Author: James Deane, September 14 2016 - James Deane argues that the concept of media systems capable of: engaging everyone in society, acting independently and enabling dialogue across divides appears increasingly – rather than decreasingly – relevant in the 21st century. 

Next week, executives from around 80 public service broadcasters gather in Montreal, Canada for two connected meetings. While these meetings will focus on a predictable set of challenges – how to engage millennials and adapt to a transformed digital landscape – on the agenda of the first, the Public Media Alliance Global Conference, is: “why public media matters in a fragile world”. It’s an issue we’ve been banging on about quite a bit recently and think it’s important for development types, not just media execs.

Last October, we published Public service media in divided societies: Relic or renaissance?, which argues that in many fragile and divided societies, media landscapes were becoming increasingly co-opted and polarised, often along factional lines. In another, After the Arab Uprisings: the prospects for a media that serves the public, we particularly explored this trend in the post-‘Arab Spring’ countries. Both reports stressed that media freedom remained vital but that it was under increasing threat. But they also argued that the potential of media to enable debate across divides in society seemed to be shrinking even though it is increasingly important. Both support the conclusion that independent public service media seems ever more relevant to these challenges.

Reforming state broadcasters is a 21st century challenge

Some might understandably think we’re flogging a dead horse with our emphasis on what has traditionally been called public service broadcasting. This is not only because they might consider the whole concept an outdated relic of an analogue past. It’s also because part of what we’ve been arguing (especially in the context of fragile states) is that we need to re-energise the debate around reforming and transforming state broadcasters, something some consider to be the illusory triumph of hope over experience.

We’d disagree and not just because we’re rooted in the BBC. We work with a whole range of media organisations, ranging from social media start-ups to community radio, and supporting the transformation of state broadcasters is a relatively small – though one of the most challenging – parts of what we do. Much of what we’ve learned working and researching in fragile states suggests that, while digital technologies are transformative and have created unprecedented democratic energy and opportunity, co-option sometimes leads to media environments fracturing along ethnic, religious or other lines. This can in turn affect social cohesion, conflict and extremism, identity formation and belonging, accountability, corruption and much else besides. 

This fracturing of public spheres is complex and leads to both positive and negative impacts but the concept of media systems capable of: engaging everyone in society, acting independently and enabling dialogue across divides appears increasingly – rather than decreasingly – relevant in the 21st century.

Other organisations appear to be reaching similar conclusions. The National Endowment for Democracy in the US (a country not traditionally a proponent of public service broadcasting) published Rethinking Public Service Broadcasting’s Place in International Media Development earlier this year, a report that was launched at the World Bank. One of the headline conclusions of a recent European Broadcasting Union report was that public service media can help build healthy societies. Deutsche Welle Akademie has also published an excellent analysis of experiences of what had worked, and failed to work, in reforming state broadcasters in another report, Transforming State Media.

The main obstacles to reform are political – not technical

A national public service media entity is increasingly recognised as something sensible to include in strategies of support to divided societies going through transition. More governments in such countries – examples include Afghanistan, Myanmar and Tunisia to name but a few – are requesting support for state broadcaster reform. At the same time, we know that the prospects for such transitions remain extremely challenging and we have to face up to their decidedly mixed record.

Our experience suggests that support to legal and regulatory reform, training and capacity building, shifting of business models, organisational change management and much else besides are the relatively achievable parts of any reform process. That’s because the reasons reform processes don’t succeed are not technical but political. Ultimately, for the president or government of a fragile state going through transition, the political cost of surrendering control of a national broadcaster can be substantial and the rewards scant.

That’s why we convened a symposium earlier this year to brainstorm more creative ways for development actors to help create the political conditions and incentives needed for reform efforts to succeed. The report of that meeting, The Future of Public Service Media in Fragile States: shaping donor and practitioner support strategies that work, can be found here.

So we look forward to the Public Media Alliance conference and hope that it can further re-energise what has too often been a tired, uncreative and – especially as far as the development community are concerned – traditionally ignored component of governance reform strategies. I’m intent on proving that we’ve got ourselves a dark horse of an issue – rather than one whose time has passed.

James Deane is Director of Policy and Learning at BBC Media Action.

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