“The need for public media has never been greater”

5th April 2022
As Sally-Ann Wilson steps down as CEO of the Public Media Alliance, she reflects on two decades of advocating for public media. While it has had to adapt and change to remain relevant over that period, she argues public media’s importance to society and democracy remains steadfast.

Last week, I stepped down as CEO of PMA after more than 11 years. It was a unique role that gave me the opportunity to observe public media worldwide, and this seems to be a good time for me to reflect on the changes I have witnessed since I began working for the organisation 21 years ago. But it is also a good time to look to the future as well. I feel certain that PMA will continue to evolve and grow under the leadership of Kristian Porter. Kristian has worked alongside me for the past eight years and was fundamental to some of the major changes and innovations in that time, such as the new website and PSM Weekly.

This year, public media celebrates its centenary, with the 100th anniversary of the BBC in the UK. It may be one hundred years old, but the concept of public media still seems absolutely fit for purpose even though the platforms and technology have changed. Certainly, the need for public media has never been greater, as is the need for PSMs to stand together and speak up for their shared values – the values that underpin democracy. What public media lacks is strong and coherent advocacy. It is too often undervalued by politicians and the public.

SA Wilson

For some years, the idea of ‘media’ has become synonymous with ‘entertainment’ in both popular and political minds. But as events of the past two years have shown, public media brings far more to society than just entertainment. Of course, public media plays a central and fundamental role in stimulating and supporting growth in a nation’s creative sector. But first and foremost, public media must be an independent, shared space for people to come together to debate and deliberate the key questions of our time. At its best it is a kind of ‘glue’ that holds society together.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, public media organisations demonstrated how they can provide verified and accurate information that saves lives. They also stepped up to provide exceptional remote learning opportunities during lockdowns and offered mental health support for all members of society. We witnessed trust in public media grow during this time, and it continues to provide a refuge from the mis- and disinformation that thrived on social media. For years public media has chased younger audiences, but in most countries the global pandemic saw young people turning to public media organisations for information they could trust. It provided a touchstone to guide them through those dark months.

Listen to Sally-Ann Wilson on PMA’s podcast, Media: Uncovered

Public media will also have a central role to play in the fight against climate change. The next generation will demand that, and quite rightly so. For too long many public media organisations lacked the courage to lead on climate change, swayed by the climate deniers and a fear of losing ‘balance’. But accuracy is also central to public media and in the months ahead PMA plans to increase its work on supporting and advocating for better science journalism.

Perhaps the most significant change in public media in the past twenty years has been the global transition from public broadcasting to multiplatform public media.  It was essential to take the shared PSM values of accuracy, independence, universality, accessibility, impartiality and high standards of journalism to new media platforms – an opportunity to build on the brand. Those values cannot be pinned to broadcast alone. They are the essential characteristics for any national media space that supports democracy, a necessary requisite for informed citizens.

In 2022 we see democracy under increasing pressure and a war in Europe once again.  It is devastating to observe but it is primarily through public media that we are able to witness what is happening in Ukraine. This wouldn’t come to us from Netflix or Amazon Prime or any other SVOD. It is not content that makes money, but it is content that exposes the truth.  It is the extraordinarily brave independent journalists that yet again demonstrate the role that public media can play in fighting back, keeping us informed with images and words, rather than weapons.

I remain passionate about public media and plan to continue to research, write and speak about it. I would like to thank you for your support for PMA, it has been a real privilege to work with every one of you. But most of all I would ask you to continue to build on this important alliance and work with my former colleagues at PMA in order to better advocate for and support public media globally. Despite the tragedy unfolding in Europe right now and the pressures building on independent thought and democracy elsewhere, I see glimmers such as the new multiplatform public media initiative in New Zealand, that bring real hope for the future of a fairer world where people, everywhere, can share their thoughts and ideas through public media.

Sally-Ann Wilson is PMA’s former CEO from 2011 – 2022. Prior to that, she was Director of WorldView. She will continue to represent PMA on the Media Freedom Coalition Consultative Network.