Expert: Broadcast regulators should be independent

Not only public service media, but also its regulators should be independent from any pressure, and their only responsibility is to do their job bona fide and in a manner transparent to the public, said Boris Bergant, adviser and former vice-president of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) in an interview to Latvian Radio held today.

Latvian Radio (LR): You are in Latvia to participate in a discussion about politicians trying to dismiss the media supervisor. What's your take on the situation?

Bergant (B): I'm representing the European Broadcasting union. It is a professional broadcasting union of 75 radio and television organizations in 55 countries. Latvian Television and Latvian Radio are active members in the union. Our duty is, in the spirit of solidarity, to follow the media scene in Europe and try to preserve and develop the format of public service media.

We want to develop this idea and not to allow its dismissal, and it's possible that, if we'll be leaving the framework of public service media, there'll be derogation of the whole idea. Wherever we can, we are supporting the idea, and we offer arguments and share best practices. 

LR: Often there is confusion what is public service media. Briefly, and down to earth - what is it, and why it's good?

B: It's very important for Latvia as you used to have state broadcasting. State broadcasting is very simple. It is run by the state, it is oriented towards the states, it says the things that the state, politicians, and parties want to be delivered. But it gives one-sided information.

Public service media is totally different. It was created to serve civilians, to serve citizens, the public. Not politicians, not the state. Therefore the control of public service media should be public, should be independent of politics and the state as much as possible.

You can never exclude politics out of media, particularly electronic media, but you could and should limit it. One of the main tasks of public service media is to control the government, the parliament in the interests of citizens. You can do it only if you're independent.

From a number of principles of public broadcasting, the most important is that we can work only if we are independent. Independence means you need funds for that, but independent funds. Through licensing fees, or through budget as in your country. It is not important how you're funded, but it's important that the funding is sustainable and which is absolutely not tampered by political or any other influence.

Quality is also very important. Quality is what should distinguish public service from commercial broadcasting. Because the only goal of commercial media is to earn money. We need money to make programs. We also must offer all sorts of programming. Minority programs, culture, drama, music, shaping the national identity.

In doing so, we have to be transparent. Whatever we do, we do it for the citizens, and we have to be accountable in front of the citizen body. We have to be open for ideas, initiatives, comments and of course criticism.

LR: A Latvian MP openly admitted that she often calls media leaders to complain for news she doesn't like. How acceptable is that? Is it a sign that there is a desire for state media, for state news?

Well, everybody has a right to comment and express one's opinions, and the duty of public service media is to be open to everybody. If such phone calls and comments are meant to politically influencing the media, then it is, of course, bad.

Politicians should refrain from intervening in broadcasting, because they have to keep in mind - we are the ones that control them. And we need independence to do that. However, we are also responsible for quality and credibility. We have to reflect the facts such as they are, not in the way we want to see them.

Then come the democratic processes and the regulatory agencies. Their members are elected, probably, because they are, at the moment of their election, experts in their field. They are to work independently and not be responsible for their work in front of anyone. Their only task is to do their work the best possible way and to be transparent.

LR: There were opinions that saying the current situation with the broadcast regulator is a threat to press freedom is an overreaction. What do you think, is it, or is it not a threat to media freedom and independence?

B: There is no single model with which to work. It is a model of ethics and a dialogue with society. Of course, a dialogue is much better than a dictate. But all of the sides in the dialogue should know the limits. 

LR: It's always hard to tell the limits. Perhaps you have a rule of thumb to separate accountability of the media from unacceptable influence?

B: Yes, of course. Public service media has to follow its own limits. Part of them is a compromise about what the society needs. And not every society needs the same. Nowadays, we pay a lot of attention to programs for young people and which are shown in a contemporary way. Because today's youngsters will be tomorrow's our permanent audience, so we have to influence the literacy of the media. So we have the same critical audience to watch and to read and to listen.

But there has to be a limit. The parliament doesn't seek control over the government, as it's executive power. In the bundle of public institutions, public broadcasting has its own role. If we allow a single segment of society to dictate to us what to do, the outcome will be very bad.

LR: We talked quite a lot about Latvia, but, seeing the issue from a broader perspective, is the situation unique in Latvia or does the EBU help and work with many broadcasters in Europe facing similar problems?

B: The situation is the same everywhere. A number of elites - politicians, owners of capital, or any other part of society - try to influence the public service media. It could even be called normal. However, if one of these powers tries to impose its own opinion or to lead public media, it is not normal and it is not right.

LR: While staying here in Riga you have advised, on your way to Kiev, Georgian and Ukrainian public media. A wave of propaganda can be seen today and this propaganda is mixed with real news, and that's why powerful and independent media in Europe and Eastern Europe are more important than ever. What's the overall situation?

B: I have experienced the Cold War, the 50s, 60s and 70s of the last century and the real propaganda between the West and the East. There have been programs that were prohibited from being distributed within the country and we had electronic devices blocking the audience from hearing or seeing Western programming. Back then I though that we would never have to face to the same again, but unfortunately we are.

But I am convinced that society has changed in these 20, 30 years. That's why you're not dependent on one medium, you can always turn your receiver to something else. I think propaganda has nothing to do with journalism, and the only way to fight propaganda is to offer real journalism - reliable and quality journalism. If your viewers and listeners will believe you, trust you and see that you offer the best and the most credible information, you can have 20 propaganda transmitters, but they won't reach their goals.

I have been a professional journalist for 46 years and I think that the biggest challenge is to develop and to broaden all what journalism can offer, as creatively as possible. It can be historical information, commentaries, analysis, investigative journalism. If you are able to do that, your audience will value it greatly. You can forget about the machinery of propaganda. It is ephemeral and cannot live through the ages - and the economy plays its role in this as well. This should be the answer.

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