What is the "public" anyway?
This morning, I spent a few hours taking in the discussions at the International Institute of Communications conference here in Ottawa. Today was entirely devoted to the subject of public broadcasting, and the panel that everyone seemed to be keen to hear was this one:
IS PUBLIC BROADCASTING STILL VITAL IN TODAY'S WORLD? DO WE STILL NEED PUBLIC SERVICE BROADCASTERS?
What does public broadcasting bring to this new participatory media environment that differs from private broadcasters? Is it worth the investment? Is citizen journalism replacing public broadcasting? Is there still a role for public broadcasting in integrating new immigrants, fostering diversity (cultural, geographic, political) while ensuring social cohesion? Are public broadcasters nimble enough to project themselves into the future?
Moderator: Emmanuelle Latraverse, Head of Radio-Canada's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa and
Host of Les coulisses du pouvoir
- Marie-France Bazzo, Producer and Host, Les Productions Bazzo Bazzo
- Patrick Beauduin, Executive Director of Radio de Radio-Canada
- Ezra Levant, News Anchor, Sun News Network
- Glenn O'Farrell, Président et Chef de la direction, GroupeMédia TFO
- Carol Off, Co-Host, As It Happens, CBC Radio
Anyone who's aware of the Sun TV/ Conservative MP efforts to defund the CBC will understand why this panel garnered so much interest. So, how was it?The indefatigable Kady O'Malley has posted her usual, thorough liveblog of proceedings if you want to see blow-by-blow.
Major conclusion: It's the word "public" -- or more particularly, the phrase "public interest" -- that is making this debate unwieldy. There are also all kinds of other distinctions getting blurred or fuzzified whenever we discuss the place of a public broadcaster in terms of 21st-century journalism and technology.
I would have been a lot happier if the panel members, individually and collectively, helped us untangle the confused concepts. Here's my rough draft of an attempt:
Q: First, who is the "public"?
A: I guess we all agree, in this context, that it's basically us -- we Canadians.
Q: Tougher question: Who decides what's in the public interest?
A: During today's panel discussions, I heard a whole bunch of different, often conflicting answers to that question, from all the panelists. But it was the Off-Levant discussions that presented the sharpest contrasts, so I'll stay focused on them below:
- Sometimes the public interest was defined in terms of raw numbers or market forces; ie., the public votes with its TV clickers or radio dials. In that case, bigger the better -- and Off and Levant both used evidence of high ratings to back up some of their arguments. But it seems to me -- that mainly turns journalism into pure business, and I'm not sure that anyone in journalism (except the most cynical) believes it's devoid of a public-service role.
- Sometimes the public interest was linked inextricably to government. Mr. Levant tried that line a few times, accusing Ms. Off of being "a government bureaucrat" and saying that the CBC was "in bed" with the government.This of course is where that whole silliness about the "state broadcaster" versus the "public broadcaster" comes into play.
- And if you want to make that one even more mixed-up, try getting people to sort out whether the state is a synonym for the Government of Canada, the public service of Canada or the Conservative party of Canada. A classic example of this: while Mr. Levant called Ms. Off a bureaucrat, she countered with a quip about how loyalty to the state could be measured by how many cabinet ministers were willing to go on the respective networks. In that case, she said, Sun TV would be the real "state broadcaster" -- in service of the political heads of government. As well, Ms. Off stirred the pot by saying she was proud to be a public servant, presumably meaning in service of the public. But can journalists be public servants? The same way as deputy ministers or directors in those office towers? Some would argue that Off, with her proud-to-be-a-public-servant line, essentially implied that CBC staff are the same as bureaucrats, who must take orders from political masters. Got all that? Can you see why it would make anyone's head hurt? But wait -- there's more.
- Sometimes the public interest was described in terms of vague, open-to-debate values -- and that's where both sides' cases got even more blurry. Ms. Off maintained that public interest requires attention to Canada's diversity, geography, journalistic principles, etc. Who sets those terms? Not clear. Mr. Levant countered that Sun TV is also working in the public interest and its values, when it insists on accountability from the CBC. Who sets the terms of accountability? Not entirely clear either.
If all this confusion wasn't enough, I should also note that this debate is freighted with class and culture clash too. When we talk about the public, for instance, are we talking about the great unwashed, the wisdom of crowds, or the ivory tower of public learning institutions? These notions were used interchangeably as well throughout the debate.
I guess this is all to say that this public-broadcasting debate is going nowhere (or nowhere good or edifying) until we all sort out what we mean by the public. I'd love to see yet another panel tackle that idea.