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From Secret Service to Public Service: Central European Lessons of Mass Media Transition

From Secret Service to Public Service: Central European Lessons of Mass Media Transition

by Olaf Steenfadt*


“Tell me what your media landscape looks like and I’ll tell you what kind of country you live in”. – Miklós Sükösd, political scientist and media researcher


In most of European countries a transition to democracy has happened yesterday or the day before yesterday, in historic terms. Almost everywhere, except for the UK and most Nordic countries, some flavor of dictatorship was recently abandoned, one way or the other, and in comparison, two rather different styles of transition could be identified.


In 1945, the Germans didn’t manage to overthrow dictatorship – it was ended and defeated from outside. Change did not come as a bottom-up revolution, but as a top-down occupation, which was superimposed upon the whole country rather military style. As a result, transition was simultaneously applied to all levels and corners of society, the economy and, eventually, the media. The re-invention and further development of public broadcasting happened, luckily one might say in retrospect, as an integral and homogeneous part of the whole society’s transition to democracy and thus, became an outright story of success.


Today, public media in Germany enjoys a more or less unchallenged and accepted role, both by decision makers and the elites, as well as with the general public – which is illustrated first and foremost by a relatively stable collective funding base of more than seven billion Euros per year, equaling a monthly fee of around 20 Euros per household.


In Central Eastern Europe (CEE), the picture looks completely different. Twenty years ago, regime changes came as true revolutions from the bottom up, not top-down. Transition was not an order, controlled by allied forces, but an uncontrolled event, unfolding coincidentally to a large extent and leading to confusing, sometimes erratic and in any case unplanned developments. Former state broadcasters were not shut down but kept as largely oversized institutions, which in most cases became quickly disconnected from the revolutionary momentum and, ultimately, from societies as such – some of them still are today. Not only were they exposed like dinosaurs to a new habitat over night. On top came the economic challenges of an open, more and more globalized marketplace. One might call it irony or just coincidental timing that during the late 1980ies and early 90ies, commercial broadcasting arrived just in time for the fall of the Berlin Wall. Not surprisingly, these fresh new channels were easily associated with freedom and independence, while the former state broadcasters remained incapacitated by carrying the burden of their past as being the old regime’s mouthpieces.


Today, parallels with the timely arrival of social media and its role during the Arab Spring come to mind, probably affecting the fate of state broadcasting there not to a lesser extent.


Now when comparing cases of top-down versus bottom-up style transition, it might seem that an allied invasion is needed to get things right in the end. That is of course not necessarily the case, as long as the transition from state to public media remains in sync with its societal environment and the concurrent revolutionary context.


Public media can only survive in the long run if it manages to keep pace with the transitional speed of society.


In order to achieve that, reporting the revolution and covering it in the main evening news does not suffice. Broadcasting institutions as such have to breathe change and exhale it at the same time. And it has to show. More practically, large scale reorganization and structural engineering needs to be started swiftly, but knowing well that this takes time, maybe decades, to produce visible results.


In addition and maybe even as a first priority, launching an immediate, open discourse and exchange about value-based broadcasting becomes key. Establishing the core DNA of public media and setting respective agendas means to talk about transparency, honesty and professional standards, by proactively communicating and reaching out to its stakeholders, which is each and every citizen. In this regard, an early transitional context means nothing but a unique window of opportunity. Once closed, it will never open again.


For that reason, main ingredients of the public media dough, i. e. credibility and trust have to be added first. Just putting them on top anytime later just like some icing on a cake will not work. One Lesson from CEE is: do that now, or never.


In more practical terms, two dimensions of media transition might be identified and tackled respectively.


The first one is the obvious. Certainly, a sound regulatory framework for the media industry and public media in particular is needed for them to develop in a sustainable way.


Cases from CEE however illustrate that legal conditions alone do not prevent failure. After the regime changes, huge copy-and-paste operations followed immediately. Many bits and pieces of media laws from the West and North were taken to the East. Since then it is fair to say that the same norms produced completely different, in some cases converse results.


Mainly three reasons for that could be mentioned with hindsight.


First of all and beyond doubt, a holistic concept is always better than a hotchpotch of collected, isolated parts. Secondly, compliance has been a major problem in many cases as the best legislation is no good if nobody really cares to stick to it. Accordingly, effective media regulation needs independent monitoring and sanctioning procedures.


And last but not least, the probably most decisive element becomes political culture and context. Even with a comprehensive regime and full compliance, an identical legal norm or just a single event might still be interpreted in country A much different from country B.


As a result, this additional, rather behavioral dimension cannot be separated from the basic legalistic one and requires at least the same amount of attention and care.


Regarding the more objective legal side of media regulation, one has to admit its fundamental difference compared to all other fields of industry regulation, such as in the energy or health sectors for instance. What makes the regulation of public media special and particularly demanding, is its dialectical nature, which produces a number of inescapable contradictions and conflicts of interest, a mere few of which are mentioned here:


Its output – radio and television programs, and increasingly online content – is a commodity that targets highly competitive markets, while at the same time being a priceless, collectively-owned cultural asset.


High-profile journalism – as one integral part of public media – controls politics, while politicians govern public media institutions.


Institutional independence and freedom on the one hand, and full accountability towards the public as stakeholder on the other, exclude each other to some extent.


These discrepancies are not solvable per se. They merely define the onerous task of continuously balancing counteractive, complex and often sometimes contradictory forces. As a structured approach to do so, three constitutional pillars of media regulation might be identified and thus suggesting that the malfunctioning of just one of these three elements would cause the disintegration of the whole system: governance, funding and access.


The governance of public broadcasters mainly defines how to organize institutional autonomy and editorial independence, e. g. by means of professional standards, complaint mechanisms and the composition of supervisory boards. In broader terms, it tackles the sensitive interface between public media and politics.


One cannot deny the interdependencies that are at work here and they are not, per se, a matter of good or evil. Politics needs diffusion on order to function and would hardly be thinkable without transmission through the media. So why should it be condemnable for politicians to seek maximum media coverage for their statements? Neither can it be denied nor is it automatically damnable that, vice versa, a fairly stable provision of funding for public service broadcasting entails certain obligations and encumbrances.


But neither politics nor broadcasting act in an isolated vacuum. In a democracy, both spheres are exposed to extreme competition: one for power and opinion, the other for market share. And one side has a decisive impact on the market of the other. Politicians regulate the media industry, for example, the introduction of the dual system, that is, the coexistence of private and public service media, was and still is a political project. Another current example is spectrum policy. The mass media, for its part, dominates the opinion market and can influence the outcome of elections.


This reciprocal control may seem like a healthy balance, if politics and the media meet at eye level but this requires that transparent and fair rules apply and are observed in both fields of competition.


The subsequent regulatory task is to facilitate this balance, rather than to de-politicize public media – which would be a truly mission impossible anyway.


Funding has always been one of the most crucial aspects of public media operation, as its level of independence appears to be mainly a result of financial independence. In this regard, not only the sources and amounts of continuous revenues are to be scrutinized. In addition and maybe even more so, the amount of equity capital of the respective institutions and the budget term can either promote or inhibit media freedom. Both aspects need to be considered in order to enable longer term commitments towards infrastructural investments and international co-operations, such as co-productions. Also the access to development funding or capital markets and lending in general usually depends on own equity. A respective lack could result in major disadvantages when it comes to mastering competition on a global media market.


As a general trend across Europe, more and more public broadcasters are, more or less voluntarily, forced to abandon advertising as one stream of commercial revenues, especially in smaller and medium sized markets. Eventually, this development follows the quest to sustain a healthy Dual System of both public and commercial media within an advancing digital economy, where overall ad spending on traditional media will contract further due to shifts towards direct and online marketing.


The regulatory challenge in the field of access can be merely subsumed by the paradigm of platform neutrality or, in other words, allowing public media to go where the viewers and listeners go. This may include must-carry rules, but also certain procedures and restrictions with regard to broadcaster’s online activities.


All these three pillars constituting the more objective, legalistic, dimension of media regulation can be mainly regarded as the institutional context a broadcaster finds itself in. By contrast, the second, cultural level must be considered as an internal affair in the first place. While politicians can always be blamed for deficient laws, broadcasters remain to a large extent responsible for their own corporate culture and image vis-à-vis the general public. Not the best media law in the world could provide or compensate that.


Respectively, the success of internal change management and self-regulation of public media appears to be determined by a set of at least three crucial factors.


In each and every media outlet, the most valuable asset remains the staff. Insofar, continuous vocational training appears as the most urgent and efficient investment of all.

However, if limited only to journalists and on-air personnel, institutions as a whole are bound to fail. Especially within transitional contexts, managerial excellence and soft skills in particular become key to engineer change at a large scale.


This change inside an institution never happens only top-down or bottom-up only. It needs both ends of political will and determination at the top, as well as passion and professionalism at a grass root staff level. Obstruction usually occurs somewhere in between, where the mid-level management gathers in a mix of fear and laziness. In order to shortcut the top and bottom levels of momentum and jump start transition, the concept of viral change has proven useful in many cases. Not replacing but in addition to long-term institutional restructuring, very small and confined projects are launched, which would then later “infect” the whole body. This approach requires carefully selected, cross-disciplinary teams with a clear mandate and objective, like for example launching a new show or channel.


Communication is key, both internally as well as externally. Public media usually runs on a theoretically very well defined cause and raison d’être. However if is not lived up to and personified by the staff, as well as appreciated by all levels of society as a personal benefit, its justification will be ultimately lost beyond a point of no return. Respective results can be witnessed in a number of Central Eastern European countries, where public broadcasters went into a downward spiral of mixed causes and symptoms: lack of funding, lack of public reputation, a creative brain drain, waning program quality, quantity and variety. Twenty years after the regime changes, the current trend in media politics can even be described as a “counter-reformation” rather than a progressive transition. Today, many public media organizations in that region seem further away from stable and sound operations than ever, some of them on a continuous brink of collapse.


So getting the message across is a matter of timing. Act, before it is too late. Of course, it is also a matter of the actual product, i. e. programming in the first place.


And last but not least it is very much a question of style. Public media needs to proactively engage in dialogue with its viewers and listeners, in the most credible way possible and not only in times of a revolution, by the way.


Now here comes, finally, some good news. Sustainable achievements in media transition are not primarily a matter of money, but of will, concept and dedication – or so they say: the best things in life are free!


*Olaf Steenfadt is a German media strategy consultant and coach. This text reflects his presentation at the Arab Media Partnership Conference on 29 July, 2011 in Tunis, organized by Article19 and the BBC World Service Trust.

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