Democracy Doesn’t Come For Free

In a fast-paced world  attacked by rampant capitalism from one side and authoritarianism from the other, the institutions of democracy must be nourished. Public service media is one way to do it.

Imagine if there was a war and there were no pictures of it. This is the thought that comes to mind when visiting the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, admittedly a rather one-sided account of what happened to and in Vietnam at a time when many of us were already alive. For this is a museum comprised of harrowing images, one after another, culminating in a whole floor of photos from demonstrations all over the world asking the US to keep out of the atrocities that in the end cost more than three million lives, two million of them civilians. It is safe to say that journalists helped to bring this war to an end, and an entire exhibition in the Museum is dedicated to killed or missing photo journalists and cameramen.

These were journalists from all walks of media — commercial, news agencies, and public broadcasters — and all these people and organisations paid a high price to keep the public up to date with what happened in an area of the world many people couldn’t have found on a map, if it hadn’t been pointed out to them on the evening news. But just imagine a day when people won’t be willing to pay this price any longer because they will be satisfied with what they can get on Netflix or YouTube.

Journalism is developing from a must-have into a nice-to-have service these days. Something audiences are willing to pay for if they feel the need, and many don’t. According to the Digital News Report 2018, only 14% of the 74,000 respondents paid for online news in the last year, and newsrooms are feeling the pain.

Staff cuts and the loss of capacities to hold power to account is what describes the commercial side of the industry today.

So luckily, there’s public service media. And they better hang in there as a pillar of democracy, and people better pay for them. Luckily, they do. In March, the Swiss referendum attacking the public service licence fee was killed by 71% of voters who wanted to maintain access to reliable information. And there was only limited outrage when the German Constitutional Court in July ruled in favour of the German public media fee. Citizens know what is at stake. In the Digital News Report, trust figures for public broadcasters regularly exceed those of commercial media.

They seem to be institutions of last resort when it comes to (relatively) unbiased and in-depth information, covering even local regions where producing journalism is a high-cost-affair that many private news organisations can’t or don’t want to afford any longer.

Critics argue that young people are abandoning TV and radio in droves, so why should they pay for them? And the web presence of many public broadcasters is limited at best, indeed. But that is a call for reform rather than for abolishment. Yes, there is a lot of red tape in public broadcasting, and very often there is too much politics and too little agility and innovation. But that can be tackled. It is vital to transport these institutions into the digital world by making them understand the rules of this new world and the needs of younger generations.

As with every institution, mechanisms of accountability have to be established, talent is needed to push them to the next level, cultural change has to be implemented and privilege scrutinized. But that doesn’t mean these institutions are not needed any longer. To the contrary, in a fast-paced world that is attacked by rampant capitalism from one side and new authoritarianism from the other, the institutions of democracy must be nourished. Public service media is one of the ways to do it.

This column was first published by NewsMavens on July 29, 2018