Bu Aurora Herrera

When researching the media industry, it can sometimes be challenging to comprehend the sheer range of organisational mandates, how they function and most importantly, their role within society.

The latter is the central theme of this year’s Public Broadcasters International (PBI) conference in Helsinki, titled “Creating value for society in a rapidly changing world”, which will focus specifically on the role of public service media (PSM).

Yet despite PSM organisations being essential components of effective democracies, they all too often struggle to emphasise their societal worth in comparison to other types of media. It’s useful then, to remind ourselves of how they stand apart.

State, Private and Public

Simply put, there are three basic media categories:  state, public and private. State media are funded and staffed at the upper levels by the government. Their mandate often calls for the representation of government officials and their work in a positive light. Both public media and private broadcasters can be seen as independent organisations – even though a public service broadcaster might depend on the government and/or public for funding, its mandate is ideally one of independence and objectivity, often with an independent regulator to ensure this. Private broadcasters can also be called corporate or commercial organisations as their funding comes from a range of investors and advertisers.

While state media has been used as a tool for nation building, it often becomes a means by which a government purveys its message to the country. State media institutions are also used to detract from members of opposition parties by pursuing and emphasising compromising news items, promoting government representatives over the opposition and also, at times, outright libel. As previously reported by the Public Media Alliance, Brazil and Poland are both examples of what happens when public media are captured by the state.

As for private broadcasters, while they do not have to depend upon the government for funding, they are responsible for raising their own funding. But that support might come from investors with particular points-of-view and agendas that could be connected to the state through various interests and compromise their editorial independence.

Democracy is a system that empowers citizens to make decisions about the people who represent their interests. If citizens do not have access to real and actionable information about the people who run the political and economic spheres of their country, their right to democracy is compromised. This is where the value of independent public media lies.

The value of PSM is defined within its name – it serves the public above all else. As Paul Thompson, president of the Public Media Alliance and CEO of Radio New Zealand explains:

“The core function of public broadcasting is to help create an informed, connected and engaged electorate by providing news and current affairs uncoloured by political, partisan or commercial influences. It provides people with something different: a flow of verified information that reflects their role as individual citizens, not as consumers or customers.”

Several variants of the public service model exist, centring around two key principles: journalism that is not influenced by any state or corporate entity; and giving the public objective information they can act upon. Through this, public service media ensures that the practice of democracy is executed daily and continuously, built upon by being accountable to the diverse public who pay for it, regardless of background, gender, religion or ethnicity.

Accountability is partly ensured by being accessible to all citizens. Three important examples of public service media organisations that commit to such mandates across diverse populations are Radio New Zealand (RNZ) and CBC/Radio-Canada – both of whom will feature on panels at PBI – as well as Australia’s SBS.

Access for all

For RNZ, accountability and access means recognising and representing the country’s multicultural society, particularly the indigenous Māori population that account for 15% of the population.

RNZ’s Maori strategy underscores the normalisation of the indigenous language across all of its services and products. Key points include te reo Māori being heard in almost every RNZ news bulletin, Māori staff taking the lead in live programming on days of national significance, on-air staff training in te reo to develop their knowledge and ability to speak the language as well as internship opportunities for Māori graduates who want to improve their journalistic skills.

Some critics voiced concerns that te reo is being forced upon a majority-English speaking population despite Maori being an official language of New Zealand. Paul Thompson responded saying, “We shouldn’t underestimate the signal the national broadcaster sends when it normalises and socialises the use of te reo”. Paul also made clear the importance and ability of the te reo language to spark a national conversation “that will change people’s thinking about one of Aotearoa’s (New Zealand’s) official languages and reflect all that is unique and important to a nation of many parts but with a single destiny.”

Fundamentally, journalism is a public good and it is the duty of those who practice it to serve the entire public by removingbarriers and connecting all stakeholders of democracy.

CBC/Radio-Canada also emphasises inclusivity and diversity. Its mandate includes: reflecting Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences, while serving the special needs of those regions, in English and French; reflecting the different needs and circumstances of each official language community, including the particular needs and circumstances of English and French linguistic minorities; to strive to be of equivalent quality in English and French; to be made available throughout Canada by the most appropriate and efficient means; and to reflect the multicultural and multiracial nature of Canada.

“We shouldn’t underestimate the signal the national broadcaster sends when it normalises and socialises the use of te reo” – Paul Thompson

Canada is known for its multi-ethnic demographic and official languages of English and French. With a total population of around 37 million, first-language French speakers account for approximately 8million people. CBC/Radio-Canada offers programming in English, French and eight of the indigenous languages on its domestic radio service as well as in five languages on its web-based international radio service, Radio-Canada International.

Read more about public media and indigenous languages

But while the provision of multilingual services is indeed important, so too is relevant content. In Australia, public broadcaster SBS has paved the way in providing for diverse audiences. According to its website, SBS Radio broadcasts Australian news & information in 68 different languages.

In 2016, SBS also launched SBS Arabic24, a dedicated Arabic radio station aiming to “increase social cohesion by telling Australian stories in the Arabic language.” The service also provides dedicated content for newly arrived refugees from conflict zones in Iraq and Syria.

Now, three years after its launch, the service has gone from strength to strength and now accounts for 24% of the weekly Arabic-speaking radio market in the largest metro cities. To celebrate, SBS has also launched the Arabic Collection, an online collection of distinctive SBS programming with Arabic subtitles.

Speaking on SBS Arabic24’s third anniversary, Mandi Wicks, SBS Director of Audio and Language Content, said: “As consumption habits evolve, the SBS Arabic24 service is meeting the needs of this growing language community. Traditional radio remains key for listeners who have lived in Australia for many years, whilst newer migrants are opting for online stories and podcasting. We’re pleased that more and more Arabic speaking Australians are engaging with SBS Arabic24’s multiplatform offering.”

Public Broadcasters International

This year’s Public Broadcasters International falls at a time when the pressures facing public service media have never been greater. Even though being accountable to, representing and recognising diverse audiences is just one example of the roles independent public media play in society, it is important to emphasise and protect this value in a landscape of growing populist and nationalist rhetoric worldwide.

The Public Media Alliance looks forward to joining its members and other public broadcasters in Helsinki to discuss the positive contributions PSM make to society and calling for both collaborative and supportive solutions to the challenges that face public media. In doing so, it is hoped that individual public media organisations can also be emboldened to promote the role they play to their audiences.

PBI will take place from 11-12 September 2019 at the Musiikkitalo in Helsinki and hosted by the Finnish public broadcaster Yle.

Public Broadcasters International (PBI) was created on the initiative of TV Ontario and NHK, and was soon joined by many others including PBS, CBC, BBC, KBS, SVT, DR, NRK, SABC, RTÉ and France Télévisions. Senior executives from public media groups and union representatives from ABU, EBU, PMA and SABA, will meet during the three-day conference to facilitate high-level and wide-ranging debate.

More information


Header Image: SBS Newsroom. Credit: PMA