State vs. public vs. commercial media systems / and why distinctions are important by Raluca Petre, PhD

Raluca Petre at the 2012 Annenberg-Oxford Media Policy Institute

The 2012 AnOx Summer Institute proved to be a very vivid forum for the discussion on ways of thinking about policymaking in the era of internet, social media and social unrest. Various narratives about policymaking have become apparent in the discussion, and the very diverse premises that people hold as true. The fact that knowledgeable individuals from all over the world gathered in the forum did have as a main effect the questioning of the very premises of the topics. It soon became apparent that different narratives emerge depending on the relation of the individuals with the state, ranging from the abusive state, to the absent state, up to the friendly state. It was equally important that we were not individuals from different countries studying in the same place, but individuals trained in various locations and that are practitioners in very diverse settings. This was an important part of the institute, because we were not discussing under the hegemonic auspices of the alma mater, but with very diverse ideas in our minds.

My particular reaction starts from a methodological observation, namely the usage of the variable: state/public media in the coding of the OSI reports. My argument is that a state media system is very different than a public one; moreover, that the blurring of the two carries serious consequences at the level of thinking and relating to the media.

In the context of the transformations that occurred all over Europe since the eighties, several issues are standing out. In Western Europe, the main debate was about the utility of a public system versus the utility of the commercial system. In the context of the popularity of market driven economies, the arguments supporting private media, such as the accessibility that a commercial system would make possible, prevailed.

In Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), after the fall of communism, the main line of transformation was that from a state-run system to a commercial one; the new democratic governments hoped that this transformation will lead to freedom and will limit political interferences into the media system. In this case as well, the commercial media structures prevailed. One can thus see that even if from different directions, there is convergence between East and West in imagining the media and its functioning, even if it is due to very different reasons.

At the same time, I wish to briefly introduce here a discussion that has not really occurred in CEE, namely the distinction between public and state media systems. The common element in the two cases is governmental spending and support. Nevertheless, while a public media system is built on a bottom up logic, with public accountability running high, a state media system is constructed on a top down logic, where public scrutiny is not really being considered. From a financial point of view, while a public system receives funding through fees paid by the citizens (see BBC for that matter), in a state-driven media system the money is allocated by the state. While in the former case the legitimacy of scrutinizing the functioning of the media system is high, in the latter case citizens do not have the idea that they can have a say into the functioning of their media system. This I believe to be one of the fundamental difference and misunderstanding in the process of media transformation in the post-communist countries.

In CEE countries, the general understanding is that of the audience leading to consumer accountability, rather than citizen accountability. This shows that the emerging centrality of commercial media systems and its audience-driven logic and the silencing of the discussion of the transformation of state driven institutions into public service ones.

Meanwhile, the public providers have lost audiences due to low trust, although they improved the quality and diversity of their content; the emerging generation does not even know that there is such thing like a public provider. I argue that the lack of conceptual clarification between state and public media institutions has consequences for legitimizing the commercial players as the only viable ones.

The CEE countries refuted the state media systems, but did not really reconsider the public media systems as alternative in the early nineties. In the same period, the legitimacy of public media systems was as well questioned in Western Europe in the context of the new ethos of free market.

Now that the European Union is a reality and an opportunity that both Western and Eastern European states share, it might be the right time to reconsider the distinctions between state, public, and commercial media systems, and to reevaluate the position of public media systems within the larger understanding of media and society.

P.S. In the Mapping Digital Media: Romania report, state and public broadcasting are used interchangeably, even though they are not the same thing. On page 16, the discussion is about state-owned broadcasting, while on pages 21 and 22, for example, the discussion is about the public broadcaster. Both refer to the same entity. Can a media outlet be both a state media institution and a public broadcaster? Is BBC really the same thing like the Chinese state media? Moreover, Chapter 2 addresses the issue of Digital Media and Public or State-Administered Broadcasters. The discussion in this case is about news agencies; that further blurs the understanding of the sociological object that is under scrutiny.

I strongly believe that the lack of clarification of the distinction between state, public, and commercial media players hinders the real opportunity of understanding the dynamic of change in the media in itself and for itself.


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