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The potential of reforming state broadcasters in divided societies: Advancing an unfashionable argument

James Deane's picture

BBC Media Action's Director of Policy and Learning argues for an urgent rethinking of what is often considered a relic of the past - the state broadcaster - to encourage discussion, dialogue and understanding across communities in fragile states.

Young child listens on a mobile telephoneMost commentaries on 21st-century media focus on the impact of new technologies, social media and, above all, the increasing global ubiquity of mobile telephony. Such commentaries highlight how in many, if not most, societies, the majority of people are under the age of 30 and are reinventing how humanity communicates with itself. The focus is on innovation, on digital replacing analogue, on an old order of mass, vertical forms of communication being supplanted by horizontal, digitally enabled networks.

Speaking personally, I have advanced at one time or another all these tenets and continue (mostly) to do so. This blog, however, marks the publication of a set of BBC Media Action policy and research outputs I’ve commissioned which collectively advance some unfashionable arguments.

We focus particularly on the role of media in fragile and divided societies and especially on what can be done to support media that transcends, rather than exacerbates, divisions in society. We argue that, for all the innovation, dynamism and potential that exists, there are growing signs that publics are less and less trusting of the media that is available to them. Media environments appear more dynamic, interactive and complex, but much of media – both traditional and social – exists to advance particular agendas or interests in society rather than to serve a public. 21st-century fragmentation of media environments has often been accompanied by an associated fracturing of media often owned, controlled or heavily influenced by particular political, factional, ethnic or religious interests. Such fracturing often applies to both social and traditional media.

Weekly wire: The global forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture

World of NewsThese are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

Lagarde-ian of the Galaxy
The Huffington Post
The morning scene at New York’s Carlyle Hotel is about the most perfect illustration of the term “power breakfast” that you could envision. On the ground floor of the opulent art deco hotel—a longtime favorite of American presidents, and the preferred Manhattan residence of visitors from Princess Diana to Mick Jagger to George Clooney—impeccably attired men enjoyed the buffet as several different security details milled about the lobby. Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, was sitting at a secluded table with an aide. Since Lagarde, 59, replaced Dominique Strauss-Kahn at the IMF—a formerly staid institution created in 1944 to ensure financial stability largely through the maintenance of exchange rates—she has found herself at the center of not one but several global emergencies.

The Complexities of Global Protests
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Major protests have occurred around the world with increasing frequency since the second half of the 2000s. Given the superficial resemblance of such events to each other— especially the dramatic images of masses of people in the streets—the temptation exists to reach for sweeping, general conclusions about what is happening. Yet it is in fact the heterogeneity of this current wave of protests that is its defining characteristic. The spike in global protests is becoming a major trend in international politics, but care is needed in ascertaining the precise nature and impact of the phenomenon.

Weekly Wire: The Global Forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture

These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

Many in Emerging and Developing Nations Disconnected from Politics
Pew Research
In recent years, high-profile protest movements have erupted in several emerging and developing countries, roiling, and sometimes overturning, the political status quo in Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, Ukraine, Brazil, Thailand and other nations. Millions have demonstrated, and activists have pioneered new forms of online engagement.  However, a recent Pew Research Center survey finds that many people in these nations remain relatively disconnected from politics. Although most vote in elections, few take part in other forms of political participation.
21st-century censorship
Columbia Journalism Review
Two beliefs safely inhabit the canon of contemporary thinking about journalism. The first is that the internet is the most powerful force disrupting the news media. The second is that the internet and the communication and information tools it spawned, like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, are shifting power from governments to civil society and to individual bloggers, netizens, or “citizen journalists.”  It is hard to disagree with these two beliefs. Yet they obscure evidence that governments are having as much success as the internet in disrupting independent media and determining the information that reaches society. Moreover, in many poor countries or in those with autocratic regimes, government actions are more important than the internet in defining how information is produced and consumed, and by whom. 

The Perils of Biased Communication II: Fragile States

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

In my last blog post I wrote about the dangers of biased communication to a fair and level political playing field. In Western media systems the political polarization of media reporting (I hesitate to call it "news") is a somewhat recent phenomenon, but it's stark reality in countries where the media is owned by the government or a few influential political factions. Biased communication is not only problematic with regards to misinformation of the public.

In fragile states in particular biased communication can keep conflict alive, stir up unrest among the population, and endanger the formation of one unified idea of a nation. In fragile and post-conflict countries, communication, including the mass media, should ideally contribute to restoring a shared national identity and strengthen citizens' loyalty to their country. But consider the case of, for instance, Iraq: Ownership of private media is in the hands of competing political and ethnic factions. Their respective broadcasts reflect conflicting agendas, potentially widening the gap between Iraq’s communities, weakening a sense of national belonging and furthering the development of competing identities along sectarian lines, setting the country on a course of partition.

Control over State-Owned Media Equals Control over the State?

Hannah Bowen's picture

Demonstrations this week in Cote d’Ivoire prompt a number of troubling questions, including what it means to be a “state broadcaster” when who heads the state is in dispute. The influence of state-run broadcasters may be diminishing across much of sub-Saharan Africa, but their potential impact on fragile democratic institutions has been highlighted this week in west Africa. Who controls the airwaves may turn out to be instrumental in who shapes public perceptions, and through them, political reality – the protestors in Cote d’Ivoire know this, choosing of all institutions as the focus of their protest, the state-run television station.   

Is Rhetorical Restraint for Wimps?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

I am so fed up with public affairs broadcast media in the US right now that I avoid them as one would avoid a madman howling in the marketplace. The noise level is so high it deafens. Almost every public affairs broadcast is overrun by sundry shouters and ranters. They are called 'bloviators'. There is no middle ground on any issue, no penumbras. Everything is either black or white. The intensity is so great you are always hoping that the next election will lead to a lessening of the noise level. But, no, the intensity continues unabated. What is worse, leading broadcasters and political figures have given themselves permission to say anything...just about anything. To escape the vehemence of it all, I find myself retreating into the embrace of the BBC, France 24 and such outlets because (1) they cover the rest of the world as though it mattered, which it does, and (2) they don't threaten my equanimity with profligate intensity and verbal incontinence.

The ‘New’ Politics of Public Service Broadcasting in South Africa: Is the SABC Insulated?

Fackson Banda's picture

One can be forgiven for suggesting that the South African Broadcasting Corporation is a microcosm of South Africa’s changing political landscape. In a way, this correlation between politics and state broadcasting has always been the ‘curse’ of the SABC, the legally sanctioned provider of public service broadcasting in the country. Prior to the ‘blessing’ of the multiparty democratic elections of 1994, the ruling National Party used the state broadcaster to inculcate the ideology of apartheid or racial separatism. 14 years after ushering in a multiparty dispensation, there is a sense of political déjà vu in the operations of the SABC.

The operational chaos being witnessed at the SABC is indicative of the fast changing political terrain in South Africa. Under the SABC Charter, the SABC is governed by a board of directors. Board nominees are vetted by a relevant portfolio committee of Parliament.

'Broadcasting, Voice, and Accountability'

Sina Odugbemi's picture

New policy and practice fields need intellectual energy; otherwise they don’t go anywhere quickly. Those promoting the new fields need to be producing justificatory essays, applied research, good practice manuals, policy briefs, evaluations, articles in refereed journals...and blogs too! They should be bombarding policy makers with all kinds of output of good quality; and they should be organizing the field as a serious discipline.