{research} PSM in the service of communication rights?

{This is a segment of an upcoming book chapter. Very interested in any comments!}

Commercial interest have since been coupled with many other challenges of digitalization to public service broadcasting – and much has been said about the current crises of public service ideal and practice. As Voltmer (2013: 160) sums it up: We are now at a historical moment where different realizations, mature and new, of public service broadcasting worldwide are under threat because of digital convergence, audience fragmentation, and deregulated markets – and we may just need to come up with new ways to ensure the values of independency, impartiality, and integration via media. Might one way to ensure those classic values to embrace human and communication rights as an explicit PSM mission? More specifically, in terms of Europe: If we take seriously the normative engagement of welfare societies about informed citizenship and communication rights, and if we try to learn from the critique of paternalism, centralization, elitism, the copying of commercial channels, what can we suggest for public service media in services of communication rights in the digital era? To find answers, one has to tackle at least one conceptual and one empirical challenge.

The first issue is a fundamental one. Today, the European institution of PSB can be said to embody many of the rights relating to information and communication, especially in relation to citizens’ access to and availability of relevant information. At the same time, a certain conceptual riff between PSB and communication rights does exist. Public service in the media sector has in most related literature been linked to democracy theories and, on practice, democratic societies. And while rights-based approaches “share a commitment to the ideal of equal political dignity for all”, and while realization of human rights requires democratic government, the ideals of democracy and rights point to different directions (Donelly 2013: 222). The former ideal is about collective empowerment – the latter ideal is about individuals. Related to this is the traditional practice of PSB: The paternalistic, one-way flow of communication from one center that disseminates information to anybody within its reach.

And yet, in practical, empirical terms, we have established that PSBs have been used as vehicles in realizing certain communication rights, not least the one of access to information/content. To find out whether PSM could serve communication rights of the digital era, one needs to operationalize those rights. One scheme to understand today’s communication rights is to map under these five distinct operational categories: (see Nieminen 2010, 14-15; Splichal 2002, 168-69):

Access is about citizens’ equal access to information, orientation, entertainment and other contents serving their rights. Availability indicates that relevant contents (of information, orientation, entertainment and other) should be equally available for citizens. Competence means that citizens should be educated with the skills and abilities to use the means and information available according to their own needs and desires. Dialogical rights means availability of public spaces available that allow citizens to publicly share information, experiences, views, and opinions on common matters. Finally, privacy indicates two different things: first, everybody’s private life has to be protected from unwanted publicity, unless its exposure is in the public interest or the person decides to expose it to public; and second, protection of personal data means that all information gathered by authorities or businesses must be protected as confidential.

In the current media landscape, PSM is not alone serving the public. Given the multi-platform environment, many propose that public service functions can also be performed what could be called public media de facto, ranging form community media to networked projects and events (e.g., Bajomi-Lazar et al. 2012; Horowitz & Clark 2014). A commercial TV channel may have a particularly important and engaging political debate program or news website; a community radio station may address issues of a region in more depth than national media outlets; and citizens may inform each other (and the world) on social media about the Arab Spring, or the Ferguson riots, more effectively than any legacy media news outlet.

Yet, if we take an overall outlook of responsiveness of different media outlets to communication rights, how would PSM fare in terms of communication rights vis-à-vis its de facto counterparts? Table 1 presents a simple sketch of PSM and selected other forms of media outlets, with the assumption that they all have a potential in serving in the public interest.

Table 1. Communication rights, public service media, and selected other media institutions: A comparison

  PSM Commercial broadcaster/media outlet Community/ alternative media Short term issue and other “projects” and spontaneous citizen journalism
Access Good Weakening (e.g., pay-TV and streaming pay walls) Weak: doesn’t reach everyone (filter bubble)[1] Often weak: doesn’t reach everyone
Availability Good, weakening if narrowed or if competing with commercial outlets with similar content Weak (more of the same and recycling similar content for audiences, eyeballs, and likes) Good, as filling in the gap; but not diverse Good, as filling in the gap; but exists only for a short time
Competence Traditionally good (education) Traditionally weak Improving with the help of social media (free tools) Improving with the help of social media (free tools)
Dialogicality Improving with the help of social media Improving, but for commercial purposes Improving with the help of social media (free tools) Often based on dialogicality, with the help of social media (free tools)
Privacy

(a)    Private life

(b)    data

(a)    usually good

(b)    can be good

Weak (usually exploited for commercial purposes) Can be weak if no resources to guard privacy Can be weak if spontaneous and no resources to guard privacy

The above scheme would indicate that PSM could fare well in the service of communication rights. It is a simplified view that does not account for several core issues. For instance, audiences of public media can be global, regional, national, local and/or issue-driven (Aufderheide & Clark 2009). In addition, PSM exists in the same platforms as its commercial competitors. That may result in compromises in terms of intermediary liability, especially regarding privacy and freedom of expression that can be (e.g., MacKinnon 2010) In practical terms: national PSB companies are regulated under national legislation, but their activities in social media are ruled (mostly) by US jurisdiction. And, conversely, s Ziccardi (2013: 39) observes, digital communication and its platforms may have the potential to enhance international human rights, but this process is continuously being interrupted by nation-states and their interests. How would PSM organizations react to those challenges? Still, the original (even if implicit) role of PSM in guarding communication rights is clearly present and can be enhanced. No other media outlet has had that kind of on-going, sustainable commitment and obligation.

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