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What is the Future of Public Service Media?

What is the Future of Public Service Media?

Written by
Jesse Hirsh
March 27th, 2019

Jesse Hirsh argues the need to broaden how we think of public service media and examines how it is linked to democracy.

What is the Future of Public Service Media?

The cornerstones of a democracy are freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly, all three of which are enabled by a free and open media system. A democratic society is only as strong and vibrant as its media.

In a country as vast as Canada, our media is what brings us together, more so than our town squares or shared physical spaces. In particular, our public service media allows us to think of ourselves as a single country, and as a shared set of cultures. The future of Canada’s public service media should therefore be of great concern to everyone, especially given the substantive disruption that digital media has had on our traditional media system.

We currently have a narrow view of what public service media is or should be, and this needs to be broadened to address both our digital present and our automated future. Rather than distinguish between legacy media and digital media, we need to expand our understanding of public service media beyond radio and television to encompass all the ways in which people communicate. For example, could the technology of voicemail be repurposed to become public service media (à la murmur)? What about a text messaging service that makes it easier for remote communities to get custom digital news? Or how about augmented reality apps that help people learn about Indigenous histories and cultures? These are but a few examples of how public service media can transcend existing definitions.

Our public service media allows us to think of ourselves as a single country, and as a shared set of cultures.

What’s at stake? Democracy. And in order for democracy to evolve and grow stronger, we need public service media to evolve and grow stronger too.

One of the primary problems with our current regime of public service media is that it is not democratic. Rather, our public broadcaster is run like any other media corporation, albeit with a modest focus on the public interest and the veneer of public accountability. The people who run the public broadcaster are chosen based on their experience in corporate media and their ability to translate the values and norms of corporate media and apply them to the public institution.

The lack of democracy within the media is not unique to public service media—it is a problem within almost all media organizations. Consider Facebook, arguably the largest human society in history, with over two billion monthly active members, and yet it is a tyranny, a dictatorship, as Mark Zuckerberg is both CEO and controlling shareholder.

It is a huge mistake to think that the governance of a media organization has no impact on the governance of society. How decisions are made and who gets to make those decisions is an example of the governance of a media organization. The stories that are chosen by that governance process directly influence how a society sees itself. Citizens should not only have a voice and input when it comes to their government, but also their media—public service or not.

This is partly why the second problem with contemporary public service media is that it is not participatory. The internet has ushered in a new era of participatory media and the public broadcaster has been unable or unwilling to adapt.

If public service media should be democratic, there need to be mechanisms for public participation. We see this on a superficial level with reader comments or op-eds, but it can and should be expanded to all aspects of creation and delivery. There’s no reason, given available technology, why greater inclusion and participation cannot be accommodated, and, even more, regarded as a genuine source of innovation and authenticity. Take for example the story meeting that most media organizations have regularly to determine what they cover and what is important. These meetings could be made available online—to view, but also to participate.

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However, democracy and participation are not enough; the real potential for public service media is the embrace of autonomous media—media that is truly independent, free to do what they wish, share what they wish, and operate as they wish. This includes not only what they focus on, but how they focus and what their business model is.

A democratic society is not a monolith; it thrives as a result of a diversity of perspectives and voices. The only way to achieve this is to encourage and support autonomous media that have the independence and ability to genuinely speak truth to power and articulate the diverse needs of a diverse public.

There needs to be healthy competition between media entities, preventing monopoly and the concentration of power, and instead ensuring there are viable alternatives and sustainable competition. Perhaps instead of a single model for a public broadcaster, there should be a constellation of public service media institutions that provide a broad range of programming and opportunities for citizens to engage with.

Public service media provides the cultural infrastructure that makes a country what it is. In a democratic society this is crucial, and essential, to ensuring that the necessary debates, conversations, and information are accessible to citizens.

However, in the digital age, we need to recognize that this infrastructure has shifted away from television and radio to social media like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and other platforms that are easier for the public to use and more responsive to the public’s needs and desires.

The power these platforms have, and the essential service they provide, should not be left to the private sector and the needs of advertisers. Rather, when we regard these facilities as essential infrastructure in a democratic society, it becomes clear that they need to be integrated back into a public service media model. This is not to argue that these large and foreign companies should be taken over by the government, but rather that the function and capabilities they offer should be emulated and adopted within our broader public service media system.

One of the problems these platforms face that public service media would have to address is the broader issue of content moderation and oversight—which, arguably, public service media are in a good position to do. The norms and values that influence what is acceptable content and what is unacceptable should not be left to foreign companies but should reflect the people who are participating.

However, it’s not just issues of moderation and governing content, but rather broader media governance models as a whole. A democratic society requires democratic media, which are a result of democratic governance models. Democracy is not just about voting every four years, but rather participating in the decision-making and shaping of society. That decision-making and shaping happens via our media systems. Therefore, how media governs itself directly influences how society governs itself.

The internet has ushered in a new era of participatory media and the public broadcaster has been unable or unwilling to adapt.

If media organizations are run as authoritarian organizations where staff have little say on the operation and selection of stories, why would those stories then promote or strengthen a democracy? Instead, would they not promote and strengthen the views of those who own and control the media? Users of media, otherwise known as citizens, should have the power and ability to influence the institutions that are part of the public service media environment.

It is therefore the role of regulators to ensure that this democratic public service media system exists and operates according to democratic principles. They would be the oversight that represents the people and part of the government to ensure that public service media thrive and prosper.

The CRTC has traditionally been part of this process and yet, historically, they have been reluctant to demonstrate leadership or expand their mandate. If democracy is to thrive, we will need a new regulatory body that sees itself as working for citizens—not industry, and not consumers.

Of course none of this will happen without the actions of the public. The public has to desire and demand such a system. The public has to desire and demand greater democracy.

This may present itself as a chicken and egg scenario. What comes first, a stronger public service media system that enables greater public participation, or greater public participation that enables a stronger public media system?

Maybe both need to emerge simultaneously, using each other as a means of accomplishing their goals.

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