Future of Public Service Media – Sydney Ideas

“There’s no universal model of public service media, in terms of content, principles or funding” was the concensus of the academics who spoke at a Sydney Ideas forum, which I attended tonight. “Sydney Ideas”, by the way, is a series of regular public forums which I sometimes go along to. Despite our “BBC model” of public service media we have in Australia, the academics spoke of the diversity of public service media.

In the US, for example, they have public service media which is largely funded by the private sector. One of the characteristics of US public service media is “they spend a lot of time begging you for money”, was how Professor Andrew Calabrese described the situation. One of the consequences of the funding model, he argued, was the public radio network was stronger than the public television network. He argued the development of the online visual story-telling by US public radio might eventually see public radio overtake public television in that space.

Dr Benedetta Brevini spoke about the differing models of public service media funding in Europe, highlighting that some countries are supported by government revenue, others by a licence fee, others by commercials, and others still by a combination of all of those sources. Despite this variety, she argued, public service media had been under attack since at both an individual country level, and at a European-wide level since, about 2003, which she linked with the downturn of the European economy. Despite the policy changes, she argued, there was little evidence to support the idea that if you take public funding away, the commercial sector improves. Indeed, she further argued there’s evidence in the UK, a strong presence by the BBC in the online space, further added to the financial viability of the commercial sector. She further went on to argue, there’s a common interest for public sector media with other public focussed organisations, including museums and art galleries.

Closer to home, Dr John Keane located the development of the “BBC model/Reithian model” of public broadcasting (the same model we have in Australia pretty much) within the context of 1920s/1930 nation building. He further talked fairly disparagingly about the “moralism” of the “BBC model” as something which should be “good for you”. In the same way the arrival of radio and television in the 1920s/1930s was a key driver for this particular model, he argued current changes to technology is changing the model of public service media in ways it’s perhaps too early to adequately articulate. He did, however, note a new model of public media emerging in a number of despotic regimes where the idea of “public service” doesn’t exist, where it’s all about “public control with a touch of Hollywood” (or words to that effect). Despite the strong variation in funding models, programming models and so on, Keane went on to argue, generally speaking “public service media” stands “as an alternative to government and private sector influence”.

One of the key issues public service media has failed to do adequately in Australia, argued Dr Fiona Martin, was go through a process of evaluation. As well as the raw numbers of viewership, funding, and models of efficiency, she argued public service media companies like the ABC and SBS needed to further quantify the impact of their programming. She mentioned, for example, a study by SBS of their program, “Go Back To Where You Came From” which was able to begin to understand the impact of the program on migrant communities themselves. As a consequence of mostly focussing on domestic arguments about public sector funding, she argued organisations like the ABC, the BBC and the CBC were missing out on opportunities to co-operate on making programs and in better international-focussed journalism.

Fiona also spoke about what she thought were fallacious arguments that reducing the size of the public sector would assist the private sector, and that new technologies (the internet) would assist the “broken market” model of public sector funding. She argued the arrival of advertising competition (through publications like Daily Mail, The Guardian and so on in Australia) has lessened the journalistic activity of local publications. Further, the market was “still broke”, she argued, because you “couldn’t crowd-fund a program like The Gods Of Wheat Street”.

A further really interesting question raised by Fiona was the idea of whether “public service media” needs to be seen more broadly than media which was funded by the public, citing the example of “The Guardian”.

Although by the end (8.00pm) I was a little peckish, it was a really interesting way to spend a couple of hours on a Wednesday night, and maintained my interest throughout. It was also really nice to catch up (very briefly) with Fiona which whom I shared a house more than twenty-five years ago when we were both aspiring ABC broadcasters.


Professor Andrew Calabrese is a faculty member of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Colorado Boulder. His research centres mainly on the relationship between communication media and citizenship with an emphasis on theoretical and practical issues of media and globalization. He edits a book series called Critical Media Studies for the publisher Rowman & Littlefield and serves on editorial boards of several research journals. He is a board member of the European Institute for Communication and Culture.

John Keane is Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney and at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin (WZB). He is the Director of the Sydney Democracy Network (SDN). Renowned globally for his creative thinking about democracy, John Keane was educated at the Universities of Adelaide and Toronto and King’s College, University of Cambridge. Among his best-known books are The Media and Democracy (translated into more than 25 languages); the biography Tom Paine: A Political Life (2009); and the recently published Democracy and Media Decadence (2013). HisLife and Death of Democracy was short-listed for the 2010 Non-Fiction Prime Minister’s Literary Award. It is the first full-scale history of democracy for over a century.

Dr Benedetta Brevini is Lecturer in Communication and Media at the University of Sydney and Visiting Fellow of Centre for Law Justice and Journalism at City University She is author of Public Service Broadcasting Online: A Comparative European Policy Study of PSB 2.0 (2013) and co-editor of the volume Beyond WikiLeaks: Implications for the Future of Communications, Journalism & Society (2013). Her work has appeared in international publications such as the European Journal of Communication, Interaction: Studies in Communication and Culture, Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture, Political Communication Polcom. She is a member of the coordinating committee of the UK based Media Reform Coalition whose role is to coordinate the most effective contribution by civil society groups, academics and media campaigners to debates over media regulation, ownership and democracy.

Dr Fiona Martin is a Discovery Early Career Research Award fellow and Senior Lecturer in Convergent and Online Media at the University of Sydney. Her research investigates the uses, politics and regulation of online media (internet, web, mobile devices and IPTV) and their implications for media industry change. She has a particular interest in the evolution of public service media and is co-author and editor of The Value of Public Service Media: RIPE@2013 (2013), a contributor to Ethics for Digital Journalists (2014) and to Histories of Public Service Broadcasting Online (2012). Her current ARC funded projects are Mediating The Conversation analysing the politics and cultures of public commenting on news and opinion websites internationally, and Moving Media, investigating mobile Internet and mobile media policy for digital citizenship. Fiona is a former community and ABC radio broadcaster, a cross-media journalist and journalism educator. She tweets @media_republik and @mobileinternetz.

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