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Public Service Broadcasting – Its Special Responsibilities

Apr 21, 2004

Remarks by Ian Morrison, Spokesperson, Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, to the Asia Media Summit 2004, Kuala Lumpur

Coming from the very farthest reaches of the Asia-Pacific, I want to congratulate AIBD, ISIS Malaysia and News World Asia for organizing this remarkable Summit. Sometimes, I think, we take organizations like AIBD for granted, like the sun rising in the east. It’s good to recall that the things we take for granted are often the bearers of our most fundamental common values.

In order for you to place my comments in context, I want to say a word about Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. Friends is a watchdog group, supported by 60,000 Canadian families. Our mission is to defend and enhance the quality and quantity of Canadian programming in our audio-visual system.

We Canadians live just to the north of a huge country whose most important export is audio-visual entertainment. That country also has a rather fragile public service broadcasting tradition. Because of our geographic proximity, those of us Canadians who are English-speaking have lived for eight decades fully exposed to almost all the outputs of the American system.

We were the first to experience the effects of satellite rain. In the 1930s, we developed a public service broadcaster to create east-west links on a continent where market forces would have led to a south-north system. And, on the information side, we have done a pretty good job of creating those east-west links. Where we have fallen down is on the fiction entertainment side, where even today, only one-in-ten of the drama programs we watch is made in Canada. We are also fragile in local, community-based broadcasting.

Neurologists tell us that our brains have two hemispheres, one concerned with information, the other with emotion. I would like to suggest that our audio-visual systems mirror our brains, with fact and fiction components. The fictional side builds belonging and identity, while the fact-based side collects, analyses and disseminates information.

We humans also tend to divide our experience into private and public spheres. The private side includes most of our economic activity, our income, for example, our families and our personal development. The public sphere includes our responsibility for our fellow humans, for our communities, for what the Athenians once called the “polis”, which bequeaths the word politics to several European languages.

In many of our societies, we play the role of “consumers” in our personal lives and “citizens” in our public lives. Economic participation in our societies derives from our personal interests; while political participation, or “citizenship”, derives from our public interest. And, of course, this public participation is key to democracy.

While private, that is, for-profit, broadcasting has a role to play in the public sphere, it is important to recognize that, in essence, the fundamental goal of for-profit broadcasters is to deliver eyeballs and eardrums to advertisers. Programming is a means to this end. Public service broadcasters, on the other hand, start with the fundamental goal of delivering programming to citizens, and counting eyeballs is only one means to that end.

I think it goes without saying that “state-controlled” broadcasting has no role in a democratic context. Our Chair intervened on this point from a floor microphone on Monday. As a cartoon in the program of last December’s World Electronic Media Forum made clear, the citizen’s only choice in a state-broadcasting environment is to “choose to switch off”.

I applaud UNESCO’s willingness to help state broadcasters, where they exist, to transform themselves into public service broadcasters. And where, as we have all witnessed, state broadcasters seek to transform themselves into private broadcasters, UNESCO also has a role to play in pointing out the consequent loss to citizenship and democracy. It’s also important to note the important recent work of Pierre Juneau and Guillaume Chenevière through the World Radio & Television Council in this regard. Gareth, Javad, Vladimir and I have sought to help them.

Our program refers to the BBC. From the western side of the Atlantic -- as you can see, we Canadians like to have it both ways -- we have long admired the BBC. To some extent, its early years inspired our own public broadcasting model. And certainly, the recent dispute between the BBC and the British Government has caught our attention, coming as it does just before a review of the BBC’s Charter.

While this dispute and the conclusions of Lord Hutton seem to have disturbed BBC’s equilibrium, I suggest that this disturbance could ultimately help to strengthen and enhance BBC’s vitality and independence, stripping away a certain vestigial arrogance, and providing incentives for enhanced performance in future.

From my perspective, what is often overlooked, is the immense base of goodwill for the BBC among the citizens of the United Kingdom, not to mention the rest of the world.

In Canada, Friends of Canadian Broadcasting has measured the goodwill towards the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) through regular public opinion polls over the past twelve years. You can find these data on our web site at “friends.ca”. Because of this research, we know that more than 80% of Canadians value CBC highly. It is our most important national institution.

I want to conclude by stressing the importance of public affairs broadcasting by public service broadcasters. In many countries, powerful interests dominate the news, be they governments or large corporations. It’s usually impossible for less powerful interests to gain equivalent space in news programming. This puts citizens at a disadvantage in trying to analyse what’s happening.

Public affairs programming, unlike news, offers a perspective on events of the day and a commentary on the environment in which major events unfold. It provides a glimpse behind the headlines, and offers a voice to important, but less powerful, interests. In some countries, public affairs programming is known as current affairs programming. It enables citizens to understand the context, flavour and significance of events.

I suggest, in conclusion, that we should evaluate the health of democracy in our various societies by measuring the balance between public service and private broadcasting. Where public service broadcasting is weak, it is an indicator of lower participation by citizens in shaping the forces that influence their lives.

Along with other measures of democratic participation, such as voter turnout, a strong public service broadcasting system is a buttress and stimulator of citizenship, as well as a counter-weight to the natural tendency of governments to age in the direction of autocracy, complacency and corruption.

Thank you.