University of Huddersfield
At times like these, as the debate about the BBC gets increasingly heated and arguments focus on ever finer details, it is not difficult to lose sight of the fact that the issues at stake extend beyond the borders of this country. Public service across significant parts of Europe is often framed as the necessary evil, a free market anomaly. It is challenged to demonstrate its relevance and impact in tangible, measurable ways. Failure to do so exposes it to threats of downsizing and marginalisation. European Broadcasting Union’s recent Knowledge Exchange event in Geneva served as a reminder of that bigger picture.1
Addressing an audience of EBU members and academics under the ‘PSM Contribution to Society’ banner, speakers presented methods to quantify elusive impact in a variety of guises and contexts, drawing on case studies with an explicit cultural theme. It is striking how many times in just a few hours the emerging market conditions and shifting public policy paradigms undermining public service media (PSM) across Europe were described as a ‘wake-up call’. In Professor Greg Lowe’s keynote address and throughout the proceedings the message was that the ‘intrinsic value’ of PSM – the value associated with such principles as universality, diversity and openness, historically the centrepiece of public service broadcasting – is necessary for distinctiveness but not sufficient to secure their sustained status into the future. Exchange and use value, as they are determined by the users and multiple stakeholders, are now as important as intrinsic value. In other words, it is pragmatically imperative for PSM to adapt to the new environment as an essential part of the new media ecosystem, which is gradually taken over by the likes of Netflix, while retaining their public service ethos.
The BBC has been leading the way in having to respond to challenges by successive governments in the UK, but a new-found awareness of the dangers facing European PSM emerges, and with it come solidarity and shared strategies. Within a week after the end of the EBU event, in their letter to The Guardian, the heads of seven Nordic PSM organisations urged the UK to defend the BBC’s independence against government plans that may diminish the role of the institution that the authors of the letter describe as the ‘mother of all public service broadcasting’.2 There are clearly inconsistencies in how public service media operate in different European countries, but however difficult it is to define their mission in different national contexts, they subscribe to the same core principles about standards, priorities and relative independence from the market. In mounting its defence, the BBC should make the most of its global symbolic capital, its instantly recognisable brand. It should also call on its European partners for support, co-ordinated action and strategies on a scale that is analogous to that of the shifting European political and economic landscape. Introversion should give way to building networks and pooling knowledge.
1 EBU Knowledge Exchange 2015, 14-15 September 2015, Geneva, https://www.ebu.ch/kx15
2 The Guardian, 21 September 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/sep/21/stop-meddling-bbc-european-media-bosses-tell-government