by Silvie Rohr

The traditional concept of national public media has transformed. Nowadays, the media landscape consists of a multi-layered sphere, in which especially online and social networks are increasingly important in engaging and shaping the public discourse. In this sense, the role of public service media in a functioning democratic community and its’ impact on the public opinion needs to be taken into question.

The web and social media have relinked civil society, propelling collective action into a completely new dimension. These technologies represent a shift in democratic responsibility from institutional media to digital communities. Obviously, democracy at present is not only exercised at the ballot box, but lived and experienced online on a daily basis. The increasingly important role of digital media can be illustrated by a number of examples: The internet played a central role in the Euromaidan protests that caused long-lasting political turmoil in Ukraine 2013. Similarly, Iceland’s social media network was instrumental in the resignation of Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson over the Panama papers scandal. The election of Donald J. Trump in the United States is perhaps the contrasting case of how the internet can play a fundamental role in political processes.

However, the democratising and empowering functions of the internet and social media might be exaggerated on the backdrop of many problems: whilst the ability for open participation is one of the web’s greatest advantages, it represents at the same time a massive threat to individual rights and security due to the almost holistic lack of any rules of behaviour and anonymity.

Aside from a number of other challenges, the substantial difficulty to the engaging functions of the world wide web is its’ content: the sheer volume of information available creates shorter attention spans in which important news are quickly supplanted by new developments elsewhere. The pressure to get on track and to deliver new content, concludes in an enormous existence of unreliable sources and fake information that are partially used for the systematic manipulation of public opinion. The existence of Russia’s troll factories is one of the best examples for this development.

The above issues ought to prompt one to reconsider the role of public access media in enhancing civic engagement and tackling the deficits of the web. The public service media (PSM) could play a key role as important sources of information, helping activist groups and individuals obtain and disseminate information. Apart from being universally accessible, PSM such as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) have proved a credible and trustworthy source of information.

It is true, that PSM face many challenges as well. This includes foremost the pressure generated by the rapid technological change and the dilemma between the obligation to safeguard citizenship ambitions and support market principles. A number of further obstacles such as internal governance issues or regulatory restrictions may hold PSM institutions back or prevent them from innovating.

Nevertheless, in order to use the immense potential of PSM and to make them fit for purpose, it is necessary to rethink the old frameworks and develop new concepts, in particular for public participation and interaction in the digital age. There is an increasing number of means for the public to be involved, ranging from the creation of content to comment and conversation.

In order to strengthen the connection between the PSM institutions and the public, tools such as crowdsourcing should be used to stimulate the discourse as well as the production of content by using technology-driven innovation.

A modern approach to governance also includes a reform of the legal framework; how the actors behave within the framework and the relationship with external stakeholders: audiences, public authorities, economic players and civil society. This can protect PSM from being misused by less democratic and transparent governments as media propaganda tool.

In general, the scope and pace of technological development has increased. Therefore, the requirement for innovation and efficiency in the media industry has become both more urgent and more challenging. If public service media want to successfully fulfil their public service obligation and democratic role in the new digital media environment, they need effective management and must be open to innovation, new ideas and perspectives.

06 May 2017
This text was published in Bullseye issue 68