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Public service: manoeuvres in highly complex terrain

I shall be making some critical observations that doubtless cut against the grain of the aspirations of this meeting. So that these are not misconstrued, I want to add that I am not a Euro-sceptic, not least because I think that - tutto sommato - European integration has been a constructive process, given the bloody European past – still recent, one may add, and if we think of the post-Yugolavian Balkan wars of 1991-99, not a distant memory at all.

So Europeanization offers a modest possibility of cosmopolitanism (albeit in the limited geographic frame of the Euro cosmos) and that is potentially an important counterweight to the dark, antidemocratic side of nationalism. It is always wise to recognise that politics can produce surprises, so we should not assume that the EU is itself perpetually immune to antidemocratic tendencies, although happily these are marginal at present.

There is absolutely no reason to be complacent today as aspects of post Cold War historical revisionism, Holocaust denial, the exploitation of Islamophobia and ethno-nationalist reactions to migration or simply cultural difference throughout the continent all provoke challenges to those who believe in a civic, civil and democratic politics. The challenge of how to deal with multiculturalism is one for which our states are very differently equipped and the EU is still basically the sum total of our states.

So this is where I begin: with the strong sense that although Europeanization is ambivalent in its effects and that despite the fact that a democratic deficit exists, and notwithstanding that the EU remains a mainly elite-driven project - that the alternatives are certainly worse!

A last introductory point: it’s not fashionable to say it today but it seems that the hopes invested in the idea of a European public service television are actually enlightenment hopes. The aspiration is for a communicative space that – broadly speaking – constitutes the citizen as a rational being and equips him or her with the capacity to engage in reasoned argument and debate. The official goals of public service do reflect this rather venerable aspiration. Let me just instance the 6 public purposes of the BBC as a current example. These are:

To sustain citizenship and civil society
To promote education and learning
To stimulate creativity and cultural excellence
To represent the UK, its nations, regions and communities
To bring the UK to the world and the world to the UK
To take a leading role in digital switchover

A partly expedient mixture of the high-minded and the pragmatic, ranging from Bildung to technological innovation.

Of course, public service broadcasting is not the embodiment of pure reason. Who would bother watching or listening, if it were? Post-millennium TV (public as well as private) offers a gamut of engagements, stimuli and pleasures, as well as intolerable boredom and mind-numbing banality. Much of its dominant mode is an intimate, personal, privacy-infringing and emotional mode of address. That’s show biz, folks. But, rather like the hopes invested in representative politics (despite our regular disappointments with our political classes), even though the gap between the rational ideal of public service and the real is undoubtedly there, the ideal remains crucial, both as aspiration and criterion of judgment.