Public Sector Broadcasting
APPLICATION OF STATE AID RULES TO PUBLIC SERVICE BROADCASTING
The European Humanist Federation (EHF) wishes to comment on this consultation.
The EHF comprises about 40 organisations in about half as many countries in Europe which through their members and affiliates speak for many millions of European citizens who have no religion but support democratic, humanist and secularist values. We are recognised by the European Union as a partner in the dialogues (mandated by Article 16C of the Maastricht Treaty as amended by the Lisbon Treaty [NB: now Article 17 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union]) with religious and non-confessional organisations. We are active in the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and, through the International Humanist and Ethical Union, in the Council of Europe, and in other circles.
Broadcasting is one of the determinative factors of a culture. It is so common an observation as to be a cliché that public life, culture and democracy in the USA are impoverished by the shallow triviality of most of their broadcasting. The envy expressed by American visitors for European broadcasting and the success of European broadcasters such as the BBC in selling programmes to US networks are further evidence of this fact. These high standards are owed to the refusal to allow free range to the market and to protection of public service broadcasting. High standards in the public sector tend also to raise standards in the commercial sector.
Key aims of the European Union are to foster a sense of European values and citizenship, to promote intercultural dialogue, and to defend democracy and human rights. These are aims that depend crucially on improving people’s education and knowledge, both generally and about each other, and on facilitating communication between people. Not only can these aims certainly be advanced by public service broadcasting: it is even difficult to think how they could be satisfactorily advanced without it.
But commercial broadcasters do not have these aims at heart. Their primary purpose is to make profits. Incidentally and in the right circumstances they may – and do – provide excellent programmes, but at the corporate level this happens as a means, not as an end, as can easily be seen when profits or audience share (their surrogate) are threatened: programmes with high aims that in good times produce a good public image are quickly under threat, trivialised or dropped.
Despite the broad assurances offered by the Commission in the opening paragraphs of these documents, with references to “the system of public broadcasting in the Member States [being] directly related to the democratic, social and cultural needs of each society. . .” and so on, our concern is the fundamental one that responsibility for the consultation rests with the Directorate-General for Competition.
We worry that the Competition Commissioner and her officials’ primary concern will (properly) be to foster competition, to remove protections for public service broadcasters, to open up markets and so on. These aims are in most circumstances admirable, serving to produce the wealth that supports our standard of living. But wealth is not a primary aim but a means to an end, and when competition as a means to maximising wealth threatens the very culture that we enjoy, attacking (as here) the protections that are vital to the high standards of public service broadcasting that in no small measure sustain that culture, then competition and the interests of profit-seeking companies must be placed second, subordinated to the broader public interest.
We worry that the Commission, through its origin in the promotion of free trade, having now attained a position of supremacy in the governance of Europe, is inadequately attentive to other concerns that are even more vital to our European civilisation. Marketisation and competition – especially where they move into areas susceptible to the so-called “tragedy of the commons”, attack solidarity, culture, educational standards, difference. Commercial broadcasters seek to build large undifferentiated markets that can be served at least cost. But the interests of the people of Europe do not lie in maximising the profits of a few, often multi-national, companies at the expense of its basic values.
These general considerations do not address the specific questions in the consultation. It is not difficult to see why. The consultation is couched in technical jargon that is impenetrable to the ordinary citizen. The consultation is therefore stacked in favour of the corporate lawyers that only the commercial sector can afford. It will divert some of the limited resources of public service broadcasters into defending themselves against the claims – quite possibly exaggerated – and the outrage – quite possibly simulated – of companies whose aim is to extract profits from broadcasting by claims of “unfair” competition to which the solution is to attack public service broadcasting and thereby undermine consideration for minority cultures, for education (as with the destruction of the BBC’s admirable JAM educational service), for specialisation, and for careful analysis, in favour of panem et circenses so as to build large audiences of people with maximum spending power so as to attract advertising.
The very form of this EU consultation is such as to slip unnoticed past those whose interests are most at stake – the audience. If NGOs such as ourselves are unable to penetrate the meaning of the documents, this is not democracy but conspiracy. The matters are undoubtedly complex and difficult for the Commission to explain to a lay reader. That is no excuse for not trying. When did the Commission last conduct a survey of the public on their democratic wishes for broadcasting – did they see it as just another business or as integral to their particular cultures, to the preservation of European and national differences? Why does this consultation not pick out a few practical examples of what is at stake and consult widely on them to provide pointers to the democratic wishes of the European public? Why does not the Commission run a broader consultation on the clash of interests between commercial competition and broader cultural interests?
The citizens of Europe are its individual human inhabitants, not its commercial companies. It is sometimes difficult to believe that the EU understands that. Which is doubtless a large part of the reason why there is so much disillusion over, suspicion of and hostility to the European adventure among ordinary citizens of many European countries.
In this case the EHF calls on the Commission to protect public service broadcasting and the subsidies that sustain it and so to reject any further extension of inappropriate relegation of this vital means for people to learn about and communicate with each other to merely another field of conflict for commercial enterprises.
This content last updated 4 March 2011 @ 12:37 am