Guy Berger
Guy Berger

Finding a way forward as African broadcast reform falters

Transformation of African state-owned broadcasters into proper public-service institutions has come to a standstill.

For instance, Zambia’s progressive laws passed in 2002 have yet to be implemented. In role-model South Africa, the crisis around the SABC shows the need for a major re-design of the public broadcaster, but parliament is focussed only on getting rid of the extant board.

In the face of such disappointments, media development activists are wondering where to now.

Debating the matter this week was a meeting in Cape Town convened by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.

A prepared paper by Libby Lloyd painted a gloomy picture of the regional impasse in reforming government-controlled broadcasters in Southern Africa.

Her conclusion, in effect, is to ask whether the alternative is to promote the production of public service content in other sectors of the broadcast spectrum.

The point: if those who call themselves “public service broadcasters” are not in fact doing public service, can other broadcasters do it?

Of course, it depends on what you see as “public service” broadcasting. Traditionally it means a state-owned BBC-style auntie who should be politically impartial, and who should promote national integration as well as provide for the diverse cultural and linguistic needs of the nation.

It is also supposed to cover service to minority interests and filling unprofitable gaps ignored by market-placed players.

Libby’s paper starts with this kind of ideal, and the result is a picture of a glass that is probably 80% empty. Commercialised and partisan government-controlled broadcasters with limited local content are the more common feature in much of Africa.

But if you start your analysis by looking at the practice, rather than the ideal standard, a different picture emerges. I suggested this approach in a response to Libby’s perspective.

My suggestion was: let’s see what’s working for audiences and what in practice they value in a state-owned broadcaster. This gives a basis for recognising patches of public service and then identifying what can be expanded, enlarged, added to. The perspective then becomes: we’ve got 30%, can this be grown?

Probably, many state-owned broadcasters will never reach even 50% performance in total. But they could certainly be better, at least in areas that are less politically sensitive but nevertheless of public importance.

This approach does risk giving credibility to the non-public service parts of the whole. That has to be weighed against piecemeal potential for work to advance public service content.

If tackling the big picture is not working, why not be smart and work on the parts?

How to do this? One idea is to build a coalition of interests among the interest groups who want certain kinds of communications services from state media. Then help ensure that this plurality is represented there.

The strategy would depend of course on power, practicalities and prospects in a given country at a given point in time.

It doesn’t have to be as grand as convening a forum like a “Media Parliament”, although that could be one option. But it certainly is a different approach to recent futile attempts to persuade broadcasters and governments to change under their own volition.

On the other hand, an additional strategy altogether is possible. This would acknowledge not only the stubborn resistance to reform of state-owned broadcasters and regulators, but something else. Namely, the worldwide decline in public service broadcasting.

The irreversible trend, it seems, is fragmentation in traditional broadcasting in general. That’s something which problematises the whole idea of a singular “public” (and thence the national integration component) within the basic conception of public service broadcasting. It brings to the fore the less ambitious notion of narrow-casting niche public services and hybrid possibilities for broadcasting public(s) service(s).

There is also the global trend of a parallel evolution of new media and its impact on traditional broadcasting. This points to public service communications, rather than one-way public service broadcasting. And it highlights the rise of many other players in producing and disseminating audio and video content. These are not only the prerogative of broadcasters, but of YouTube and various 3G citizen journalism clips — disseminated via desktop computer or a cellphone.

Take these trends of fragmentation and new media, and put them together with the unbearable costs of digital migration for most African countries. It means that the whole ballgame of promoting public service broadcasting is increasingly up for grabs.