CONFERENCE PROGRAM
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STATE MEDIA - A HISTORY OF LOST OPPORTUNITIES

 by Gwynet Henderson, independent media consultant

I should state my own position – when the transitional years began almost eleven years ago, I believed, 26 years into my BBC career, that the transformation of state media was one of the most important things that needed to happen as civil society changed and developed. That public service broadcasting, publicly and/or partly or wholly commercially funded, could and should play a key role in helping and supporting the process by becoming decent, fair and balanced, competitive services serving all sectors of the community. 

Well we failed – we failed everywhere where we have tried to help. Not that I am suggesting everything we collectively tried to do with state media has been a waste of time – of course it hasn’t – lots of people have been successfully trained and are doing an excellent job, many now in the independent sector – and there have been relative successes in a number of places – but overall the picture is still depressing.  

Why? Why has there been so little impact? The reasons are myriad and complex – and not entirely uniform across the region – although many are common. I’ll list a few :-  

1.      Everyone, including Western politicians and donors, think they understand media and what needs to happen. Very few do. And it took me a long time to realise that their expectation, all too often, was that it was the media’s job to create change by overtly playing an activist political role. Donors and western politicians all too often agreed with the stream of enthusiastic young journalists who argued fiercely with us that their job now was to support new governments during the bumpy transitional years. It was hard to persuade all of them that propaganda, however benignly intended, can never be part of decent, fair and independent media.

2.      But then politicians and power structures all over the world want to control the media whatever they may say.  No politician will willingly give up their ability to dictate to, or at best influence, the media and its output. In my country now millions are spent on ‘spin’ and the spin-doctors use all sorts of methods to influence – but it’s not so long ago since overt political intimidation and pressure were quite common.

3.      I believe we all underestimated grossly the effect of the long years of isolation and educational systems which did not encourage self-confident, independent thought. We underestimated the effects of the long years when survival meant keeping your head down and, however wrong, unkind or bad your boss/organisation was you took whatever was handed out.  The organisational cultures this engendered are yet to be worn down.

4.      We underestimated the nature of the organisational dinosaurs that were, and are still, in most places, state media. Hugely over-staffed; riddled with bureaucratic structures and procedures which meant change was petrified before it began. How can you lead radical change as a new Director when a large part of your time is spent, for example, signing requisitions for stationery yet no-one can tell you what anything costs - and the best of your staff  are holding down three jobs to survive - that's what the new generation, often parachuted in with no support, had to face. No wonder so many of them didn’t survive even a year. They had, in the main, no management skills as they are now understood – they had no staff to introduce and manage change – they had lots of consultancy reports which told them what to do but no resources or support to act on them. And above all there was no political will or support behind them. Not just in terms of deciding and enacting media legislation (it took Hungary eight years) but in terms of other legislation like labour laws. Brave, and as it turned out probably fool hardy, new Directors on occasion in desperation tried truly radical solutions - one such, to deal with massive over-staffing and a lot of dead wood, had the entire staff sacked and the useful people re-employed on contract. He didn’t survive as Director and the process was overturned.

5.      And donors didn’t help by constantly criticising the failure to change – somehow there was a belief that if you train some members of a TV news team for a month, teach them decent ethics and skills, then the out-put of a service will be revolutionised for ever. And yet we are supposed to have a sophisticated understanding of  how organisations function; about change management; about power and responsibility. We tinkered at the edges but were not prepared to be serious partners and investors for the long haul. I know of no long term programme for a state broadcaster other than an EU project for Montenegro – and that began last year and in very particular circumstances!

6.      And, of course, the new unsupported generation of top bosses could, and did, find themselves struggling with political structures which were, at best, time-consuming and sticky. Political structures which meant they were called to parliament by different interest groups two, three or four times a week to explain themselves; to defend themselves and at the same time to try and persuade the politicians what independence for the media means. And to persuade them to give them enough funding to survive in a new inflationary world – whilst facing, for the first time, fierce competition too. We encouraged, quite properly, free markets to flourish but I am not sure we recognised altogether what would be unleashed, and we failed to support appropriate and timely regulatory systems. I was delighted when one of my first trainees from the now Czech Republic wrote to tell me he was leaving Czech TV to join a new internationally funded venture – it became TV Nova and my delight is, to put it mildly, tempered! International media conglomerates are not known for their sensitivity to local situations or their commitment to the development of civil society. It is very disconcerting that TV Pink here in Yugoslavia has already found itself a substantial foreign investor.  

 

Of course I am not suggesting the media scene is nearly as depressing as the catalogue I have just rehearsed would suggest – the independent sector in many places has led the way and provides some excellent services in spite of all sorts of obstacles thrown in its way. But what needs to happen for a transformation in the state/public sector? There are, I believe a number of things.

 1)      First is to agree what we mean by public service broadcasting – what I mean is the provision of fair, balanced, decent entertaining programming which serves all sectors of the community – which provides news and current affairs in pictures and in words which take no position on issues or events – which present both accurately, in context, well-explained and comprehensively to allow the audience to make up their own minds. It means content which is free of political, commercial, religious or other influences. And which in every genre from drama to light entertainment to sport ensures that all sectors of society are served inclusively.

 2)      Second is to accept that public service is not the sole preserve of the state or wholly or partly publicly  funded media – to recognise that plurality, genuine choice for listeners and viewers is key. And that therefore all the electronic media have to play by the same rules. That editorial and ethical regulation; access to, and allocation of, frequencies; access to the advertising market; laws governing foreign and domestic ownership, employment, taxation and even health and safety, are genuinely common and commonly imposed. 

 3)      Thirdly is for governments to accept that it is the media’s job to explain the world as it is – not as the government wishes people to think it to be it. There must be depoliticisation and a clear separation between all power structures and the media, and the separation must be SEEN to be clear. Regulatory bodies which consist purely of blocks of people from different interest groups; regulatory bodies consisting purely of politicians, or regulatory bodies appointed by allegiance are unlikely to be, or be seen to be, the genuine guardians of the public interest! We have a phrase in the UK ‘the great and the good’, and by this we mean distinguished individuals from academia, the law, business, unions, the theatre, whatever who serve on public bodies. They serve as individuals not as representatives of their profession or anything else, but they bring with them experience, intellect and knowledge, and their role is to look after the interests of society as a whole. It’s not a perfect system by any means but, like capitalism, it’s probably the least bad system! 

4)      Fourthly is to accept the need for truly radical organisational reform within state media. It is not only governments who have so often failed to understand the role of media in a democracy – for all the reasons I outlined earlier, so do many of the people employed by them.  Radical organisational management change is needed – and support for this needs probably needs to be forthcoming from outside. Not, please, in the form of consultancy reports done in two weeks by people who have no history in the country and no empathy with its reality, but support in the form of long-term investment to support change management; budgeting and financial systems; human resource management; management development and robust processes; and then integrated training programmes at all levels and for all roles. It’s likely to take a good three years with external input and brave leadership. And the process must be supported by government both directly and indirectly – not least by not interfering, but even more crucially through ensuring alongside this process, proper systems are instituted for regulation, funding, transparency and accountability.

 5)  Lastly is to use the talents, skills and vision of available people – in many places those who have chosen to work in the independent media have demonstrated these in abundance. In many places too they have had to learn the hard way about management and financial survival.  They have learnt to find and build audiences – and win their trust. In an ideal world their interests are fundamentally the same as a state/public media organisation – to serve the audience well with decent, fair, independent and inclusive programming. The first people to come to the defence of a good station under attack should be journalists working for rival stations – an attack on brave work is an attack on everyone. And, of course, in the end the only real defence for all the media is public opinion – where the public does not know or understand its role it’s up to us to tell them, to explain, to involve them – and to ensure they can in turn make choices which guarantee the depoliticisation and independence of the media.


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