Mother of all public service broadcasters, the BBC is rightly respected for its independence but the same cannot be said of other national broadcasters in Europe and beyond
On July 4 of this year, George Entwistle was appointed Director-General of the BBC after an open recruitment process launched in the press. Applications were sifted by a head-hunter and interviews conducted by the BBC Trust under its Chairman Lord Patten. The appointment was not influenced by Britain's ruling coalition government. And like Mark Thomson, the man he will succeed, Entwistle is not associated with any political party.
That is as it should be. A public service broadcaster should do what it says on the can: serve the public. Not a particular government, political party, billionaire businessman or special interest group. Mother of all public service broadcasters, the BBC is rightly respected for its independence. Its directors-general and other key personnel are not replaced after citizens change their governments, and its journalists are fearless in interrogating politicians of all political hues.
Regrettably, the same cannot be said of the national broadcasters in many of the other 50-odd countries from which the European Broadcasting Union draws its membership. The EBU includes the countries of northern Africa and the Middle East, as well as all those in the geographical Europe we learned about at school. In the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet bloc, we embraced national broadcasters from Eastern Europe which had previously grouped themselves in the OIRT, a parallel organisation based in Prague.
Through example, and by promoting a model law, the EBU and its members started a process of transformation in the east. State broadcasters previously at the service of the local Communist Party began to turn into public service broadcasters according to western-style models endorsed by the Council of Europe and others. They turned into broadcasters run by professionals who, providing they proved competent, could expect to remain in their jobs even after a change in government. That process of transition was at least partially successful. But old habits die hard. Now, alas, the transition to independence appears to have gone into reverse.
In some cases, new governments have started again to exercise what they regard as a kind of 'droit de seigneur' to put their own people in charge of the national broadcaster. In others, new governments may pay lip service to existing legislation, but then simply change that legislation to allow them to do what they want. Recent weeks and months have seen several worrying examples of increased interference and political pressure on national broadcasters not only in Eastern Europe, but also elsewhere. Often the broadcasters are powerless to resist.
Hungary, of course, has been the butt of widespread criticism since Prime Minister Viktor Orban won a sweeping election victory and imposed a new structure over public service media in 2011 - which critics say leaves little room for independence. In Slovakia, the Director-General of Radio and Television Slovakia complained to the constitutional court after parliament dismissed her on June 26 in what she described as an "illegal expression of political power" following elections earlier in the year. This despite the fact that the Committee for Culture and Media unanimously adopted the RTVS Annual Report for 2011, a year in which DG Zemkova successfully merged Slovak TV and Slovak Radio into one organisation - investing savings in additional programming.
In Romania, the parliament uses its scrutiny of annual reports to dismiss or appoint the director general of Romanian Radio and Romanian Television, although theoretically this is not in the parliament's competence. In June, the Romanian parliament dismissed the President Director-General of TVR. On July 3, it dismissed the PDG of Romanian Radio formally at his own request, even though a week earlier it had approved the radio's Annual Report.
In Croatia earlier this year - journalists, editors and non-governmental organisations called for an end to political meddling, censorship and nepotism in Croatian Radio and Television or HRT. On July 9, a new law on HRT was adopted. This gave parliament itself the power to appoint the chief executive. A new director-general and four directors were appointed ad interim, and prospects seem low of the broadcaster becoming any more independent in the future than it has been in the past.
Further to the west, in Italy, political parties and governments have a long history of interfering with RAI - the public service broadcaster. This has been noted repeatedly by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe's representative on freedom of the media. Today, despite the current non-party premiership of Mario Monti, RAI is still at the mercy of the Gasparri law – which was introduced by the Berlusconi government in 2005, and puts control of RAI through legislation firmly in the hands of the government and its parliamentary majority. The recent appointment of two recognised independent personalities as president and director-general of RAI personally chosen by Monti is not protected by the law and is, therefore, built on very fragile basis.
In Spain¸ it was dispiriting to see the editor-in-chief of RTVE dismissed with immediate effect following the appointment of a new chief executive in June. This followed a decree passed in April by the Conservative government allowing the majority in parliament to name the head of the RTVE without any agreement with the opposition parties. That decree undid a reform approved in 2006, to keep the broadcaster at arm's length from government control.
More recently, in early September, the EBU felt impelled to write to the prime minister of Portugal to protest against plans to put management of RTP - the country's public broadcaster - into private hands. We are convinced that such a reckless move would add to the strain on Portuguese society during this time of crisis and endanger a public institution that has served Portugal well since the Salazar dictatorship. You cannot treat a public broadcaster like an electricity company or a staff canteen. The citizens of Portugal should be worried. Editorial independence and pluralism would be endangered, and citizens could lose a trusted reference point for ever.
While independence from political interference is the most important factor for public service purists, it is far from the only one. Money is another - and a crucial one. Many public service broadcasters suffer enormously from insufficient funding. The public service media of Germany, France and Britain – even after the BBC's last licence fee settlement – each have billions of euros annually at their disposal. Elsewhere in Europe, some public broadcasters – RTCG Montenegro is one, TRM Moldova another – must survive on budgets of under €15m. These underfunded organisations are in desperate need of modernising their infrastructures while at the same time facing the high costs of digitisation and the preservation of irreplaceable audio-visual archives.
Lack of money compromises independence, of course. It also hits quality and the amount of original programming that can be produced. So audiences to migrate to flashier commercial broadcasters whose only interest is to sell eyes or ears to advertisers – in the case of TV by rebroadcasting foreign-made content pitched at the lowest common denominator. In the case of radio, by airing little but pop music. Goodbye to serious news reporting for all sectors of a population, including minorities. Goodbye to costly documentaries. Goodbye to original drama anchored in the local society. And goodbye to expensive orchestras, which preserve and foster a country's national musical culture.
Three years ago, the EBU established a partnership programme to provide extra support to those of its members which were falling into an increasingly precarious situation – whether politically, legally, financially or technically. One of our key allies in this effort is the European Commission, which says that the economic standing and independence of public service broadcasters in European Union candidate countries must be improved - if they are to guarantee open and pluralistic media landscapes.
In a resolution passed last December, the European Parliament stated: "Free and independent public media always play a crucial role in deepening democracy, in maximising the involvement of civil society in public affairs and in empowering citizens on the path to democracy." On July 24, European Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle and EBU President Jean-Paul Philippot signed a ground-breaking memorandum of understanding, in Brussels, on a partnership entitled Enabling the democratic role of public service media in the EU enlargement region
. That agreement will fast-track modest amounts of funding to support EBU activities, in support of its members in EU candidate countries. Areas of work will include strategy development, digitalisation of archives, investigative journalism, public service news and media literacy.
Commissioner Füle has already indicated that he hopes a similar partnership will be signed with the EBU for activities to strengthen public broadcasting in other EU neighbouring countries to the east and south - including North Africa - for which he is also responsible. Of course, this does not mean that the EBU's ailing members will be transformed magically into broadcasters like the BBC - with its long tradition of political independence, high-quality programming and technological innovation. But we can hope that, with hard work and political support, their situations will take a distinct turn for the better.
In Strasbourg, in June, the EBU's general assembly unanimously adopted a declaration, entitled Empowering society
. It defined the core values of public service media as universality, independence, excellence, diversity, accountability and innovation. The declaration concluded with a statement of what public service broadcasters need to do their job properly: accurate legislation, adequate sustainable funding and professional governance to safeguard editorial independence. I am sure that Entwistle would agree with that.Ingrid Deltenre is Director-General of the European Broadcasting Union, which serves 74 members in 56 countries and promotes public service media