January 26, 2023 – In the century since the world’s oldest public broadcaster, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), began operating, people around the world have benefited from international public broadcasters that share reliable information. Even with the rise of social media and competing services, their global footprint remains significant. The BBC reached a record 489 million people worldwide in 2020–21. France Médias Monde, which manages services like France 24 and Radio France Internationale (RFI), produces content in 20 languages.

These organizations may be taken for granted at home, but their global audiences rely on them as they navigate far more restrictive realities. Some 13 million people tuned into the BBC from Iran in 2021, for example; Tehran restricts access to foreign outlets, regularly disrupts internet access, and allows no domestic media diversity. That intolerance is on vivid display as authorities continue to target reporters covering protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini in September 2022.

And yet, even well-established public broadcasters face growing pressure and hostility in their own backyard, as governments tinker with their internal governance and funding. Their reach and effectiveness are at risk, as is people’s access to reliable information.

Wielding the axe

Much of the ongoing debate on the future of public media has revolved around the funding that underpins their editorial output and independence, as governments consider cost, perceived value, and the behavior of media consumers who are shaken by ongoing cost-of-living crises.

While constructive debate and reform is healthy and necessary, governments should be careful not to succumb to short-term desires that carry longer term risks. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) voiced this concern when it covered recent events in France; President Emmanuel Macron pledged to abolish the license fee that funds outlets including France 24 and RFI during his 2022 reelection campaign, which the parliament quickly fulfilled. Affected outlets will instead rely on a value-added tax until 2024, sparking concern over what will happen after.

The United Kingdom’s ruling Conservative Party, which has long pondered the BBC’s license fee, has also used cost-of-living concerns to justify their decisions. In January 2022, then culture secretary Nadine Dorries cited that issue when announcing a two-year license fee freeze. That April, Dorries proposed a new funding model altogether. Within months, the BBC announced layoffs at the World Service and the replacement of Arabic- and Persian-language radio services with digital offerings, citing the freeze. Staff objected to a plan to move colleagues responsible for Vietnamese-language content from London to Thailand, where enforced disappearance is a real risk.

Beyond the practical consequences of these cuts, any funding reform must be weighed against the risk of political interference, which only increases as governments exert more explicit budgetary control. Examples of this can be found even in strong democracies. In 2019, an Australian Senate committee criticized the government’s use of “funding as a lever to exert political influence” within the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). Accusations of open partisanship also surfaced at the BBC; in August 2022, former presenter Emily Maitlis accused Robbie Gibb, a prominent Conservative and BBC board member, of actively influencing its output (which the BBC denied).

The wrong targets

Broadcasters in established democracies are being pressured at a particularly sensitive time, especially as state and nonstate actors warp public and electoral life by manipulating the spread of information. The Chinese regime is particularly dogged in advancing its narrative through state-controlled outlets. Who is best placed to combat these trends? Many countries have a ready answer if they possess public outlets engaging in trustworthy journalism.

And even in a more polarized era, they are widely accepted as doing just that. A 2020 report from the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford noted that British news consumers across the political spectrum trust the BBC. It also found that audiences in Finland, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain continue to rely on public content, even as they peruse other outlets and social media. In a 2020 Reuters Institute survey, Australians chose the ABC as their most-trusted news brand. Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) and the BBC placed second and third, representing a clean sweep of the podium for public broadcasters.

Reputable outlets are also responsive to outside criticism, enhancing their nations’ democratic openness and resilience. Australia’s SBS had relied on China Central Television and China Global Television, both state-controlled, for Chinese-language content. But it took civil society feedback to heart when it suspended that arrangement in March 2021, after human rights organization Safeguard Defenders noted the Chinese outlets’ practice of airing forced confessions.

Ensuring a bright future for broadcasters to defend democracy

The structure of these broadcasters should not be preserved in amber; they must balance their own interests, respect media-sector diversity, and address the concerns of the feepaying public and civil society. But regulators and politicians should not lose sight of how important and effective these broadcasters are even as they consider reforms. They would do their citizens, and the world’s, a service by embracing outlets that backstop the free flow of information.

Luckily, the tide may be turning. In February 2022, Australia’s Liberal-National coalition increased ABC funding after years of cuts. The Labor government that succeeded it vowed to introduce a five-year funding cycle and improve the broadcaster’s financial outlook. European initiatives also promise heightened collaboration between, and support for, public outlets. In 2021, the European Broadcasting Union launched A European Perspective, a newsroom tasked with combating disinformation. Last September, the European Commission proposed the European Media Freedom Act, which would address funding stability for public outlets and provide other safeguards against political interference.

More headlines like this would be a welcome opening to a second century for public media. But reform should not presage retreat, especially when the consequences to democracy are so profound; as we noted in the 2022 edition of Freedom in the World, the capturing of a nation’s public media precedes a greater narrowing of its society. Democratic leaders should instead promote a continued understanding of why these outlets matter, secure an affordable and sustainable future for them, and illustrate how they combat authoritarianism by doing what they already do best.

Jessica White is Senior Research Analyist for Media and Democracy. David Meijer is Associate Editor.

Freedom House is founded on the core conviction that freedom flourishes in democratic nations where governments are accountable to their people; the rule of law prevails; and freedoms of expression, association, and belief, as well as respect for the rights of women, minority communities, and historically marginalized groups, are guaranteed. www.freedomhouse.org