Media Freedom by richard barbrook

Public Service Broadcasting

The emergence of the public service state in western Europe laid the basis for the creation of a pluralist version of the Jacobin model of media freedom. During the Second World War, most owners of the mass circulation newspapers and the commercial radio stations had enthusiastically collaborated with the Nazis. Fearing the expropriation of their wealth by the Left, these media capitalists had preferred to protect their own individual property rights rather than to fight for the political rights of all citizens against totalitarianism. With private ownership discredited, the consensus governments of the post-war period had to find a more democratic method of organising the media. In the 1930s, Blum and his fellow Socialists had advocated that the public service state should directly control the media in the interests of all citizens. In his view, the ideological conflict in the mass media between competing political parties had to be institutionalised through the nationalisation of all newspapers and radio stations by the public service state. Instead of private ownership, Blum proposed that the editorial staff of the different media should be appointed by the various political parties represented in the elected parliament. In this scheme, competing political viewpoints would be expressed in the media in proportion to their popular support, rather than through the wealth of their financial sponsors. Although the public service state couldn't create two-way communications, every citizen could influence the one-way flow of communications in the media by choosing between the competing political parties in regular elections.

Because of the rights won by the journalist-printers in the bourgeois revolutions, this new version of media freedom was never applied to the mass circulation newspapers. In contrast, the electronic media within most western European countries were nationalised in the immediate post-war period. During the 1920s and 1930s, state broadcasting corporations had been set up to compete with the commercial radio stations. Because of the technical limitations of broadcasting, it was impossible to sell their radio programmes directly to the listeners. But, by imposing an annual charge on the owners of receivers, every listener could be forced to contribute towards the costs of the nationalised radio broadcasting systems. In the same way as advertising provided an income for the commercial radio stations, so revenue from the licence fee created a secure economic basis for the state ownership of the electronic media. Thus, when the commercial radio stations owned by collaborators with fascism were expropriated, these state-owned broadcasting corporations had the financial resources to monopolise the airwaves within most western European countries.

Following Blum's advice, the post-war governments decided that their nationalised broadcasting corporations should be made accountable to their audiences through the direct involvement of the elected parliamentary representatives of the citizens. In many western European countries, the sharing of party control over the state broadcasting corporation culminated in the pillarisation of the electronic media. From top managers to doorkeepers, all jobs within the nationalised radio and television stations were divided among the competing political parties in accordance with their electoral support. Based on the consensus between the different parties, all major political viewpoints were represented within the workforce of the state-owned radio and television stations. By having their own supporters within the workforce of the electronic media, both government and opposition parties could use their own members to express their views on the news and other programmes of the nationalised broadcasting corporation. With the adoption of pillarisation, Blum's version of media freedom was turned into a stable institutional structure for the administration of the state-owned radio and television stations. According to its advocates, all citizens could now indirectly express their views within the nationalised electronic media by voting for their political representatives.

But, in reality, the electronic media were still outside the control of their audiences and workers. As in other institutions of the public service state, the politicians and bureaucrats in charge of the nationalised media increasingly identified their own self-interest with the needs of the population. With a monopoly over the electronic media, the main political parties were able to exclude dissidents opposed to the consensus from the airwaves. For example, after the outbreak of the Cold War, the elected representatives of the pro-Russian Communist parties were banned from the public service radio and television stations for supporting the totalitarian opponent of the western European countries. Similarly, freed of pressures from advertisers and private owners, the directors of the nationalised media could fill their schedules with educational and cultural programmes. While the majority of the population mainly wanted entertainment shows for their amusement, the state broadcasters primarily catered for the cultural tastes of the most privileged sections of society. Crucially, as members of the bureaucracy of the public service state, the directors of the nationalised media were an integral part of this educated elite. Because media freedom was only seen as a political right, the provision of entertainment programmes could be largely ignored by the nationalised radio and television stations. Instead, following the Jacobin tradition, the dissemination of high culture by the electronic media was encouraged as a means of educating the citizens in correct ideas.

The process of separating public service broadcasting from any form of popular control was most fully developed in Great Britain. In the early-1920s, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was founded as a nationalised monopoly funded by the licence fee. But, in contrast with the pillarisation adopted by its continental European equivalents, the BBC had complete independence from any direct control by both government and opposition politicians. As the BBC's first director-general, Reith successfully prevented the British political parties from having any day-to-day involvement in its management. In order to preserve this autonomy, Reith ensured that the leaders of the major political parties regularly appeared on BBC programmes and their views were reported in its news service. By skillful lobbying, Reith persuaded the major political parties to rely on the neutrality of BBC management for the impartial presentation of their views. Yet, within the balanced programmes of the BBC, there were strict limits on political pluralism. During the 1926 General Strike, the leaders of the trade unions and the Labour party were prevented from broadcasting. Even without civil unrest, Communists and fascists were systematically excluded from the airwaves. At the same time, Reith also believed that the BBC had a duty to educate the British population. Under his control, the corporation limited the amount of popular entertainment in its schedules. Instead, the BBC mainly transmitted religious, educational and classical music programmes for its listeners. Above all else, Reith wanted the BBC to impose the culture of the conservative middle-classes on the rest of the country. For Reith, the pedagogical role of the corporation even included improving the accents of its working class listeners. By creating 'BBC English', he hoped that a standardised southern English accent would be adopted by the whole British population.

After the industrialisation of the media, the political right of freedom of communications could no longer be founded upon the economic right of private property. Owned by a minority of share-holders, the mass circulation newspapers and commercial radio stations excluded the majority of citizens from exercising their freedom of speech in print or over the airwaves. In response, left-wing politicians advocated the nationalisation of the media, which would place the newspapers and radio stations under the control of the 'general will' of all citizens. At the end of the Second World War, the collaboration of the commercial media owners with fascism created the opportunity for the introduction of this new model of media freedom. Because the Blanquist and Leninist variants were too authoritarian, Blum's pluralist version of Jacobin media freedom was adopted for the nationalised electronic media across western Europe. Although public service broadcasting didn't create two-way communications, all citizens could influence the one-way flow of communications produced by the state-owned media by choosing between the competing political parties in regular elections. However, this democratisation of the electronic media simultaneously led to the bureaucratisation of the airwaves. Because they were only indirectly accountable to the people, politicians and bureaucrats were increasingly able to run the nationalised broadcasting corporations in their own self-interest. If all citizens were to be able to express their views in print or over the airwaves, a more radical version of media freedom would be needed.


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