Auditing Public Broadcasting, Vol. 10 - 2003, No. 3
In most West European countries public service broadcasting (PSB) is in a state of flux, if not in crisis. Across the board, organisations are loosing their audience, particularly among the younger viewers, they are confronted with a critical and sometimes hostile political environment, and the self-evidence of their financial support or even their raison d’etre is put into question, not least by their competitors. In short: they are often fighting for support and struggling to survive. What’s been going on here in the last ten, twenty years that merits such lamentation and is prompting a discussion about its mission and responsibilities? Do PSBs still deserve their preferential treatment in the broadcasting market, what responsibilities does that then entail, and how are they held to account for their “public” performance? A short overview is an introduction to a special issue on the theoretical grounding of, and empirical experiences with, auditing public broadcasting performance.
As public broadcasting in Europe has declined in relative terms in the overall supply of television broadcasting, its activities have become more subject to scrutiny, both by regulatory authorities and by its competitors. The result is a threat of greater control and less genuine independence. In some countries, the price exacted for continuing financial support is increased accountability according to more narrowly defined criteria of performance. The central argument of this article is that public broadcasting should in principle enjoy the same freedom to publish as other media, within the limits of its special legal and constitutional position. Further, freedom should not be an obstacle to meeting social responsibilities and may even contribute to this goal. This view is supported by a closer look at the nature of media accountability, which has to be clearly differentiated from regulation and control.
This article discusses the rationale and purposes of the expanding assessment of public service broadcasting from the perspectives of performance evaluation in public administration and media management. The author argues that increased assessment of public broadcasters is part of a movement toward better oversight of a range of public social services that is designed to improve service effectiveness. The article explores economic and managerial approaches to assessment that are increasingly augmenting traditional content and audience assessment practices in public broadcasting. It introduces and illustrates a variety of types of economic and managerial measures that provide insight into the operations and effectiveness of public service broadcasters and explores what they reveal to assessors and managers and the implications of those measures.
Public service broadcasting (PSB) in its traditional form is the product of a long gone era. Social, technological, ideological and cultural change has altered the entire context within which public broadcasting operates. Also media policy has evolved, moving beyond its “public service” phase to a new paradigm, devoted primarily to economic goals. With these changes, attitudes to PSB are changing, too. It is increasingly treated as an exception to the “normal” market-based rules governing broadcasting, indeed an anomaly. In this paper we will seek to ascertain the effects of these changed attitudes, especially in terms of efforts to develop a precise definition of public broadcasting, and of evolution from “autonomy” to a “controlled public service” model of PSB. This involves a multitude of accountability systems, designed to ensure that PSB remains true to its remit and performs the service it was created to deliver. Defining public service broadcasting is notoriously difficult, all the more so that at least 9 models appear in European debates. Also developing accountability systems for PSB is far from easy because of the many contradictory views of the “product” that PSB is expected to “deliver.” The question of auditing is part of a much wider debate on what public broadcasting needs to do to become more relevant to society today and how it needs to safeguard its own future. The main problem, however, is that imposition of “box-ticking” accountability systems based on outdated concepts to an institution in the midst of redefining itself could stop its modernization and thwart its ability to find a new identity in a much-changed context.
This paper outlines the rise during the 1990s of numerous audit and accountability processes within the BBC. It draws on an ethnographic study of the BBC carried out in the later 1990s, which generated an analysis of the internal impact of these changes on the corporation. The paper frames this development within the larger political and governmental contexts to which it was a response. At the same time it notes the absence in this period of significant progress on the part of the BBC in reforming its governance arrangements, a source of continuing criticism of the corporation, and one cause of the voracious growth of auditing. The analysis stresses the visible performance of accountability as an attempted means of strengthening the BBC’s legitimation. It is argued that the processes brought a kind of institutionalised reflexivity to the corporation. At the same time audit and accountability had certain deleterious effects, stoking the growth of tiers of new management, which became an onerous burden on the production arms of the BBC and eroded their creative capacities. The paper therefore questions the utility of the kind and the degree of accountability and audit processes to which the BBC has been subject. It points to an irony: while the implementation of these policies responded to governmental pressures, the BBC’s elaborate performance of accountability and audit has done little to defend it against further encroachment by government in the form of accelerating reviews of its services and delivery.
New responsibility and accountability mechanisms for public broadcasters (PSB), such as the broadcast audits recently introduced in the Netherlands, are meant to modernize the relationship between public broadcasters and their audiences. These new ways of organizing public broadcasting’s social responsibility are a response to recent trends in broadcast policies – e.g. the advent of dual broadcast systems and therefore stricter legitimation needs and competition rules for PSBs – as well as more general trends in society – e.g. the end of stable ideologies, individualization processes and the emergence of more self-conscious citizens. Consequently the mission statements of public broadcasters have become much more explicit in recent years, and the same holds for the ways in which they accept public obligations and report about their performance in public. The tradition of political responsibility, based on explicit law and regulation but in practice often a tango of political and broadcasting elites, is now being supplemented by new forms of public accountability in which PSBs try to establish a more direct feedback with the public. The article, finally, looks at the present broadcast assessment process in the Netherlands. Based on both research evidence and personal experience of the author, questions are raised such as: how does it work, what are the first experiences and does it seem to be a viable model for other countries? Despite risks of politicization and bureaucratization, public broadcast assessments promise to offer a useful new instrument for both internal quality control and external legitimation.
The four national broadcasters in Sweden are required by Parliament to present annually self audited public service reports, on how they fulfil their chartered service obligations. Reports have been submitted since 1997. An independent Broadcasting Commission reviews the reports to make sure they meet the needs of the ultimate recipients of the report: the government and the public at large. The purpose of the self-audited performance reports is two-fold: to stimulate public discussion about public service broadcasting and to be useful in the political evaluation of these services. The reports published so far have not led to much public discussion. Its first Parliamentary use will come when a special committee prepares a report to Parliament on the future of public service broadcasting for the next charter period from 2006.