Habermas and Public Sphere



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CHAPTER I: Public Service Broadcasting
I. The Public Sphere
Jürgen Habermas’ seminal The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere1 (1989; German original published in 1962) provides a basis for discussions of the public sphere/s in contemporary societies. In the following I attempt to summarize Habermas’ thesis and place it within the framework of recent debates on the public sphere/s2 and media.

In his historical narrative informed by the Frankfurt School tradition Habermas traces the development of the bourgeois public sphere and its consequent transformation. According to him, the bourgeois public sphere reached its peak in the early to mid-19th century. Habermas argues that the public sphere emerged as a space in which private individuals came together as a public3 to use their own reason to discuss the power of the state. The bourgeois public sphere thus came into existence as a result of struggle against despotic states. The development of competitive market capitalism led to the creation of institutions within civil society that occupied a space distinct from both the economy and the state. These institutions included newspapers, debating societies, salons and coffee houses. Although Habermas understands the bourgeois public sphere of the early 19th century as an ideal model, a peak of rational discussion, he identifies problems with its universalism. To be part of the public at the time meant to belong to the property-owning class and to be literate. Habermas also points out that the emergence of the bourgeois public sphere went together with an institutionalization of privateness, with the constitution of a clear distinction between public and private.

With the height of laissez-faire capitalism the public sphere underwent significant, and according to Habermas detrimental, changes. The decline of the public sphere is connected with rapid social developments, industrialization, urbanization, growth of literacy and popular press and other related factors. These changes, to use Dahlgren’s (1991:4) summary, resulted in “a blurring of the distinction between public and private in political and economic affairs, a rationalization and shrinking of the private intimate sphere (family life) and the gradual shift from an (albeit limited) public of political and cultural debaters to a public of mass consumers.” The mutual penetration of state and society (which Habermas terms refeudalization) dissolved a private sphere, also the basis for a relatively homogeneous public composed of private citizens engaged in a rational-critical debate was threatened and competing organized private interests invaded the public sphere. The rational-critical debate that characterized the bourgeois public sphere at its peak was replaced by consumption (or such a debate is entirely shaped by the media) and for Habermas it continues to exist as a public sphere in appearance only. Further changes in the public sphere followed with the emergence of the welfare state. Habermas argues that public opinion is no longer the result of rational debate but the outcome of media engineering. The public sphere has become a platform for advertising and the press has become mere trade. In order to restore the function of the public sphere, Habermas proposes a discourse-centred theory of democracy, according to which a majority decision must be a “rationally motivated but fallible result of a discussion concerning the judicious resolution of a problem, a discussion that has come temporarily to a close because coming to a decision could no longer be postponed” (1997: 450). Thus a political public sphere would be characterized by at least two crosscutting processes: communicative generation of legitimate power and a deployment of media power to procure mass loyalty, consumer demand and compliance with systematic imperatives (1997: 452).

This brief summary of Habermas’ arguments does not by any means aim at providing a full account of his thesis. Rather, my aim is to draw attention to the role that Habermas attributed to mass media in the disintegration of the public sphere and to discuss whether he understands mass media as playing any other than a negative/destructive role in relation to the public sphere. In the summary I have already alluded to Habermas’ views on the press, he identifies a particular problem which is a consequence of the conflation of journalism and literature and results in conjuring a peculiar reality, even a conflation of different levels of reality: “instead of doing justice to reality, [journalism] has a tendency to present a substitute more palatable for consumption and more likely to give rise to an impersonal indulgence in stimulating relaxation than to a public use of reason” (1989: 170) . However bleak this picture may seem, it was to get worse with the emergence of radio and television.

With the arrival of new media [radio and television] the form of communication as such has changed; they have had an impact, therefore, more penetrating (in the strict sense of the word) than was ever possible for the press. Under the pressure of the “Don’t talk back!” the conduct of the public assumes a different form. In comparison with printed communications the programs sent by the new media curtail the reactions of their recipients in a peculiar way. They draw the eyes and ears of the public under their spell but at the same time, by taking away its distance, place it under “tutelage,” which is to say they deprive it of the opportunity to say something and to disagree. The critical discussion of the reading public tends to give way to “exchanges about tastes and preferences” between consumers – even the talk about what is consumed, “the examination of tastes,” becomes part of consumption itself (ibid.: 171).
In more concrete terms Habermas identifies the degree of economic concentration and technological-organizational co-ordination in media as a threat to the critical functions of publicist institutions. In respect of this problem he points out that due to the high degree of concentration, governments often opted for putting media under public control rather than private ownership. “Thus the original basis of the publicist institutions, at least in their most advanced sectors, became practically reversed. According to the liberal model of the public sphere, the institutions of the public engaged in rational-critical debate were protected from interference by public authority by virtue of their being in the hands of private people” (ibid.: 188).

Habermas’ concept of the bourgeois public sphere and its transformation has been criticized mainly on three grounds (Dahlgren, 1991, Garnham, 1990, Fraser, 1993). Firstly, although Habermas admits the exclusionary nature of the bourgeois public sphere in terms of class, he omits the question of gender altogether. Secondly, he remains silent on alternative public spheres. In this respect the work of Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge (Jameson, 1993) provides an interesting comparison, with their notion of a proletarian counter-public sphere. However, Polan (1993) convincingly argues that Negt and Kluge tend to idealize this counter-public sphere similarly to Habermas’ idealization of the bourgeois public sphere. And finally, as Peter Dahlgren points out, Habermas’ Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere is characterized by an “absence of reference to the complexities and contradictions of meaning production” as well as “to the concrete social settings and cultural resources at work” (1991:6).

Habermas (1997) himself acknowledges that some of his arguments need revision and in particular that his “diagnosis of a unilinear development from a politically active public to one withdrawn into a bad privacy, from a ‘culture-debating to a culture-consuming public’ is too simplistic” (1997:438). Yet, he maintains that the bourgeois public sphere as it existed in the early 19th century provides an ideal model, arguing that a single political public sphere that is built on the principles of communicative action can serve contemporary societies.

Nicholas Garnham (1986) stresses two shortcomings in relation to Habermas’ understanding of the public sphere. First, the relation of the concept to the historical reality of class division and class politics, he, however, points out that despite the validity of this criticism we do not need to give up on the universalistic possibility of a general public sphere. Secondly, argues Garnham, Habermas conceives of public sphere on an individualistic basis, “an assumption, which seems to me wholly unrealistic, that all participants possess complete information and engage in all debates,” (ibid.: 44) consequently the concept cannot at its present form deal with the political problem of mediation and equally there is no space left for the social role and power of expertise and expert knowledge nor for the role and social interests associated with knowledge broking. “Thus it becomes difficult to handle the problem of the role of those who in fact manage the conduct of the information-gathering and debate which is the Public Sphere's raison d'étre, namely, in particular, journalists and politicians themselves. It is a further result of this weakness that the theory has no place for what I regard as an essential and central organizing institution within the Public Sphere, the political party” (ibid: 45).

Despite these criticisms Garnham maintains that three key components of Habermas’ thesis are essential in an understanding of the public sphere/s in contemporary societies. Firstly, Habermas focuses on “the indissoluble link between the institutions and practices of mass communication and the institutions and practices of democratic societies” (1997:360). Secondly, he stresses the “necessary material resource base for any public sphere” (1997:360) and finally Garnham praises Habermas for his avoidance of the simple dichotomy of free market versus state control in his distinction of the public sphere from both state and market that enables him to discuss the question of threats to democracy from both of them. Garnham believes that these arguments have particular relevance in contemporary societies as the emergence of global markets as centres of private economic power undermines the nation state and new public spheres and political institutions are needed for the control of the global polity and economy. Moreover, he goes on to argue, public broadcasting institutions are themselves undergoing changes with the development of new media and the progressive destruction of public service media.4

Nancy Fraser’s critique (1993) of Habermas’ argument relates closely to the issues raised by Garnham. She argues that revisionist historiography questions four assumptions central to Habermas’, “bourgeois masculinist” (1997: 117), understanding of the public sphere. Firstly, it challenges the assumption that “societal equality is not a necessary condition for political democracy” (1997:117). Secondly, it questions that a multiplicity of public spheres is a step away from democracy. Thirdly, it undermines the assumption that discourse in public spheres is devoted solely to public good, leaving private interests and issues undesirable. And finally, the assumption that a functioning democratic public sphere requires a sharp separation between civil society and state is not necessarily a valid one.

Regarding the notion that rational debate in the public sphere should promote public good, Fraser suggests that there should be no restrictions on topics debated in the public sphere as there is no guarantee that the outcome of a deliberative action will be the discovery of common good.

One of the central questions that has been explored by critics of Habermas’ argument is whether there is or has ever been a single public and consequently a single public sphere. Bruce Robbins convincingly argues that historical narratives (Habermas’ among them) in which an idea of a lost public is evoked miss a crucial point.

The appearance of the public in these historical narratives is something of a conjuring trick. For whom was the city once more public than now? Was it ever open to the scrutiny and participation, let alone under the control, of the majority? Was there ever a time when intellectuals were really authorized to speak to the people as a whole about the interests of the people as a whole? If so, where were the workers, the women, the lesbians, the gay men, the African Americans? (Robbins, 1993: viii; original emphasis).
More insight can be gained if “one moves away from the universalizing ideal of a single public and attends instead to the actual multiplicity of distinct and overlapping public discourses, public spheres, and scenes of evaluation that already exist, but that the usual idealizations have screened from view” (1993: xii).

Fraser argues that a single public sphere does not provide an arena for subordinated groups in which they can discuss their needs, objectives and strategies, “they would have no venues in which to undertake communicative processes that were not, as it were, under the supervision of dominant groups” (Fraser 1997:123). The existence of multiple public spheres would enhance participation in the sense of “being able to speak in one’s own voice, and thereby simultaneously to construct and express one's cultural identity through idiom and style” (1997: 126). Moreover, public spheres are not spaces of zero-degree culture, they “consist in culturally specific institutions, including, for example, various journals and various geographies of urban space. These institutions may be understood as culturally specific rhetorical lenses that filter and alter the utterances they frame; they can accommodate some expressive models and not others” (1997:126). Privileging a single seemingly all-inclusive public sphere thus results not only in a reduction of these diverse modes of expression but indeed in a privileging of a dominant mode. In her conclusion Fraser states that what we ultimately need is “a critical political sociology of a form of public life in which multiple but unequal publics participate” (Fraser, 1997:128).

John Keane argues that there are

empirical reasons alone why the concept of ‘public spheres’ should be brought to bear on phenomena as disparate as computer networking, citizens’ initiatives, newspaper circulation, satellite broadcasting, and children playing video games. … Public spheres can and do develop within various realms of civil society and state institutions, including within the supposed enemy territory of consumer markets and within the world of power that lies beyond the reach of nation-states, the Hobbesian world conventionally dominated by shadowy agreements, suited diplomacy, business transactions, and war and rumours of war (Keane 1995:16).


While I agree with Keane’s suggestion that multiple public spheres actually exist in contemporary societies, I would argue that it is not enough to explore existing public spheres in a redemptive fashion and categorize them (Keane distinguishes among micro, meso and macro public spheres) rather one needs to theorize and explore the power relations and conflicts within them and among them as well as how these are translated into political action. I agree with Nicholas Garnham who argues that by defining public spheres Keane abandons “the problem the term was designed to address – namely how can the promise of democracy be realized” (1995:23).

It is clear from the above that media are in the centre of discussions about the public sphere/s, yet there are also larger questions at stake such as allocation of resources, equality and justice5. As Todd Gitlin rightly points out “if it be argued that a single public sphere is unnecessary as long as segments constitute their own deliberative assemblies, such an argument presumes a rough equivalence of resources for the purposes of assuring overall justice” (1998:173).


  1. Public Sphere and Public Service Media

John Keane suggests that in contemporary societies “the public sphere ideal is linked to the institution of public service broadcasting, which is seen to have an elective affinity with public life and to be the best guarantee of its survival in the era of state-organized, consumer capitalism” (1995:3). Carpignano et al. argue that in the debates about mass media, politics and the public sphere “there is a common ground, a mutual acceptance of basic premises, shared by participating politicians, conservative ideologues, and leftist cultural critics. Its unquestionable truism is that the mass media today are the public sphere and that this is the reason for the degradation of public life if not its disappearance” (1993:93). Charles Husband argues that mass media are “a core element in civil society and a fundamental prerequisite for the promotion of civic trust in complex multi-ethnic societies” (1998: 136).

In classical liberal theory media are understood as crucial in providing “the space between government and society in which private individuals exercise formal and informal control over the state: formal control through the election of governments and informal through the pressure of public opinion” (Curran, 1991:29). The media play a central role in this process as they distribute information as well as facilitate the formation of public opinion and provide an independent forum for debate. “The media are thus the principal institutions of the public sphere or, in the rhetoric of nineteenth-century liberalism, ‘the fourth estate of the realm’” (Curran, 1991:29).6 It thus seems to be a widely accepted fact that mass media indeed are the public sphere.7

The focus of this dissertation is broadcasting which was in Europe originally conceived as a service to the public, the spectrum was understood as a “public natural resource” (Schiller in Feintuck, 1999: 26). According to Hall (1993) the public service idea clearly has its basis in the claim that there is “such a thing as ‘the public interest’ – a social interest – at stake in broadcasting” (1993: 24, original emphasis), he goes on to identify some of the roles of broadcasting in modern societies (source of knowledge, creator of a discursive space, a key pass between “the governed” and “the governors”) to argue that “access to broadcasting has thus become a condition, a sine qua non, of modern citizenship” (ibid: 25, original emphasis). From the very beginning thus an affinity was identified between media and the public, in order to clarify it I briefly discuss the notion of public interest8 in relation to communication.

According to McQuail the origin of the term can be found in economic regulation, Mitnick (in McQuail, 1992: 21) derives it from medieval social theory which led to ideas of economic justice supportive of collective control over market forces.9 In modern societies we find examples of sources that are regulated in the public interest,10 these include basic infrastructure as well as basic telecommunication services. Telecommunication services are part of businesses that are considered to be “affected with a public interest” (Melody in McQuail, 1992: 21) due to the essential nature of the service, its tendency to monopoly and the requirement of universal accessibility. McQuail, however, notes that difficulties with applying the term public interest to an area like communication have their source in misunderstandings according to which features of mass communication are essential and whether interferences with free market mechanisms are justified in order to secure these.

The problematic of identifying public interest in communication is demonstrated by difficulties with finding its place in typologies of public interest. McQuail (ibid: 22-23) draws on Held’s variants of public interest theory which distinguishes three of them. The first, preponderance theory, understands public interest in a majoritarian way, i.e. it aims at maximizing the number of individual preferences. The second theory, common interest theory, refers to cases “where the interests in question are ones which all members are presumed to have in common, with little scope for dispute over preferences” (ibid: 23). The third theory Held identifies is the unitary one, which is “in effect, the assertion of some absolute normative principle, usually deriving from some larger social theory or ideology” (ibid: 23). According to McQuail, it is solely the common interest theory type which can be used for identifying public interest in communication, the other two types are insensitive or irrelevant to some key issues (including popular wants).

It is probably not surprising that apart from difficulties with pinpointing public interest in broadcasting there are also various notions about how best to ensure that broadcasting serves the public. The debate over this question has been dominated by two opposing views. On the one hand we find advocates of privately-run commercial media systems who argue that this is the way of guaranteeing independence and the market will serve the interests of all consumers – it will provide them with what they want11. However, as for example John Keane argues in The Media and Democracy (1991), unrestricted competition does not necessarily ensure freedom of entry into the market place. Moreover, free market competition restrains the choices of some and advertising, which plays a central role in market competition, reduces the supply of minority interest programmes and tends to shut off non-commercial opinions and non-market forms of life.

In contrast, we find proponents of the view that public service media can best serve the interests of consumers as well as citizens. James Curran (1998) draws upon the work of neo-Keynesians critical of the free market in broadcasting. This critique states that public service media serve “public good” without incurring additional costs, that all advertising-funded markets are imperfect as they are biased against quality (favour high ratings as opposed to highly rated programmes) and favour majority programmes which renders them insensitive to intensities of demand. Moreover, the emergence of new technologies actually increases the need for public control, as one source of monopoly (spectrum scarcity) has been replaced by the monopoly of economies of scale and scope (Curran, 1998:190). Curran very rightly points out that an alternative approach to the question of public service broadcasting takes into account the fact that people are not only consumers but also citizens within a democratic system with a right to be adequately informed about matters relating to public interest. A right, Curran argues, that is best guaranteed by public service broadcasting because “it gives due attention to public affairs, and is less dominated by drama and entertainment than market-based broadcasting generally is” (Curran, 1998:190).

Thus far my argument has involved theoretical issues concerning public service broadcasting and its proposed roles. Although in the following section I outline three types of public broadcasting systems currently existing in Western democracies it has to be noted that there are certain features that are shared by public service broadcasting in general. According to Siune and Hultén the “old order” of public broadcasting in Europe of the early 1990s shared the following defining elements: some form of accountability to the public, some element of public finance,12 regulation of content, universal service (in the territorial sense) and regulated entrance (i.e. limits to the number of competing channels) (1998:24-25). In more abstract terms Garnham identifies the strengths of public service broadcasting in the following: “(a) [it] presupposes and then tries to develop in its practice a set of social relations which are distinctly political rather than economic, and (b) at the same time attempts to insulate itself from control by the state as opposed to, and this is often forgotten, political control” (1986: 45). The now defunct Broadcasting Research Unit (from the UK) identified the principles of public service broadcasting as the following: universal accessibility (geographic); universal appeal (general tastes and interests); particular attention to minorities; contribution to a sense of national identity and community; distance from vested interests; direct funding and universality of payment; competition in good programming rather than for numbers; and guidelines that liberate rather than restrict programme makers (as quoted in Raboy , 1996: 6).

James Curran (1991) distinguishes three types13 of systems of public service media:



  • social devolutionary

We find this type for example in Italy and the Netherlands, according to McQuail (1992) it can be characterized by external diversity, i.e. various channels or time blocks are allocated to various interest groups within the society. To make the example clearer, I provide a brief description of the Dutch public broadcasting system which reflects the Dutch social system that can be summarized in one word: pillarization. “Dutch society between the beginning of the twentieth century and the mid-1960s (and notably the first 20 years after the Second World War) was a principal example of ‘segmented pluralism’, with social movements, educational and communication systems, voluntary associations and political parties organized vertically (and often cross-cutting through social strata) along the lines of religious and ideological cleavages” (Brants and McQuail, 1997:154). The Dutch public broadcasting system works on the principle of allocating access to associations with different outlooks and priorities. According to the law “a broadcasting association should aim, as laid down in its statutes, to represent some clearly stated societal, cultural, religious or philosophical stream and to direct itself in its programming to the satisfaction of some actively present social, cultural, religious or philosophical needs” (as quoted in McQuail, 1992:100). McQuail argues that the idea of diversity as expressed in the Dutch broadcasting system mainly relates “to an ‘external’ and exclusive diversity in which different ‘voices’ and outlooks have their own separate channels, rather than to the more commonly encountered ‘internal’ diversity, according to which all tastes are catered for by channels serving large, heterogeneous audiences” (McQuail, 1992:101). In practice, the “allocation of broadcasting time was based on the number of members and/or subscribers to the broadcasting magazines produced by the different organizations” (Brants and McQuail, 1997:155). Dutch public service broadcasting is financed by licence fee, advertising and membership dues and magazine subscription. Commercial broadcasting was legalized in 1990.

  • liberal corporativist

This type exists for example in Norway, Finland, Denmark and Germany, the basic principle is to ensure the participation of various interest groups in the supervisory and regulatory organs which is understood as a guarantee of diversity. In Germany the responsibility for broadcasting lies with the states of the Federal Republic, this results “in a uniquely decentralized broadcasting system with production centres in every region of the country” (Kleinsteuber, 1997:85). All broadcasting corporations are governed by an independent broadcasting council whose representatives are supposed to “reflect the ‘socially relevant groups’ of society” (Kleinsteuber, 1997:87). The representatives are either elected in the parliament or are delegated by various groups (including political parties, churches and labour organizations). Despite these provisions political parties have been able to gain influence in the Broadcasting Councils because “German parties are relatively strong in all segments of the political and social system and penetrate practically all of the ‘socially relevant groups’” (Kleinsteuber, 1997:87). In the mid-1980s commercial competition challenged the public broadcasting system and a dual system was established. Private broadcasting is regulated by special licensing and supervisory institutions. Public service broadcasting is mainly financed by a monthly licence fee and advertising revenues (limited to twenty minutes each weekday).

  • public service

This type is characterized by a high degree of internal diversity, i.e. the needs of various interest groups are catered for by a large scale of programmes on the same channels. This system is typical, for example, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The United Kingdom has a highly centralized communications system. Public

service media are guided by the principles of high quality programming with a

diversity of contents and general accessibility. Public service broadcasting in the United Kingdom tends to be central and national. Independent television companies run local television channels. The British Broadcasting Corporation is regulated by a Board of Governors, consisting of amateur regulators appointed by the government of the day. The BBC is required to commission twenty-five per cent of its programming from independent producers. It is financed by a licence fee and its Royal Charter has to be periodically renewed. Commercial television was introduced in the United Kingdom in 1955 with the establishment of the Independent Television network. “In Britain commercial television adopted the traditions of a public broadcast service. It was modelled to redress weaknesses in the BBC, to make broadcasting more sensitive to popular taste, to promote regional culture and to oppose Londonism” (Coleman and Rollet, 1997:23). In 1990 the duopolistic arrangements came to an end with the deregulation of the Independent Television network. All commercial television channels in the United Kingdom are regulated by the Independent Television Commission.

This brief description of the basic systems of public service broadcasting is not intended as a comprehensive overview but rather it was meant to illustrate that there are varieties within systems of public service broadcasting and that in each of them we can identify mechanisms that aim to ensure that the public is served in the best possible manner and that it is the public interest rather than organized partial interests (political, industrial etc.) that are served. The examples also illustrate that there are various ways of financing public service broadcasting (an issue to which I return later) and that public service broadcasters face competition from commercial broadcasters which has serious implications (not only in relation to the quality of broadcasting provided by commercial and public service broadcasters or the accessibility of broadcasting but also issues such as public aid).

There appears to be a prevalent notion that public service broadcasting is going through a crisis, or at least significant changes. Nicholas Garnham argues that “our inherited structures of public communication, those institutions within which we construct, distribute and consume symbolic forms, are undergoing a profound change” (1990:105). This change, he argues, is characterized by the ever-increasing power of the market, by a focus on television as an increasingly privatized, domestic mode of consumption, by the increasing gap between the information rich and the information poor and the shift from national to international markets in the informational and cultural spheres (1990:105). John Keane (1991) argues that there are three principal reasons for the decline of public service broadcasting14: fiscal squeeze, legitimacy problems and technological change. He argues that to treat the current public service media as “a bulwark of freedom against the confusions and limitations of commercial media” is highly problematic, just as it is problematic to think of public service media “as the paragon of quality, balance and universal accessibility. … The public service claim to representativness is a defence of virtual representation of a fictive whole, a resort to programming which simulates the actual opinions and tastes of some of those to whom it is directed” (1991:122, original emphasis). Nicholas Garnham argues that public service broadcasting is characterized by a “failure sufficiently to distinguish between two communicative functions within the public sphere: the collection and dissemination of information, and the provision of a forum for debate” (1990:111, original emphasis). Graham Murdock, draws attention to consequences for citizens when he writes that the current public broadcasting system failed to “keep pace with the proliferation of political and social discourses, has produced a crisis in the relations between public broadcasting and the viewer-as-citizen. This crisis in representation is exacerbated by the increasing tension between broadcasters, state agencies and government”15 (1992: 31).

Stuart Hall identifies four key reasons16 for the crisis of public service broadcasting: technological, economic, political and social. The technological justification (spectrum scarcity) of the existence of public service broadcasting is no longer understood as valid by many, further, Hall points out that we live in an economic and political climate of a wholesale assault on “the very idea of a ‘public sector’” (1993: 26-27) amidst the growing social diversity of the audience (or in other words social fragmentation) and “the consequent pluralisation of cultural authority, which makes it increasingly difficult for broadcasters to see society as ‘a public’ at all or to speak to it as if it were still part of a homogeneous, unified national culture” (ibid:28). Marc Raboy alerts that “problems of financing, mandate, and interpretations of purpose are all indications of a more fundamental problem of political will” (1996: 2). He goes on to argue that in relation to the broader policy framework “the principal normative question will remain: What should be the public function of broadcasting in a democracy?” (1996: 4). Garnham (1986: 39) makes the significant point that “the public service, state-regulated model, whether publicly or privately funded, has in effect always been seen, not as a positive good but as an unfortunate necessity imposed by the technical limitations of frequency scarcity”.

Carpignano et al. relate the crisis of public service broadcasting, among other factors, to “a crisis of legitimacy of news as a social institution in its role of dissemination of information about and interpretation of events (i.e., the social construction of public life)” (1993:96). James Curran (1998) gives a concise summary of Elihu Katz’s arguments about the decline of television as public broadcasting. Firstly, Katz suggests, the multiplication of television channels results in a fragmentation of the public thus “television has all but ceased to function as a shared public space. Except for occasional media events, the nation no longer gathers together” (Katz as quoted in Curran, 1998:175). Secondly, civic communication is exchanged for high rating programs due to “the combined constraints of the new media technology, the new liberal mood, the economic and political burden of public broadcasting, and the seduction of multinational corporation” (ibid.). And finally, liberal democracy itself is endangered due to the growing separation between the television system and the nation state and the presumed weakening of national identities because it is in nation states where liberal democracy is practised and national identification is crucial in maintaining involvement in the democratic project.

Underlying this argument appears to be a notion that maintaining national unity is a desirable objective. Indeed, Paddy Scannell (1992) praises public service broadcasting for achieving this objective. Smith (as quoted in Bulck, 2001: 54) alerts us to the crucial role of media in the nation building project.

In looking at the role of the media in creating a certain uniformity within the nation-state, we are in essence looking at the process of nation-building, and at how the media are consciously brought into play to construct a “national” culture and a “national” community. Nation-states must have a measure of common culture and civic ideology, a set of common understandings and aspirations, sentiments and ideas, that bind the population together in their homeland.


Van den Bulck follows the same line of argument when stating that the system of public service broadcasting can be described as a typical and vital modern institution which played a crucial role in the modern process of nation building. She applies this to the case of Flemish public service broadcasting and demonstrates that it was given “the task of contributing to the creation and development of a national identity and culture. As such it had a threefold responsibility: education (as an extension of the national educational system), information (to create a political consciousness) and entertainment (to articulate a national culture)” (2001:57). In this respect attention needs to be drawn to Hall’s identification of one of the threats to public service broadcasting: “on the basis of what cultural authority can a public service organisation speak to the nation?” (1993:31). He goes on to argue that broadcasting has a major

perhaps the critical role – to play in this “re-imagining of the nation”: not by seeking to reimpose a unity and homogeneity which has long since departed, but by becoming the open space, the “theatre” in this which cultural diversity is produced, displayed and represented, and the “forum” in which the terms of its associative life together are negotiated. ... This cultural negotiation about the terms on which the centralised culture of the nation can be reconstituted on more openly pluralistic lines, remains broadcasting’s key “public cultural” role – and one which cannot be sustained unless there is a public service idea and a system shaped in part by public service objectives to sustain it.


However, arguments relating to the role of public service media in nation building or the promotion of coherence should not only address the issue of inclusion in the mediated nation but also the equally crucial question of exclusion (Cole, 1998). The question of exclusion from public spheres is a central one as “public discursive arenas are among the most important and underrecognized sites in which social identities are constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed” (Fraser 1993: 140).

My brief overview of literature on the crisis of public service broadcasting demonstrates that it has been approached from a number of angles and the sheer volume of literature on the subject is overwhelming. Nonetheless, James Curran (1998) adopts a more cautious attitude when discussing the decline of public service broadcasting. He rightly points out that it is difficult to establish whether arguments provided by those who herald the decline of public service broadcasting hold true because there exists “a misleading convention of equating public broadcasters with public service broadcasting. Public broadcasters’ loss of audience is thus cited as evidence of systemic crisis. But, in fact, private broadcasters that are subject to effective public regulation are as much an integral part of the public service system, in the sense of serving welfare rather than purely market goals, as public broadcasters” (Curran, 1998:178).17 He identifies a serious lack in official proclamations about the role of public service broadcasting as “in none of these official documents is the facilitation of an open public dialogue or the extension of participation in collective discussion ever recognised as being an official objective of the public service system” (Curran, 1998:191). In the official canon, Curran continues, “access” is defined as access to broadcast signals (an entitlement to reception rather than expression) and “diversity” is understood in terms of delivery (mainly invoked in relation to non-political programmes) and finally public affairs coverage has to demonstrate “due impartiality” (1998:191).

In this respect it is important to remind us that the establishment of public service broadcasting was not linked only to spectrum scarcity and an understanding of the spectrum as a public good but also to the view that “broadcasting should not be part of the new publicity system for consumerism but should provide resources for citizenship, should provide the kind of information, spaces for debate that people needed in order to participate fully in the new political process” (Metykova, 2003). In this respect it is worthwhile discussing issues of citizenship and broadcasting. Graham Murdock argues that there are three important ways in which the communications system is implicated in the constitution of citizenship: 1. the communications system provides access to information that is related to personal rights; 2. it enables access to information, interpretation and debate on areas that involve public political choices and 3. citizens recognize themselves and their aspirations in the range of representations on offer within the central communications sectors and are enabled to contribute to the development and extension of these representations (1992: 21). According to him public broadcasting played four key roles in organizing the new system of representation which aimed at extending citizenship rights. It enabled a public forum where platforms of the major political parties and legitimated interest groups were presented and packaged for consumption by the public at large. Further, it provided a new source of surveillance and feedback to those in power as well as (due to being a national service) creating associations between ideals of citizenship and definitions of the nation and its culture. It also redrew the boundary between the public and private spheres (ibid.: 33).

John Keane (1991) argues that public service broadcasting would serve its role better if there existed new constitutional settlements in all Western democracies that would make the exposure and repeal of the censorial methods of the contemporary state power possible. In more general terms Keane argues for government accountability to supra-national institutions such as the international civil society which is being formed with the help of new technologies. Keane, nonetheless, admits that new technologies are not necessarily heralding radical changes, a question to which I return in the last section of this chapter. Moreover, he acknowledges that although nation states are undergoing changes, we cannot yet speak about their end thus we still need to deal with national rather than global public spheres. According to Keane the public service broadcasting system has to be radically redefined and opened up to a plurality of non-state media of communication. This process has to go together with a radical loosening of libel laws. A new constitutional settlement would also make it possible to achieve a “heterarchy” of media controlled neither by the state nor by commercial markets. For example, the BBC could remain funded by a licence fee but the present system of government appointments should be abolished.

James Curran (1998) points out similar issues when arguing for a rethinking of the rationale of public service broadcasting and the reform of its actual practice and organization. In addition, Curran argues, there is a need for a revision of the objectives of public service broadcasting in Britain which would foster a change in its style of journalism. “This is still profoundly influenced by a civil service/professional model which stresses the disinterested mediation of information, the imparting of knowledge and the impartial umpiring of differences of legitimate opinion. It is a mandarin-like conception in which the electorate, the rulers of democracy, are briefed by intelligent and responsible public servants rather than merely entertained by market spectacle” (1998:195). This change is especially important as “an over-great stress on legitimated forms of public knowledge and accredited speakers unduly restricts participation in this dialogue. Indeed, this is a constantly repeated refrain of much academic research which suggests that TV news and current affairs is often defined by elite assumptions and sources” (1998:196). There is, nonetheless, Curran suggests, a reform movement within the broadcasting community “which is intent upon extending social access and expanding the range of voices and views on air” (1998:196). This reform movement manifests itself in the form of new phone-in programs, audience participation formats and access slots.

Other authors argue that new genres provide a different way of understanding the role of public in media. Carpignano et al. (1993) argue that talk shows are the only program on which public as appearing on television gets full recognition. They propose that it is the only genre that proclaims its intention of presenting issues for public debate, moreover it is the only program whose discursive format is conversation. This points to a change in the understanding of the audience, studio audience is participating not only in the viewing but also in the actual “writing of the script”18.




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