Monday, 7 March 2016

Public service broadcasting: What research tells us

Ken Newton, Emeritus Professor
University of Southampton

Public broadcasting matters. In spite of the revolution brought about by the new digital means of communications, watching TV news is still the main way in which most people keep up with current affairs. Compared with commercial broadcasting, research from Europe, North America and Japan shows that public channels usually carry more news, more hard news, more frequently, and at peak viewing and listening hours. Public services are also more highly trusted by the general public for the accuracy, reliability and impartiality of their news coverage. Public service TV channels and radio stations underpin democratic politics by contributing to higher levels of political knowledge, a smaller knowledge gap between the well and poorly informed, civic attitudes of cooperation and engagement, political empowerment, social trust, confidence in political institutions, political participation and voting. Furthermore, there is a ‘rainmaker effect’: just as the gentle rain from heaven falls upon the just and unjust alike, so also a general climate of trust affects all members of society, whatever their personal inclinations and whatever TV channels they favour.

The growing body of research findings on public and commercial media systems has clear implications for current policy discussions about the future of public service broadcasting in an increasingly commercialised world. If the findings are taken seriously, there is a strong case for maintaining a substantial public service element in national broadcasting systems and ensuring that these are well funded and robustly protected from government interference and commercial pressures, as this will contribute to the quality of democratic and social life. Policies that undermine public service broadcasting are likely also to undermine the public understanding and knowledge of politics as well as civic behaviour more generally.

Entertainment programming matters too. A public service shorn of its ability to present popular programmes, whether sport, drama, soap operas, reality shows or music, will fail to exercise a beneficial effect on those who fall into the news rather than seeking it out.

This, of course, results in a conflict between the public interest, on the one hand, and party political and powerful commercial interests, aligned on the other. The public interest lies in maintaining a trusted, reliable and balanced source of easily accessible news. Political interests lie in commercial news sources that faithfully repeat the words of politicians and their spin doctors. Commercial interests want a larger slice of the media cake and the profits they produce. Together they favour the commercialisation of the public service media, partially at least, but preferably wholesale.

You can read the full article 'Public Service and Commercial Broadcasting: Impacts on Politics and Society' here.

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