Can public-service journalism survive the culture wars?
One target of the recent populist upheavals throughout Europe has been the media. Mainstream media is constantly criticised for having abandoned impartiality, and are now constantly fighting off accusations of bias from both left and right – particularly public-service broadcasters that are supported by the state.
On the left, public-service broadcasters are seen as being stuffed with establishment figures marginalising radical voices, too often repeating pro-government state propaganda. Supporters of right-wing populist rebellions accuse the same broadcasters of embodying liberal, PC or even ‘cultural Marxist’ status-quo groupthink.
In the UK, the two sides in the Brexit debate only agree on one thing: that the BBC is hopelessly biased. In Poland, there is a fierce battle over the control – and tone – of the state television broadcaster TVP, with many alleging it has become little more than a mouthpiece of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party and is whipping up hate. Meanwhile, in Sweden, general trust in the public service broadcasters Swedish Radio and Swedish Television remains high in most voter groups. But recent changes in licence fees have ignited a debate about what role the government should play in supporting news outlets, and what obligations state-funded media have to taxpayers.
For more moderate commentators, this hostility to public-service journalism is a cause for concern. For many, the noble aims that inform the public-service model – that news and current affairs should be impartial, and financially and politically independent – remains an important principle to uphold, even if it sometimes fails to strike the right balance. The fact that such media outlets outrage both left and right is seen as a sign that they are doing something right. However, if greater numbers of people refuse to trust mainstream media and look elsewhere for their news – often within their own echo-chambers provided by increasingly popular alternative media outlets – can impartial news ideals survive?
In some respects, this politicisation of the national media reflects broader political and social trends. When the BBC, perhaps the world’s most famous state-run media outlet, was established in 1922 by John Reith, few questioned his idea that ordinary people required authority figures to ‘educate, inform and entertain’ them. Today, such a deferential attitude can hardly be assumed. Perhaps people should be free to decide for themselves what news is worthwhile and what entertainment they should enjoy? On the other hand, without a common ground for national reporting or debate, can we expect people of different political tribes to agree on anything?
Can the ideal of an impartial, taxpayer-funded news service survive today’s febrile culture wars? With the rise of social media and digital technologies, can we justify public expenditure on outdated media models? And when experts of all stripes produce informative podcasts for free, do we really need for a central public service organisation to educate the public?