Rethinking ‘public service’ in a globalized digital ecology

As globalization transforms the nation-state and the forms of community associated with it, what are the implications for public service broadcasting? 

Ingrid Volkmer
2 June 2015

Image: Flickr/ Rosaura Ochoa

The public service model is increasingly under pressure, not only in the UK but across Europe. The demands of a highly dynamic digital sphere have already led to a significant transformation of public service media over the last decade. We can observe a shift away from traditional media centrality - delivering different kinds of content on television and radio - towards a more inclusive approach of ‘content centrality’. This has produced fine-lined strategies for cross-platform delivery as well as new organizational identities. 

In recent years public service organizations have begun to consider themselves less as ‘broadcasters’ than as ‘content-providers’. This transformation has been accompanied by further shifts towards ‘non-linear’ content delivery in order to counterbalance streaming sites such as Amazon Prime and Netflix. Public service non-linearity is delivered via new pathways, ranging from the BBC’s iPlayer, smart phone ‘apps,’ and the practice of ‘embedding’ on social media. 

In addition to this, we can see new journalistic models of news production and presentation even beyond the social media landscape. The BBC’s content, for example, is resurfacing on the most obscure sites, such as in the audiovisual section of the Australian newspaper The Age. Meanwhile the content of national and even local German public service media is at times blocked on their own sites and yet freely available worldwide on proprietary networks, such as Youtube and smart phone apps. 

Phenomena such as these require strategic adjustments by European public service broadcasters as well as by the European Broadcasting Union and policy makers. But they also require new conceptual debates, if we are to fully assess what ‘public’ value means not only within ‘digital’ spheres but within communicative spheres which are no longer bounded by the nation-state. 

The public sphere 

When reviewing current academic debates in media studies and journalism, it is surprising to find that this broader conceptual focus is largely absent. Instead such debates seem to focus mainly on four other areas: 

1) The required organizational transformations to more fully implement a social media ‘logic’ 

2) New journalistic practices

3) The need to balance traditional ‘public value’ commitment within the emerging highly dynamic, complex and competitive communicative spheres

4) How to more fully incorporate the communication needs of the larger ‘public sector’ (community sites, libraries and other networks of local and national public engagement and relevance)  

There is no doubt that these are important angles. What is needed, however, is a broader interdisciplinary conversation about the new dimensions of ‘public’ service, not only in terms of digital platforms but also within the larger dimension of ‘public spheres.’ When the public sphere is addressed, it is quite remarkable that this core component of democratic societies is often still related to Jürgen Habermas’s model, which not only places the public in the age of the ‘mass’ media but also relates to the inclusiveness of public debate to the civic sphere of nation states. 

We need to acknowledge that public spheres are no longer exclusively embedded in the nation but are deeply entangled within a context of a globalized civil society. Today, public communication is increasingly ‘disembedded’ as the tight relation between ‘polis’ and ‘demos’ is detached. Despite living in Australia, for example, I can vote in Germany and engage politically with NGO’s worldwide. 

The nation-state still regulates visa policies, collects taxes and provides social welfare. Nonetheless it is increasingly renegotiated in inter-governmental systems, confronted with a new non-national geopolitical ‘order’, and globalized risks which can no longer be solved by national governments. Communication and political discourses in particular are no longer - to borrow a term from Ulrich Beck - the ‘containers’ of public debate.

The traditional modern public sphere ‘ideal’ is breaking up into public taxonomies which are criss-crossing nation-states as well as - nd this is important - other state formations. Public discourse is horizontally spiraling across developing and developed world regions and even across so-called ‘failed states’. Public discourse is enhanced not so much by ‘social’ networks - the term social network is grossly misleading in this context - but rather by intersecting, ‘self referential’ discourse networks. 

‘Interdependent Publicness’ 

We need to understand ‘publicness’ within these broadly connected discursive spaces: mobile communication, blogs, social networking, television, radio and other media. This kind of publicness is an inclusive, thematically ‘authentic’ structure of discourse mediated through transnational public ‘localities.’ In such an advanced transnational communication ecology, interdependent ‘publicness’ relates to the connection of trans-societal interlocutors and the processes of ‘linking’ these public engagements to local forms of deliberative practice.

This dense formation of interdependent publicness goes beyond linear notions of what used to be called ‘international’ or ‘transnational’ communication, which are quite often perceived as a side-by-side to ‘the national’. These new forms are instead ‘clustered’, ‘patches’ of ‘viral’ public density best understood as communicative ‘layers’ stretching across different societies. 

These are the horizontally unfolding terrains of public communication where new types of ‘public service’ spheres are urgently needed. This is important as the main communicative pathways carrying these new types of public communication are exclusively commercially operating networks and - furthermore - globalized monopolies. As Mark Zuckerberg remarked in the Financial Times (October, 2014) “the world is moving from countries to companies. 

A good example is Google, which despite its official denomination is no longer a search ‘engine’ but rather one of the crucial domains for the navigation of the increasingly complex digital web. Although the European Union is currently preparing an Antitrust case against Google, caused by the successful lobbying of publishing houses, the European Union seems to be less concerned about the commercialization of this crucial domain of web nagivation relevant to new spheres of public engagement.

What is also concerning is the attitude of European public service media who are bounded by their specific public service remit. This remit is normatively applied to national communication structures that no longer exist. And alternatives are sorely needed. ARTE, the French-German cultural television channel, is one example and shows that the public service model can operate in a bilateral context.

Beyond the nation-state

It is surprising that even in academic debates, commercial social media sites are often heralded for their inclusiveness and ‘their logic’ and ‘deliberation’ while – on the other hand – these commercial networks collect personal data and metadata, develop multiple tagged algorithm networks and create digital footprints of their users. 

It could be argued, however, that such sites take on de facto public service roles in a globalized networked context by providing connectivity and an interface to information spheres. When Facebook broke down in California last year, local citizens called the police. This indicates not only the existential role of Facebook but also the understanding of its role as a ‘public’ platform, subject to local law enforcement.

It is time to rethink what ‘public value’ means along these lines and to identify new areas of European public service, for example by joint collaboration of public service organizations across Europe, providing search and social media sites and, ultimately, by repositioning national public service within today’s globalized communication landscape. 

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