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Sommary intervention Enrico Menduni

Turin Prix Italia, Rai – 24th september 2009


Philip Schlesinger

Centre for Cultural Policy Research - University of Glasgow


Public service: a complex battleground

This meeting has set itself a major challenge: to address the possibility of creating European public service television. I would like to address some of the preconditions of such an idea, principally by reflecting on the British experience in the wider European context. The intention is not to privilege what is going on in the UK but rather to use it in an exemplary way, as it illustrates some of the political, economic and ideological ground on which much debate is taking place. In particular, it demonstrates the instability of the terms of reference of current debate.


Arguments about the creation of a European communicative space, in which television might play a central role, have circulated for three decades, at least. This idea has been closely linked to the process of European integration. In the post-Soviet era, ‘Europeanization’ has been marked by an expansion of competencies and of territory by the European Union.

The idea that shared communication is a prerequisite for the formation of a European democracy has been central to recurrent debate, both political and academic.

We have gone through a number of attempts to engineer this aspect of a ‘public sphere’ into existence: from Television without Frontiers (1989; amended 1997) to the Audiovisual Media Services Directive (2007, to be implemented in December this year), from television co-productions supported by EU programmes such as MEDIA to the recent development of a so-called communication policy by the European Commission, intended to redress the ‘democratic deficit’.

This development has been paralleled by the related aspirations that began more than two decades ago as a European information space and have evolved into seeking to install a ‘knowledge society’ in line with the Lisbon Agenda 2000. Here, the driving forces have been those of global economic competitiveness and technological change, not least advances in the so-called digital economy.
Alongside this, the European Union context is also marked by the uncertain growth of a European cultural space, with increasing prominence given to the Culture programmes of the Commission since 2000. These might justly be seen as ‘Europeanizing’ trends. However, it remains the case that a communicative space (and therefore the broad conditions that might create a possible public service television) remain highly dependent on the creation of a common political space. At present, this is stalled.

Public Service Television?

A European public service television could take several forms that we might debate. It raises fundamental questions in turn about how we conceive of transnational citizenship and also transnational cultural consumption, and what motivates and drives these.

Looking at InfoCivica’s question from the vantage-point of the UK, we might ask to what extent it makes sense to talk about ‘public service television’ as we presently know it. In the UK, the debate is posed traditionally in terms of public service broadcasting (PSB) - which includes radio regulated in the public interest - and increasingly (to reflect the multifold forms of digital distribution and the crucial presence of the Web in the public offer) the arguments have shifted to discussion of ‘public service content’. This latter term raises profound questions about the relations between content and institutions and indeed, distribution systems more generally and how these affect the brand and identity of what is on offer and its modes of consumption. This brings in its train the question of regulation in the public interest and how this is best accomplished. For political and commercial reasons, this is often a battleground at the level of the state. Were a European public service television to be conceivable, it is difficult to imagine it without a correlative form of European regulation.

Currently, the scope and scale of regulation by Ofcom, and of PSB, especially in the shape of the BBC, are greatly debated in the UK. The question of public service has increasingly needed to be defended by reference to its ‘public value’, in essence, bringing into play a framework of justification that is inspired by and also substitutes for so-called market disciplines. In the UK, Ofcom and the BBC Trust implement public value tests and market impact tests. The existence of such regulatory bodies depends on a particular political culture and institutional history – extremely contested at the present time - and we might ask to what extent these practices could actually be reproduced at a European level beyond the broad provisions of the AVMS Directive.

State and nation

One further complication is worthy of mention, and this is by no means restricted to the UK within the European space. The UK is a state of nations that in the past decade has created additional, subordinate political institutions for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. England remains exempt from devolution (apart from London). In the case of Scotland, political devolution has further institutionalized tensions between centre and periphery over broadcasting policy. Demands for increased investment in production and more parliamentary control over public service provision in Scotland have reached a new level of articulation. The present system’s capacity to sustain the so-called creative economy throughout the UK, and its ability to provide an adequate form of cultural representation at the level of the state, have come under sustained questioning.

This is a political issue and also a regulatory one, as well as once of broadcasting practice. In the context of the present economic crisis, it is also a public spending question. Within the European context, how nations within member states might articulate with a transnational public sphere is being posed afresh. And this has implications for any conceivable public service television at the European level.