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Remarks by Ian Morrison to the World Electronic Media Forum, Workshop on Public Service Broadcasting, Palexpo, Geneva

Dec 11, 2003

"Public Service Broadcasting & Citizenship in the Information Society"

First off, I want to thank UNESCO for inviting me to speak and also for its leadership in convening this important workshop. This is yet another example of what UNESCO contributes to the world. UNESCO’s role is ubiquitous in this respect. It is something we sometimes take for granted, such as the sun rising in the east.

To illustrate UNESCO’s importance, I’d like to relate an anecdote from my homeland, Canada. More than forty years ago, a big electricity company, called Calgary Power, was building a high-voltage transmission line across rural Alberta. The most efficient route was to take this line across a deep river valley, which just happened to be the location of a very rich deposit of dinosaur fossils.

Initially, environmentalists and archeologists tried without success to persuade Calgary Power to make a detour to avoid this world heritage site. Finally they found a clause in an Alberta heritage statute which required Calgary Power to go to the added expense of avoiding the park. That clause had been inserted into the Alberta statute as a straight lift from a UNESCO heritage recommendation adopted some fifteen years earlier.

UNESCO’s contribution adds up to thousands of examples such as that from Dinosaur Park. UNESCO contributes standards, principles and values to our discussion of education, science and culture. I’m reminded of an off-hand remark by one of Geneva’s more famous thinkers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who once said: “I’m here to discuss principles. I will not dispute the facts.”

In calling this workshop, UNESCO wrote: “neither commercial nor state-controlled, public broadcasting’s raison d’etre is to offer a public service, a public space where all citizens are welcome and considered equals. In developing countries, public service broadcasting has a key mission in promoting access to education and culture, developing knowledge and fostering interaction among citizens.” I think that goes for so-called developed countries as well.

In order for you to understand my comments, I want to tell you something 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 who are English-speaking have lived for seven decades fully exposed to almost all the outputs of the American system.

We were the first to experience the effects of satellite rain. We developed a public service broadcaster initially to create east-west links on a continent where market forces would have developed a south-north system. And we have done a pretty good job on the information side of creating those east-west links. Where we have fallen down is on the entertainment side, where even today, only 11% of the drama programs we watch are made in Canada, and also in local, community-based broadcasting.

Neurologists tell us that our brains have two hemispheres, one concerned with information, the other with emotion. 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 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”, from which the concept of politics derives.

In most 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 this latter public participation is key to democracy. While de Tocqueville gave currency to the notion that this form of experience took shape in the so-called “New World”, I’m conscious that we are meeting in a land and a city, where the concept has much more ancient roots.

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. As the Mix & Remix cartoon on page 39 of our programme makes clear, citizens’ choice in a state-broadcasting environment is to “choose to switch off”. I can only applaud UNESCO’s commitment 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 has a role to play in pointing out the 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.

Finally, I want to stress the importance of public affairs broadcasting by public service broadcasters. In most of our countries, powerful interests can 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 are unfolding. 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.