In Western Europe, the notion of public service in the media was originally associated with traditional public-service broadcasters. However, since the 1990s, the general idea of public-service broadcasting and the continuing need for it in a digitized, content-abundant environment have been questioned. In particular, public-service broadcasters’ online activities have triggered controversial discussions and policy responses, not least because of direct competition with online services of the private media. At the same time, discussions have emerged about the meaning of public service and attendant concepts such as public value, challenging the hitherto commonly accepted attachment of the concept to a specific technology (broadcasting) and a specific—publicly procured and financed—organizational setting. In response to this and backed by politics, public-service broadcasters have reinvented themselves as public-service media. They have expanded their remit beyond television and radio into multimedia realms such as the Internet and, in addition to this, have started devoting new attention to the general public as their prime target of accountability—thus opposed to the original exclusive accountability to politics. Such accountability has been pursued, among other things, through direct cooperation with the public or other ways of connecting with it, for example, through personalization efforts and participatory formats. Although the public has rhetorically become the prime target of accountability, there is little discussion or acknowledgement of the actual perceptions that the public has about the general idea of public service and how public-service broadcasters accomplish this task. With few exceptions, studies continue the dominant paradigm of audience research, which construes the public almost exclusively as consumers.
The public sphere is a social entity with an important function and powerful effects in modern, democratic societies. The idea of the public sphere rests on the conviction that people living in a society, regardless of their age, gender, religion, economic or social status, professional position, sexual orientation, ethnicity, race, or nationality, should be able to publicly express their thoughts, ideas, and opinions about issues that matter to them and impact their lives. This expression should be as free as possible in form and function and should operate through means and methods that people themselves deem suitable, so not via channels that are official or state-sanctioned. The classic Habermasian idea of the public sphere is that it is used by private individuals (not officials or politicians) who should be able to converse with each other in a public-spirited way to develop opinions that impact state or public-body decisions and policies. Also contained within this classic idea is the conviction that public sphere conversations should be rational (i.e., logical, evidence-based, and properly motivated and argued using an acceptable set of rhetorical devices) in order to convince others of the usefulness of a position, statement, or opinion. In commonsensical, political, and journalistic understandings, the public sphere is a critical component of a democracy that enables ordinary citizens to act as interlocutors to those who hold power and thereby hold them to account. As such it is one of the elements whereby democracy as a system is able to claim legitimacy as the “rule of the people.” Journalism’s imbrication in the social imaginary of the public sphere dates back to 17th- and 18th-century Europe when venues like coffee houses, clubs, and private homes, and media like newspapers and newsletters were being used by a mixture of gentry, nobility, and an emerging middle class of traders and merchants and other educated thinkers to disseminate information and express ideas. The conviction that journalism was the key vehicle for the conveyance of information and ideas of public import was then imbedded in the foundations of the practice of modern journalism and in the form exported from Western Europe to the rest of the world. Journalism’s role as a key institution within and vehicle of the public sphere was thus born. Allied to this was the conviction that journalism, via this public sphere role and working on behalf of the public interest (roughly understood as the consensus of opinions formed in the public sphere), should hold political, social, and economic powers to account. Journalists are therefore understood to be crucial proxies for the millions of people in a democracy who cannot easily wield on their own the collective voices that journalism with its institutional bases can produce.