The BBC charter renewal, seen through a Nordic lens

The ex-Director General of the Danish Broadcasting Corporation compares the British and Nordic debates about the future of public service media. 

Christian S. Nissen
28 August 2015

Image: Flickr/ Johnny Micheletto

The BBC is unique. It is the oldest and largest Public Service Media (PSM) organisation. No other media company has radio and television programmes with a comparable global reach. The British approach to handling the paradox of a publicly-owned and state-regulated media institution, while allowing a relatively high degree of editorial independence from parliament and government intervention, is the envy of many less fortunate societies. 

In spite of being so unique the BBC enjoys a general, yet questionable, reputation as ‘the mother of Public Service Media’. It is a source of inspiration, not only regarding its programming and management but also in terms of its governance and the way public, political control is exercised. For this reason, observers in many countries - both those in favour of radical change and those who fear it - are following the current British charter renewal process with bated breath.   

There can be few other places in the world where the British charter renewal process attracts greater interest than the five Nordic countries, where observers resemble the fans of competing teams at a premier league football match. Some have high hopes for a new BBC charter that will pave the way for a revised – albeit significantly diminished – remit for public media. Other fans are concerned that a radical overhaul of the BBC will legitimize similar reforms back home. The reason for looking west across the North Sea is not so much a search for inspiration from the substance of the renewal process itself than for potential support of an ideological, cultural or political nature. 

Opponents in the debate on the future of public media in the Nordic countries are divided along lines very similar to the UK. Commercial media and the printed press expect to benefit from a reduced PSM role. Incidentally, they also tend to follow a PSM-critical line in their journalistic news coverage. They join forces with centre-right political parties working to attenuate the role of the public sector to give the market more breathing space. The other side consists primarily of centre left-wing political parties that historically played a leading role in building the Nordic welfare societies. They have few allies, and most of these are to be found among media academics. 

Parallels to the British charter renewal process can also be found in commissions and public hearings in the Nordic region. Four Nordic countries are either conducting or contemplating some kind of PSM/media policy review. The topics are very similar to those tabled by the Tory government, although the agendas are somewhat more open. The only significant difference from the UK charter debate is the question of PSM governance and regulation, which is seldom raised in the Nordic region. The turmoil surrounding the BBC Board and Trust is viewed from afar with some astonishment. 

The opinion of those in favour of radical reform can be grouped under the following three main headings:

  1. The whole raison d'être of PSM, especially its size and remit, should be reconsidered in the light of the increasing diversity of media market – both on the supply and demand side. 
  2. The traditional universality in PSM programming harks back to the days of national media monopolies. PSM should focus on content areas not catered for by the ‘free market”.
  3. Flat rate – and compulsory – licence fee funding has become an anachronism in a media market characterized by individual, on-demand use. The licence fee should be replaced by some form of subscription, perhaps in combination with revenue from taxation. 

Although these elements of reform have been debated for years, they are now being presented with renewed strength as unavoidable consequences of the evolving digital, multi-media environment. This gives their supporters – both in the UK and in the Nordic countries - the advantage of a proactive image. By contrast, the supporters of PSM institutions lack the rhetorical strength of being on the offensive. They might be right in arguing that the societal role of PSM in a digital environment is more important than ever, and that the speed of change in media habits and user behaviour is somewhat exaggerated. From a communicative point of view, however, such a defensive stance is not hugely convincing at a time when everybody seems to be experiencing the winds of change. 

While there are numerous similarities between the British and the Nordic debate on PSM, then, there are also significant differences. The most obvious relates to population - market size and the role of PSM in promoting or defending cultural identities. Compared with the UK, the Nordic countries are small, with populations of between 5 and 8 million each (in the case of Iceland only 300,000). The role ascribed to the BBC of ‘Bringing the UK to the world’ is reversed in the mission of the Nordic PSMs. One of their main tasks is to sustain national cultural identities and languages at home in the face of competition from a very open international media market. Nordic viewers are “exposed” to a great deal of international content, both on a limited number of channels from domestic broadcasters and from numerous non-domestic channels and platforms. Furthermore, most major independent production companies in each of the Nordic countries are affiliates of global players. For this reason, national PSM companies are widely regarded as an indispensable part of a national, cultural ‘defence’ system with roots in a special Nordic tradition of adult education. 

This defence of cultural identity goes a long way to explaining why the political climate vis a vis Nordic PSM institutions is more favourable than in the UK. Most PSM agreements with Nordic governments (similar to the BBC charter) build on broad alliances extending beyond the governing coalition in power. Furthermore, the political cultures in the Nordic region with their multi-party systems and a tradition of coalition governments have certain corporatist traits. During election campaigns, political parties may choose to differentiate themselves in their media policy by suggesting radical interventions. Nevertheless, even they want to be part of a broad political consensus. Parties in opposition are usually willing to make the necessary compromises to influence solutions that may outlive the next change of government.

On balance, it is fair to say that there are more similarities than differences between the UK and the Nordic countries when it comes to PSM models and the reform debate - more so than just about any other region in the world. The initial scepticism, expressed above concerning the BBC being “the mother of all public broadcasters” is based on the fact that very few countries outside north-western Europe have PSM institutions and a culture of PSM governance that are similar to the BBC. The letter of the law and the regulatory mechanisms might be inspired by – or even copied from - the British system. The underlying reality, however, is usually very different. Put very simply, PSM systems outside north-western Europe are generally characterised by at least one or more of the following four traits: low market share /reach; a program schedule that focuses more on entertainment than on information and education; lack of trust in news coverage because of tight government control and chronic political intervention; insufficient funding. 

What accounts for this regional difference in PSM systems? Why is the North Western region of Europe so special? Geographical proximity does not provide the answer. Neither do similarities in economic and market conditions in the media sector. We have to understand media systems and the way PSM is handled in a broad societal context rather than that of a media market. The most plausible explanation for the similarities between PSM in North Western Europe is that Public Service Broadcasting here was developed as an integral part of the collectively financed welfare societies of the industrial era. Until recently, it has been synonymous with ‘mass-media’, delivering the same content at exactly the same time to all citizens, funded collectively by the licence fee. 

This postulated link between media and its societal foundations doesn’t just explain the strength of PSMs in North Western Europe thus far. In coming years it will also become a formidable challenge to Public Service Media. We are currently witnessing a gradual shift from the collective mass culture of industrial society towards a more individualized knowledge society. There is a concomitant shift from ‘citizens in a society’ to ‘individual consumers in a market’. This runs parallel to a shift in the way media content is distributed; from mainstream broadcasting to multi-platform, on-demand delivery catering to individual interests and needs.

Some will welcome this shift and see it as liberation from the hegemony of a century of collective state-controlled media. Others will see PSM as one of the few bulwarks capable of sustaining national culture and enhancing social and cultural cohesion in a globalized, trans-national world.

On the face of it, the British charter renewal process and its close parallels in the Nordic countries are merely dealing with questions of the future of Public Service Media seen as part of a media market. Further down the road, matters will not be that simple. Answers cannot be found within the usual framework of PSM and its media environment. The scope is far broader, requiring reflection on the core values of our cultures and the kind of societies we want our grandchildren to be part of.

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