Opinions - 22.06.2015 - 00:00 

Public service and public value

What do radio and television have to do in the service of the general public in future? HSG Professor Timo Meynhardt takes a look at the discussion about a fee-funded public service and the question as to whose range of programmes is best able to create a public value.


24 June 2015. According to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the ballot about the Federal Radio and Television Act has opened “Pandora’s box”. Whoever, in our time, has recourse to this mythical metaphor from antiquity intends to point to looming calamities and draw people’s attention to dangers that are difficult to control. This is the case when we examine the range of opinions on the SRG’s public service mission. The issues are money, outdated attitudes, new uncertainties and, of course, also technological progress.

The value of basic public service broadcasting

But first things first: with the wafer-thin majority in favour of the act, it was not only decided to levy the fee in the form of a compulsory fee quite unrelated to any radio and television set, but also to reduce it to 400 francs. And in fact, this wafer-thin majority in favour of the new act has only triggered off the discussion rather than putting an end to it. This is intensifying a debate in Switzerland which we have also been able to observe in other countries for years. It is conducted under the heading of service public.

In a nutshell, the question is how much we are willing to pay for basic public (i.e. government) service broadcasting (radio, television and increasingly also the internet) and whether this cannot also be provided by private channels.

In an effort to secure the legitimation for its own actions, the UK’s BBC defined its purpose in 2004 – “the BBC exists solely to create public value” – and developed a public value test for all its new programmes. The same thing has been observable in connection with Germany’s ARD and ZDF for almost ten years. In Germany, even Federal Chancellor Merkel once chimed into the also rather heated debate by describing something like the download of a “beef olive recipe” from the range of internet services provided under public law as unproblematic, thus heating up the complex discussion about the performance agreement even more.

Fallacy: private media versus public service

In Switzerland, the question concerning the public service provided by the media channels under public law only flared up very recently. It focuses on the crux of the matter – i.e. on what is supposed to be “public” and who is responsible for it. Research has a clear-cut answer to this: public service alone is unable to guarantee that public value is created – more than ever, this requires legitimising processes, such as the public value test. This is no longer about who is intended to create public value but about who is best able to do so. This shift of emphasis relieves us of the tiring fallacy of confronting government service providers with private channels. This is not about government failure versus market failure, but about public value failure.

To revert to the box metaphor again: after Pandora opened the box at Zeus’s behest, she only released all sorts of evils and vices which then brought suffering and misery upon the world, since just before the virtue of hope, the only good thing, could escape from the box, Pandora had already closed it again. Hope only found its way into the world when the box was opened for a second time. It is to be desired that the debate that has now been opened about basic public service broadcasting will not only identify all the danger, but also the opportunities that are there to enhance public value.

Bild: Photocase / ad.unger

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