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3. 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 consumption, and what motivates and drives these.

Looking at the question posed by InfoCivica from the UK, we might ask whether 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 - and increasingly (to reflect digital distribution and the presence of the Internet 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. If a European public service television were conceivable, it is difficult to imagine it without a correlative form of European regulation. The EU sets some basic norms for content. But these are open to divergent interpretations and diverse enforcement regimes.

In the UK, the question of public service has increasingly needed to be defended by reference to ‘public value’, in essence, a framework of justification that substitutes for so-called market disciplines. In the UK, Ofcom and the BBC Trust apply so-called public value and market impact tests. The existence of such regulatory bodies in turn depends on a particular political culture and institutional history and we might ask to what extent these practices could actually be reproduced at a European level.

Currently, the scope and scale of regulation and of PSB, especially in the form of the BBC, are greatly debated in the UK. The issue was dramatised at the Edinburgh International Television Festival in August 2009, when James Murdoch (son of Rupert Murdoch, CEO of News Corporation), followed his father in attacking public service institutions and regulation, hailing markets and consumer sovereignty as securing the conditions for media freedom .

The terrain is indeed complex because there are legitimate questions to be raised, at a time of economic crisis in commercial radio and television and the press, about the BBC’s range of activities, and the extent to which these do affect the converging marketplace in the digital age. The BBC’s extraordinary web presence, funded by the licence fee, is a particularly sore point for competing press interests that wish to ‘monetise’ their content. For the broadcasting competitors, the BBC’s financial stability is a particular irritation in an advertising downturn and recessionary climate.

Alongside the economic arguments, there is also another, highly connected, debate that is closely related to electoral politics. The Labour government wants to use the existing television licence – so far raised only to support the BBC – for other purposes. The main one is to rectify the market failure of the main terrestrial commercial television network, ITV. The idea is to use public funding to support private media interests to compete with the BBC in providing television news, UK-wide and also in the nations and regions of the UK. The grounds are democratic: that we need plurality of supply in the most popular news medium, regulated to be impartial. The government also wants to re-regulate the BBC (after itself introducing the BBC Trust only three years ago!). For their part, the opposition Conservatives now seem intent on forcing the BBC to cut back its scale, as well as to reduce the licence fee. In this, there seems also to be a competition with governing Labour Party, which has signalled the same policy line. The BBC has heard the message, and is reviewing its own future size while fighting to retain full control of the licence fee. It still enjoys an exceptional level of public support at a time when public institutions – the Westminster Parliament and political class, in particular – are suffering from a loss of trust. However, we do know that the licence fee debate will once again be reopened, whichever party is in power.