologies. Yet sometimes our unbridled enthusiasm for the next new thing blinds us. We do not recognise what we already have. We fail to understand fully the significance of what it is that we already hold in our hands…until it is lost and gone. Forever.

And that is why, with the global vantage point that the PMA gives me – at this particular moment in history – I am afraid.

Few would deny that mass media has come to play an increasing role in shaping and building our societies. But we also need to recognise that it is capable of damaging them.

As public media thinker and former CEO of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Mark Scott, once said, “The obsession with technology can sometimes blind us to the value of content”.

In terms of analysis, this means gaining a better understanding of how new media platforms impact the democratic process. Partners throughout the democratic world need to urgently collaborate, to investigate and agree the best ways to regulate and mediate in this new media environment. We must ask ourselves if it is simple coincidence that the threats to democracy are growing in this new media age?

“We must ask ourselves if it is simple coincidence that the threats to democracy are growing in this new media age?”

The advances in media technology are truly incredible; they should and could open many new possibilities. Unmediated and unregulated, the digital era seemed so full of promise in terms of media equality – surely it would provide an egalitarian media space for sharing and creating content, a space for the voiceless to be heard at last?

In reality, that just hasn’t happened. Of course, there are some brilliant new media initiatives but worldwide we are facing an alarming spread of both authoritarianism and populism – both enhanced by the media systems they espouse.  And, for many people in this digital age, ‘media’ has come to mean ‘entertainment’ and ‘social networking’- nothing more, nothing less. We have, it seems, turned our back on our hard-won media freedoms. We now have new media masters.

The idea of Public Broadcasting as a media system was undoubtedly an invention of its time. It began in the 1920’s and grew alongside the new broadcasting technologies of the era – first radio and then television. It had clear and concise characteristics, enshrined in the BBC’s motto that this new media existed to “Inform, Educate and Entertain”. A clear system of ideas and principles, linked to the public good, was attached to this new broadcast technology from the outset.

Following the devastation of two world wars the ideals of democracy had almost universal appeal. Freedom of speech was widely valued by the public and politicians alike. Now it seems we have no understanding of just how diminished the human species would be if media freedom ceased to exist.

Unless, that is, you happen to live in a part of the world where the right to free speech has already been wrested from you. A place – and there are all too many of them – where you are forced to keep your tongue silent.

As yet there seems little understanding of how the worlds growing democratic deficit links to changes in our media environment. Globalisation has brought increased complexity to our world, but the populism of our prolific media drives us to simplicity. We can be quick to comment but slow to fully comprehend. In a time of media plenty our real understanding is diminished. Our opinions are expressed in sound bites. Our views are echoes, frequently shared with thousands, sometimes millions, beyond our own intimate circles, in just a few characters.

Polarised views and sensationalism are seen as winning audiences but they don’t win reasoned debate and as a result our world is fragmented and increasingly divided.

“Polarised views and sensationalism are seen as winning audiences but they don’t win reasoned debate”

Rooted in sound journalism the characteristics of public service broadcasting have been defined and redefined by academics and practitioners alike.  But the core principles remain valid: Universal (free) access for all citizens, independence, clear regulation including governance mechanisms that ensure transparency and accountability, editorial impartiality, secure and consistent funding, with at least an element of that funding coming from the public purse.

The concept and characteristics of public broadcasting spread throughout the English-speaking world and beyond. They changed and adapted to local contexts in Europe, North America, Asia, the Pacific, Africa and the Caribbean – but the basic principle remained; it was a media system accountable to the public who paid for it.

Surely, if we value democracy, then the principles of public media – accountability, impartiality, independence, accuracy – still stand true? Public media is not, as increasingly defined by many in the East, ‘media in the service of the public’. That in my view is something very different. That is media delivered by those in authority to the public, telling them what, and only what, those in power believe they ought to know. You can’t have a strong society without free media… but you can have a strong state…

“Surely, if we value democracy, then the principles of public media – accountability, impartiality, independence, accuracy – still stand true?”

As the commercial broadcasting sector grew and diversified it was increasingly able to attack and undermine public media. Profit has often been promoted as ‘the only reliable, durable and perpetual guarantor of journalistic independence’ [James Murdoch, MacTaggart Lecture, 2009].

I personally prefer the old folk tales. I especially like the one that says, “He who pays the piper, calls the tune’!! Commercial players have always viewed with inevitable envy the guaranteed income of public broadcasting. But surely the news that informs us, that shapes our worldview, should be as free as our access to clean water.

As broadcast infrastructure spread worldwide, independence and self-rule were finally and rightfully gained in Africa and Asia. The long overdue fight and right for people to have their own voice was eventually won.

For some years there has been a concern about the growing loss of public media in the global south. Many, once public, broadcasters had slid under state control. In an analogue era, media was seen as a rich sector, the established broadcasting infrastructure could be used to make money for governments rather than for delivering a public good. No longer impartial, the news that featured on these “public media” stations was often defined by endless reports of what Presidents had for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Today many former public broadcasters have lost sight of the independence that is central to its definition.

With the advent of new, digital media technology, a sensibility developed that public broadcasting, public media, was out of fashion and no longer fit for purpose.  Media commentary and focus became obsessed with the possibilities of the new, digital media.

In the global south, media development funding went to new grassroots media and though vested with national reach, national broadcasters became isolated behemoths of the analogue era. Now they are further born down by the expensive burden of digital transition. But the infrastructure and in many cases the staff remain. Who recalls the promises of a digital dividend?

Worldwide, these changes to national media have been seen as a ‘development issue’, not something that was ever likely to bother established western democracies. How quickly the world can turn…

Right now, the public media spotlight is focused on what is happening here in the heart of Europe as once proudly independent ‘public’ broadcasters are transformed into so-called, ‘national’ broadcasters, just the same as they have in parts of the world with a less established democratic history.

At PMA our small team constantly monitor the public media world. On a daily basis my colleagues Kristian Porter and Marta Catalano, note and report what is happening, most recently with news about changes – proposed or real – to public broadcasting in Denmark, Switzerland, Poland.  But to us these changes feel familiar, the same as the changes we have already witnessed elsewhere.

The influence and spread of authoritarian and populist media worldwide is taking place at an alarming rate. These changes to our media are not specific to any one place or region; they must be understood in the context of the rapid geopolitical and economic changes that are sweeping across our world. The economic power base of the world isn’t changing – it has changed. And that, to coin a phrase, alters everything.

Media support in the global south, linked to good governance and democracy, was until the global economic crash, funded by the West. Now China, a long-time supporter of the independence movements in Africa, is the major media player and investor there as it is in the Pacific, Asia, and increasingly the Caribbean and even here in Europe. Such media support may be branded ‘South/South cooperation’ but surely it cannot be a ‘gift’? So little in our world comes ‘free’. Western media aid was long criticised for coming with ties to democratic values. Around the world, new media headquarters, support for media infrastructure, training and content are being proudly provided by China. Maybe they come with ties of a different kind but certainly no links to democracy.

At the same time we have the impact of another new global power in the media world – the increasing dominance of the digital giants known collectively as ‘GAFA’.  Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon now dominate the media marketplace building on corporate and government spin uncertain as to whether they are just new technological platforms or news providers themselves. Above all else they are, it seems for now, unaccountable. As standalone platforms, that hardly seems a basis for trust.

“In this context, it is perhaps rather surprising that in the region of 150 media organisations around the world continue to define themselves as ‘public broadcasters’”

In this context, it is perhaps rather surprising that in the region of 150 media organisations around the world continue to define themselves as ‘public broadcasters’ or ‘public media organisations’.

Added to which there are a plethora of media academics worldwide who spend their lives studying and analysing the concept of public media, its relevance and potential in the digital environment. Sometimes it seems that there is more funding available to study public media than to actually support it! At the PMA we collate and analyse this research and where possible add our own.

So why is public media still necessary and still valid?

Trust and credibility, it seems, remain central to public media, whatever the platform. This is especially so during times of crisis, emergency and disaster. Once trust is established it is possible to rehabilitate public media’s ability to ‘inform’.

Time and again people turn to the established media providers and brands that they know and trust. Evidence is good for proof but it is usually stories that convince us.

Take for instance the devastating hurricanes in the Caribbean last year. I spent hours, listening to our member broadcasters in the Caribbean. Hearing them prepare their audiences, practically and psychologically. Stations such as Radio Turks and Caicos yet again proved that radio remains the ultimate “anytime anywhere” medium. As the storms raged, people who could no longer escape hunkered down and waited – but with familiar trusted voices for company and distraction. We listened to the singing, the prayers, the callers, the Tweets that were read and posts shared. It was full of humour, determination and mutual support. Then the signals wobbled and faded. Finally we lost them.

“It was full of humour, determination and mutual support. Then the signals wobbled and faded. Finally we lost them.”

In the days that followed these same stations led the rescues and the rebuilding. They helped people reconnect, find community again when community infrastructure was gone.

And so, with trust as a basis, do we really need to reinvent public media? In many cases the brand and national infrastructure is strong and established. In almost every instance, the technological shift from public broadcasting to multiplatform media is already well underway.

So, what of the content? Fake News and propaganda have become the media scourge of our age. But high-quality journalism is central to public media.  Many public broadcasters such as the BBC and National Public Radio in the US actually demonstrate their fact-checking and verification procedures directly to audiences.  Surely, this is one of the very best ways to counter the spread of Fake News and to build trust and credibility. Don’t just be perceived as checking facts, but demonstrate how you are doing so in a transparent way.

“Don’t just be perceived as checking facts, but demonstrate how you are doing so in a transparent way.”

Much as though radio remains my first love, not for one moment am I proposing that public media remains solely in the broadcasting era. New social media platforms can and should be integrated into public media organisations. Used with clear editorial guidelines and journalistic discipline they are valuable tools. In some regions social media is still seen as something young people fiddle with in the corner! It’s now part of PMA’s core remit to work with media organisations supporting them to professionalise social media journalism.

Investigative journalism remains a tried and tested way of making sure that those in power are accountable. A mark of its success can be measured by the fact that so many journalists are under pressure, threatened or imprisoned worldwide. Strong journalism depends on good journalists and working for respected public media organisations should provide the best protection for the individuals who need it.

Investigative journalism is not something that commercial media providers tend to invest in, it is time consuming and expensive, difficult to plan and schedule. You cannot charge citizens to hold power to account.

Increasingly investigative journalists work in partnerships, spreading the cost and the load. We now live in a globalised world. Our media needs to reflect that globalisation to ensure that all citizens have access to information that will shape their worldview. Public media organisations remain the best placed to build on their local funding roots while reporting on national and global views and news.

“Public media organisations remain the best placed to build on their local funding roots while reporting on national and global views and news.”

Public media should lead the way in terms of using new media platforms. One of the key criticisms of public broadcasting was that it was ‘top down’ but in a multiplatform environment that need no longer be the case. Public media organisations are perfectly placed to lead in terms of citizen engagement.

In terms of content, creativity must remain at the core. At present the technological possibilities dominate many public media organisations and complex bureaucratic and expensive management structures soak up the finances and stultify creative innovation. There is too often an economic drive for certain success instead of a reliance on creative instinct and real media content innovation. You don’t have to be a wealthy broadcaster to succeed as we all witnessed when the ‘Scandi Noir’ genre of TV crime series took off – and world wide Scandinavian knit sweaters came into fashion!

And what of tomorrow? There is always much talk of media for children and young people. The striking thing about this is that worldwide at present Children’s content is remarkably homogenous. Funding from advertising is limited so it attracts slim commercial investment. And so the major media markets such as the US and China become the main producers. This means that there is little ‘home grown’ original content for children – content that relates to their own cultures and experiences. The exceptions are those public broadcasters who have soundly prioritised the future of their young people.

In 2016, PMA ran its own research project with a questionnaire to our unique network of public media CEO’s. Whether they lead a large digital-first organisation or a public broadcaster on a small island state, many of their responses provided the same resounding answers as to the value of public media in their society.

“In this era of global digital giants, it is clear that public media provides an essential reference point for national life”

In this era of global digital giants, it is clear that public media provides an essential reference point for national life: A space to share the moment in a fragmented world; somewhere safe to create and curate culture and original local media; media with its own specific relevance; a space to nurture and develop local and national talent. But also a place that knows the right time to let that talent go when, and if, it outgrows the principles and budgets of public media.

Our questionnaire sought to explore with media leaders what they thought public media did and should achieve within their societies. What characteristics it needed to support those ideals. Our next phase of research will be to explore what governance features and funding models are required to enable those characteristics.

From academics to conferences and workshops, a great deal of time, energy and funding goes into analysing our current media landscape. At PMA we are determined to build on that combined analysis and work towards solutions.  Public media urgently needs to demonstrate what it is capable of; it needs to remind politicians and the public of the strength it can bring to society.

It’s notable that many of the large national media organisations that defined public broadcasting seem to have outgrown the label ‘public media’. East and West, they have diversified and commercialised or built on their local and national funding roots to become significant global media players. NHK in Japan, KBS Korea, PBS in the US or the BBC and CBC/Radio Canada. In many cases their funding and governance models have evolved and changed, but they retain the ethos and core principles of public media. It is primarily these institutions that have led the transition from public broadcasting to multiplatform public media.

The analysis of what is wrong is so often easy, developing and implementing solutions takes more time. There is much work to be done.  But we do see new shoots and glimmers of inspiration.

Take what has happened to public media in New Zealand. TV New Zealand (TVNZ) is no longer public, instead it is Radio New Zealand (RNZ) that has become the nation’s public media organisation. But, building on the long-established radio brand, RNZ now has video documentaries and an inspirational digital youth magazine ‘The Wireless’. It is truly a multiplatform public media organisation for the digital age.

In a time of media plenty it is easy for citizens to become confused, easy for them to be convinced by propaganda that they have media freedom. Public media needs to up its own PR and sell diversity, plurality and above all editorial independence and the benefits that informed debate brings.

“Public media needs to up its own PR and sell diversity, plurality and above all editorial independence and the benefits that informed debate brings.”

We all share this tiny planet – an increasingly turbulent and uncertain world.  I fear that ahead, we may well face a time when trust and credibility in media, will trump sensationalism and entertainment.

With a growing global population and the full impacts of climate change yet to be felt it seems likely that we will need to use our media expertise more and more often, for public good rather than purely commercial gain.

In an age when media freedoms are increasingly being infringed, it is time for public media to take full ownership of the characteristics that define it. Public media is those many organisations that epitomise it in Europe and beyond; the BBC, CBC Radio-Canada, ABC Australia, Radio New Zealand, SABC South Africa, ARD and ZDF in Germany and many, many more. But it is also far, far more than those individual organisations.

Public service media retains the core ethos of public service broadcasting while enabling public service broadcasters to engage with audiences via new media platforms. Some organisations have more strength in one aspect of public media but are lacking in others. Independence will always be under negotiation but it is the critical characteristic on which public trust fundamentally rests.

Staff and employees should recognise that first and foremost they are working for a public media organisation. Their understanding of what that means in terms of accountability and responsibility should never be more than a heartbeat away from their work. But it should also be at the forefront of the minds of those who lead such organisations. Power in any organisation is seductive. PR is no defence for a public media organisation.  Fairness, transparency, gender balance and accountability must be demonstrated every step of the way.

I suspect that if we say that public media is no longer of use, if we let it just slip away unremarked…then we may also be saying farewell to democracy.

Header Image: Budapest. Dimitris Kamaras/Creative CommonsCredit: