A new kind of public service media is called for based on public funding and not controlled by the state or commercial interests and characterised by high concerns for quality production. In this way, argues the author of the following article, mass media can be made ‘accessible to citizens, and... used as public instruments for the benefit of citizens rather than as vehicles for reaching and persuading potential consumers and voters, and/or for generating profit and power.’ Civil society would have its ‘own’ communication system making it less vulnerable and generating a public that is more politically aware and active.
Modern democracy is usually thought of as a product of the Enlightenment, when the idea of publicity was raised to a fundamental moral principle. In his treatise, To Perpetual Peace, Immanuel Kant outlines ‘the transcendental formula of public justice: ‘All actions that affect the rights of other men are wrong if their maxim is not consistent with publicity.’ This principle is to be considered not only ethical..., but also juridical,’ he argues. Without the possibility of publicity as the fundamental principle of public agency, there would be no justice.
The reverse is also true: if a goal can only be achieved with the help of publicity, it means that there is no distrust in the underlying political maxims which are congruent with the goals and rights of all. It is, therefore, publicity alone that can guarantee the harmony between politics and morals. Publicity guarantees the legal order while it fulfils an enlightened role. Enlightenment, according to Kant, is liberation from the human impossibility of using one's own reason without being guided by someone else. From the standpoint of humanity as a whole, liberation means aspiration and progress toward a perfectly just order. Enlightened opinion endowed with publicity, and scholarly prudence are, according to Kant, the most reliable sources of human progress.
In contemporary democracies, the idea of publicity primarily refers to the media and the public sphere, where the ‘public use of reason’ or ‘public discussion’ can take place. Consequently, mass media as the site where ideas and interests can be freely presented and discussed, become a precondition for civil society. For that, two kinds of human rights have fundamental significance: (1) those related to the integrity, autonomy and personality of the individual, and (2) those related to freedom of communication. It is not possible to propose even the most limited and formal definitions of democracy without recognising the integral role of the media. Since a major goal of democratic societies is citizen participation in the political process, an actively involved public is one of the foundations of democracy. Without participation of the public in the political process, democracy lacks its legitimacy. Citizen participation in public discussion is an essential element in the process of defining societal goals that should be met again through the involvement of citizens in politics.
The fundamental significance of the mass media for the political system is based on their role in the processes of (public) opinion formation and expression: the mass media help determine and demonstrate the limits of legitimate public discussion in society. More recently, the primary function of the media for the political system is referred to as agenda setting, a concept that harks back at least to Robert E. Park (1904/1972). He observes that ‘Modern journalism, which is supposed to instruct and direct public opinion by reporting and discussing events, usually turns out to be simply a mechanism for controlling collective attention’ (p. 57; emphasis added). Also, there is a commonly accepted congruence between the order of importance that the media assign to specific issues (legitimising them as ‘public’ issues), and the order of importance attributed to the same issues by individuals in society. Those issues or events receiving a greater degree of media attention become the issues and events that are uppermost in the minds of citizens. In other words, the mass media largely define attitude objects and situations to be perceived as relevant or important by the masses.
As Weaver (1984: 689) argues in his review of empirical agenda-setting studies, ‘there is likely to be a relationship among media emphasis on an issue, the salience of that issue, and public opinion regarding actors (persons or institutions) associated with the issue.’ The congruence does not necessarily imply a causal relationship between distinct rank orderings of issues or agendas; they may interact in a much more complex way. However, when discussing the role of the media for the formation and expression of public opinion, it is largely assumed that the agendas presented by the mass media do have an impact on their recipients. The media seem to be particularly influential in making some issues more salient than others. They have - either as means of expression of public opinion or as instruments of influence - a crucial role in the democratic political process, regardless of whether they create the agendas on their own or merely reflect those created in/by other components of society. For these reasons they attract regulative efforts in all democratic societies.
Whatever interests policy actors may pursue, they are likely to be more efficient when attempting to influence the actions of others by controlling their access to information and opinions disseminated through the media and the use of information relevant to their actions. During the twentieth century, overt censorship has been mostly replaced by more sophisticated forms of information subsidies, as Gandy (1982) calls these attempts to reduce - either directly or indirectly - the costs of receiving and/or (re)producing information and to make information available to other participants in the process at a reduced rate or for free. Information subsidy presupposes that access to information is limited. It inhibits free (political) expression by forcing the mass media to conform to the political or commercial beliefs and expectations of subsidisers. Authoritarian and paternalistic forms of information subsidy run parallel to commercial forms, at times as substitutes and occasionally jointly in securing control over the media. Links between the agents of political power and mass media ownership may be inevitable in a market economy, but they are, nonetheless, disturbing.
Whatever the direction of their influence, the mass media represent the most effective influence system in contemporary society. Individual and group recipients need media services to fulfil a variety of needs and interests related to their immediate, narrow environment of a private life and to broad matters of public policy, relevant for (public) opinion formation: to increase their certainty, to ‘test’ social reality, and even to identify the ‘climate of opinion’ in a society. Because of their enduring and important consequences, mass media services to the public are so important that they require public regulation to help eventually transform them into public services, and mass media into public service media. The general idea of regulation is based, as Dewey (1927/1991) once put it, on the need to regulate remote and long-run consequences of human transactions. The mass media apparently do not represent the only component in democratic processes that calls for public regulation. The twentieth century represents an era of the growth of public law, and one of its basic characteristic is the creation of a variety of statutory regulations and bodies which govern and control diverse matters of public concern and policy. They include, among others, safety in the workplace, public health, environmental protection, schooling, sexual and race relations, public services, commercial standards, transportation, communications and, last but not least, the mass media.
(Non)market regulation and private ownership of the media
The question of how to advance the democratisation of communication and media primarily applies to media regulation. The forms of regulation so far developed to democratise communication are basically directed to materialise the right to receive, i.e. the passive right to communicate. This becomes particularly clear with the definition of the common normative framework of public service broadcasting (PSB) which started to develop during the 1920s in Europe. Basically, the idea of PSB implies four postulates: (1) PSB serves three basic functions for its audiences: education, information, and entertainment; (2) PSB serves different tastes ranging from high-brow (elites) to lowbrow (popular); (3) PSB must assure universal reception of broadcasting programmes in the national territory and maintain an appropriate level of technical quality of its transmissions; and (4) PSB must supply programming for ethnic, linguistic, regional, religious, and other minorities.
PSB faced a crisis in the 1980s due to the development of new communication technologies and, more primarily, an emerging ideology of privatisation. But the realistic question at the moment is not, as Mulgan (1991: 259) suggests, ‘whether there will be forms of public intervention in the future, but rather what form they could and should take, and how collective freedoms can be reconciled with those of individuals and minorities.’ According to Mulgan, at least three types of regulation and public control seem likely to survive in the future as necessary conditions for the realisation of individual freedom and diversity: (1) traditional contents regulation of the core mass media; regulators, governments and other public institutions will retain some role as a medium for public opinion, standards and values; (2) infrastructure policies to ensure universal access to basic communication networks of society; and (3) policies and laws regulating common standards to allow for interconnectivity and providing free public services, organisation of common menus, and directory information services to guarantee easy access and competition among information providers.
Yet, the idea that the media are far too important to be left to market forces, and that specific, non-market forms of regulation are needed to make the media socially serviceable, goes back to at least the nineteenth century. In the age of Enlightenment, the principle of publicity and the public use of reason were adversary to the sphere of economics and its dominant freedom of private ownership. To conceive of freedom of public expression as a special form of freedom of ownership is an idea of the mid-1800s, although related to an earlier, liberal free market model. There, independent producers and consumers sought agreement over the type, quality and price of products. It is a ‘classic inconsistency’ if the press were exempted from the general rules of business, according to the representative of the bourgeois class in Karl Marx's Debatten über Pressfreiheit (1842/1974). Likewise, for Walter Lippmann - eighty years later - it is an ‘anomaly of our civilization’ that a ‘community applies one ethical measure to the press and another to trade or manufacture,’ instead of treating the press as ‘a business pure and simple’(1922/1960: 321).
Indeed, during the 1920s, the idea of regulating the press is an intriguing and controversial issue. In contrast to Lippmann, Dewey, Hayes and Tönnies emphasise in their theories of public opinion the fundamental - although often ambiguous and contradictory - role of the press. They criticise the fact that its role is often underestimated or even completely overlooked and that its manipulative practice consequently needs substantial reforms. Similarly to Marx's criticism of commercialisation, Tönnies argues for a needed press reform that should basically attain the following objectives:
- ∑ the best instructed and educated men in every city establish a completely independent newspaper;
- ∑ all recognised political parties retain space to introduce and explain events;
- ∑ the newspaper is independent of advertisers through large circulation, there is no need for a party press;
- ∑ only trustworthy firms receive space for advertising;
- ∑ voices of people find their direct expression in the newspaper;
- ∑ sensationalism is excluded;
- ∑ major articles are so unbiased, without passion, and objective that any opinion is accepted with attention and trust;
- ∑ the newspaper has its own wire service, free from ‘the lying wires and the poisoned source of Reuters, Havas, Northcliffe, and the yellow financial-imperialist press,’ these are common enemies of humankind and should be destroyed (Tönnies, 1922: 575).
- In 1920s America, Edward C. Hayes also demands that newspapers give priority to ideas which emerge in a free discussion and not to money: newspapers be forced by law to assign equal space to each of the most powerful parties in last elections (Wilson, 1962: 81). Essentially, Tönnies considers these suggestions significant for Germany, too, similar to Bauer's appeals to stop sensationalism and the violation of ‘the sanctity of private life.’ Nevertheless, as much as these goals seem significant, they also seem unattainable. The proposals are valuable, however, because they call critical attention to the unfavourable facts in the press which, according to Tönnies, could only be reformed from the inside: ‘The necessity of such a reform itself must spring up as public opinion, and it would be an effective, possibly the most effective means of self-education for the opinion of the public,’ as Tönnies ends his Kritik der öffentlichen Meinung (1922: 575).
The modern development of electronic media challenges - due to specific technological possibilities and needs for regulation - the nature of press freedom established with the newspapers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In fact, with the rapid development of radio broadcasting and the growth of its political and commercial power, reformational ideas are redirected from the press to broadcasting. The development of broadcast media is based on the use of the electromagnetic spectrum that (1) is considered a public good and (2) must be technically regulated and co-ordinated like any traffic. Thus, private or public broadcasting companies which are licensed by governmental or parliamentary institutions have special obligations to perform public services.
However, the idea of radical diversity pertaining to the electronic media is delusive. Despite the changes brought about by new communication technologies, traditional or ‘modern’ questions and processes of influence, consensuality, opinion expression, (political) competence, identity, freedom, equality, access, and media regulation continue to have fundamental importance for the development of communication in the ‘postmodern’ society. Changes brought about during the centuries are evolutionary rather than revolutionary. New communication technologies may, indeed, have a revolutionary character in the technological sense, but its social consequences cannot revolutionise the cultural, political and economic continuity.
The problem of regulation does not concern only its institutionally arranged forms. Even if a communication organisation is not a governmental agency, there are many informal ways for government to exert influence over the media, and the media have many opportunities to effect government. Most importantly, a media industry - supposed to be subject to regulation - becomes a very powerful partner of political actors, and such a partnership decreases the autonomy of the regulative bodies. The increase of mutual influence between the political and economic establishment and the media steadily transforms a once open liberal press market with diversified supply of newspapers into highly concentrated mass communication systems in terms of products, formats, markets, and firms.
However, in the partnership of the political and economic establishment, only the former is usually considered responsible for violating individual and corporate rights and freedoms. Although broadcast media are often treated as significantly different from the press, the idea of the pure marketplace in broadcasting becomes apotheosised as the guarantor of the right of free speech with no less zeal. As Fowler and Brenner (1983: 671) argue, ‘Although the advertiser, rather than the consumer, pays for the programme, market forces still move the key resource - time on an exclusive broadcasting frequency - towards its highest and best use.’ The ‘highest and best use’ of broadcasting frequencies is - according to the free marketplace advocates - profit maximisation. Radio listeners and TV viewers are not the genuine consumers on the broadcasting market: ‘The market that a new stations enters comprises not simply existing broadcast facilities, but all competitors for the advertising dollar, from newspapers to billboards’ (Fowler and Brenner, 1983: 672; emphases added). From this perspective, the ‘genuine consumers’ are those who seem to pay directly for broadcast programming - the advertisers. Citizens are only observers of this process which takes place in the marketplace, and their ‘ultimate control’ lies only in the ‘take it or leave it’ principle. As Fowler and Brenner believe, such regulation is perfectly in accord with the principles of free inquiry and expression: ‘Those who deliver popular, acceptable speech have little reason to fear the rebuke of the majority. Only words and ideas that trouble or confound need the special aid of constitutional protection.’ In sum, if a commercial station wants to maximise its profit, it must provide the service consumers most desire - no other regulation is needed to satisfy the interests of the people. Thus, it is argued that in democracy, public service broadcasting should only be retained with exceptions and to a strictly limited extent as a kind of ‘merit goods,’ like public parks, museums and libraries, or religious and educational institutions.
The belief that free competition gets all significant opinions into the marketplace is either naive or ignorant in a period of globalised monopolisation. The notion of a free marketplace of ideas rests on a number of false assumptions: (1) that everyone has free access to the market, either as supplier or consumer; (2) that profit maximisation is in the common interest rather than in the interest of a minority of owners; (3) that the marketplace gratifies not only the majority interest with specific contents but also diverse minority interests; and (4) that it does not presuppose a large enough marketplace for profitable broadcasting or publishing. But in fact, a substantial number of (potential) readers, listeners, and viewers - without leanings towards majority interests and preferences which the media tend to meet - may be excluded. Beggars cannot be choosers. The delivery of only ‘acceptable speech’ by the media and the avoidance of information, aimed at compromising, reciprocal influence and innovations, would eventually lead to the stagnation of society not only regarding democracy but development, in general.
During the early development of the mass media at the time of liberal capitalism, a free market system may have quite accurately approximated an ideal press freedom. During the later period of media monopolisation, however, the abstract principle of freedom of the press proves unsatisfactory; it can neither limit the manipulative practices of the press nor stimulate substantial reforms. Consequently, individuals can say what they want today, provided that it is interesting for a sufficiently large audience to assure media of profitable circulation or audience shares, which also means primarily a large enough interest among potential advertisers. In fact, freedom of the press privileges corporate subjects over the rights of citizens. Minorities of various kinds are rarely visible in public - despite technological possibilities - because their interests and opinions may not coincide with those of the majority, and the resulting decrease in circulation or audience shares would reduce advertising income. Indeed, the measure of importance for an opinion in the free market place of ideas is its commercial efficiency.
Nevertheless, the new market liberalism insists that market competition of the media is the most important precondition for their freedom. This argument rests on the invalid assumption that the basic freedom of ownership - because everyone has the right to private property - guarantees both freedom of the media (their independence from the state) and freedom of citizens (free choice among different media and contents). In fact, this remains an ideal type of a free market of the media concept which does not exist in practice due to the processes of capital concentration and centralisation. Thus, the ‘free’ media market is largely oligopolised, and ‘free’ choice is severely limited by forced supply.
Even for producers, the free market does not ensure free access to the deregulated market place, due to the required levels of investment for entering the market, rising programme production costs, and/or already existing oligopolies (particularly due to the syndication of entertainment programmes). In Blumler's words (1991: 9), the gathering momentum of organisational concentration and conglomeration in mass communications tends to limit the opportunities for independent producers to offer profitably something different from mainstream supply, and foster the standardisation of programme supplies across the entire media (particularly television) industry. At the same time, media pluralism is jeopardised by the risk that the main channels of public access may eventually be controlled by a small number of strategically placed and minimally accountable gatekeepers.
Public service vs. public ownership
When rethinking the principles of democratic media, we should ask ourselves, what is the historical rationale for the transformation of interactive social communication as a generic ability and human need into one-way mass communication which is most profitable? Due to numerous conceptual changes and controversies arising during the last decades, a clearly and accurately defined concept of publicity is needed primarily for normative aims, because all democratic societies are facing a similar problem. How can old and new media be made accessible to citizens, and how can they be used as public instruments for the benefit of citizens rather than as vehicles for reaching and persuading potential consumers and voters, and/or for generating profit and power?
Yet, is the principle of publicity as the foundation of media regulation workable at all? An affirmative answer results from gradual progressiveness: the efforts to democratise communication should be directed towards general reforms and re-regulations of communication networks and mass media. Hoynes postulates four fundamental communicative principles (1994, 168-176) to operationalise the ideal of democratic communication:
- 1. the principle of diversity which requires the provision of a variety of perspectives created by the plurality of groups and political differences;
- 3. the principle of participation which is based on the need to develop structures for active citizen involvement;
- 5. the principle of interaction to allow more than one-way communication;
- 7. the principle of criticism which is based on the necessity to critically compare different (political) orientations and opinions.
- Hoynes argues that these principles can only be materialised under the conditions of social ownership which is the most crucial principle, for it alone facilitates the implementation of all other principles. But in fact, the process of reappropriating generic communication abilities and means through the socialisation of (mass) communication is far too complex to be accomplished by a single act of transforming private into public ownership. The modern history of socialism clearly falsifies the utopians who believe that such effective revolutionary actions are possible and can be accomplished once and forever - even regardless of historical circumstances. Social relationships do not allow for radical changes as a consequence of a single, one-dimensional action in any sphere of human activity; and there is no reason to believe that the sphere of communication is an exception. Thus, there is little chance for mass communication to be democratically reordered and genuinely socialised by just legally abolishing one form of media ownership or by any other, similar action.
During the last century, the role of the most significant agents of power - political parties and powerful economic actors - has significantly changed. The two spheres opposing the public are regulated by different principles: the political sphere by the principle of maximising power and the economic sphere by the principle of maximising profit. Both principles meet in the communication sphere, but neither of them can provide for diversity, participation, interaction, and criticism. Mass communication processes are subordinated to the principles dominant in the political and economic spheres through different forms of information subsidy and (indirect) control exercised by the state or private corporations - from censorship and propaganda to advertising and political marketing. The fundamental rights of individuals in civil society are shifted, by and large, to legal entities (corporations, political parties, and the state) which dominate the mass media either directly as owners or indirectly as influential sources of information and opinions, advertisers, and information subsidisers. Although it is extremely difficult to reveal the indirect influence of corporate politics on editorial decisions, it has been confirmed in a number of cases (e.g. Bagdikian, 1983).
Yet, the contradictions between the political and economic autonomy of the media cannot be solved by either political or economic means. As a matter of principle, the idea of ‘reappropriation’ should not be understood in terms of property relations. In contrast to a commonplace equalisation of notions of socialisation and nationalisation of private property and its transformation into state or ‘public’ property, the idea of mass media as public goods and services does not imply the ‘expropriation’ of private media ownership. In his plea for the Great Community, John Dewey (1927/1991: 82) convincingly argues against socialists who demand that the ‘industry should be taken out of private hands,’ stressing that ‘the public has no hands except those of individual human beings.’ If individuals abuse concentrated political power to serve private interests, they will also abuse concentrated economic power on behalf of non-public efforts.
In other words, demands that media should cease to be regulated by the principle of profit maximisation and start functioning for the benefit of citizens, do not refer to the question of ownership, but to regulation. Public service media are increasingly surrounded by a private economy, which - because of its commercial interest - substantially limits their production autonomy (Negt and Kluge, 1973: 191). As a consequence, even public service media react to the environment as business companies; for example, audience measurements become a kind of ‘television money’ that determines the value of programming; media respond to the same management rules of other companies, and they are directly involved in transactions with private suppliers of programmes and equipment, who are often in a monopoly position. Hence, there is a social need to liberate the media from their subordination to free market principles.
Media democratisation requires specific forms of regulation regarding specific aims - to limit power and control over the media in the hands of commercial and political actors, to serve the political and economic autonomy of the media, to thwart the development of powerful coalitions between the state, capital and the media, and to encourage citizen access to the media. Media democratisation should provide opportunities for relatively equal access for all citizens to influence the mass media: the separation of powers should establish (at least in a normative-ideal sense) a democratic balance between the spheres of politics, economics, and culture as specific sources of societal integration and development. In short, the idea of socialisation of the media denotes the need to acknowledge the social - rather than merely political or commercial - nature of communication. The common denominator of these processes should be the socialisation of the central mass media and communication infrastructure, a process with four basic components:
- 1. social management and control of the media and communication infrastructure;
- 3. provision of financial resources (social information subsidies) for mass media operations based on the principles of solidarity and reciprocity of all citizens;
- 5. social influence (direct and indirect) of citizens on the formulation and implementation of communication and media policies and programmes, and
- 7. ‘primary’ socialisation of the population into all forms of communication through education (e.g., media education) because only the socialised citizens can help to materialise the principle of publicity and participate in media socialisation.
- Although there may be some serious doubts about concrete forms of legal regulation of media operations, it is also clear that the market place alone or in combination with political (party) pluralism, does not guarantee equality in freedom. Obviously, market forces can both expand and reduce the democratic potentials of the media. The market is only a terrain for different policies and coalitions, but media systems are established, maintained and eventually abolished by political decisions. Since media development requires an economic underpinning, a rich diversity of media can only exist in a prosperous economy which is impossible to separate from a market-based system of advanced post-industrial societies. Whereas the absence of a market economy makes the media politically dependent, the opposite does not hold true: a market economy cannot guarantee media autonomy. It is also unavoidable that a state which rigidly controls the economy, cannot tolerate the kind of political competition that independent media would represent. Yet, as the state is also the safeguard of civil society, it must regulate the media to serve democracy.
The principle of publicity should be rethought as a fundamental principle of media regulations that guarantees legal order in general, stimulates rational discussion or public use of reason, and fosters the enlightening role of the media. There is a need to create a new kind of public service media to be based on public funding and not controlled by the state or commercial interests and characterised by high concerns for quality production. Users (audiences) are to be defined or define themselves in terms of social and collective needs - in contrast to consumers who are defined in terms of privatised individual desires.
Such a new public media system certainly cannot be the only alternative; rather, it should compete with media developed by the state (paternal systems) and the market (commercial systems). But the fact that civil society has its ‘own’ communication system makes it less vulnerable than the present system, due to the portion of communication power civil society will gain and generate. This could have important implications for citizens' interest in public issues, because only a clear awareness of public issues facing society can generate a politically active public.
This is a shorter version of a paper presented at the colloquium on ‘Media ownership and control in East and Central Europe’, sponsored by WACC, the Slovenian Broadcasting Council, and the Ministry of Science and Technology of the Republic of Slovenia. Piran, Slovenia, 8-10 April 1999.
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Slavko Splichal is Professor of Communication at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. He is founder (1987) and convenor of the annual International Colloquia on Communication and Culture, director of the European Institute for Communication and Culture, and Editor of its journal Javnost-The Public. He has been member of the editorial boards of Journal of Communication, Journalism Studies, Gazette, Reseaux, and Zeszyty Prasoznawcze. His most recent publication is the book Public Opinion: Theoretical Developments and Controversies in the 20th Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 1999).