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date: 28 May 2020

Public Perceptions of Public Service in European Media

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: Europe, public-service broadcasting, public-service media, public service, public value, public interest, public, audience, audience research

Introduction

In communications research and in communications policy-making, the concept of public service in the media was originally and closely associated with traditional public-service broadcasting organizations, mainly in Western European democracies. Since their inception, these organizations have been publicly procured and financed (e.g., by license fees) and have operated under a specific public-service mandate or remit—however, at arm’s length from the state so as to guarantee their editorial independence. With liberalization, that is, with the opening of markets to competition, with convergence, increasing channel proliferation, audience fragmentation and opposition to fees, and especially with the advent of the Internet and public-service broadcasters’ concurrent and controversial online expansion, the general idea of public-service broadcasting and its institutional setting, that is, its organizational design, have come under pressure (Just & Latzer, 2011; Just, Latzer, & Saurwein, 2012). At the same time, discussions about the meaning of the term “public service” and attendant concepts such as “public interest” or, more recently, “public value” have also emerged, questioning the attachment of the concept to a specific technology (broadcasting) and to a specific organizational setting. Indicative of this are discussions that suggest freeing public-service broadcasting from a specific organization and establishing distributed, decentralized, or fund-based forms of public-service media (Donders & Raats, 2015; Fourie, 2010; Latzer, 1997; Peacock, 2004), or the general discussions about the future role and tasks of public-service broadcasters in a digitalized, content-abundant environment and ways to legitimize it (Bardoel, 2007; Bardoel & d’Haenens, 2008; Burri, 2015b; Collins, Finn, McFadyen, & Hoskins, 2001; Donders, 2012; Horowitz, 2015; Jacka, 2003; Jakubowicz, 2003; Schweizer, 2016; Syvertsen, 2003). Examples of this are Ofcom’s (Office of Communication, United Kingdom) proposal for a public-service publisher—a commissioning approach to delivering public-service content in the United Kingdom (Freedman, 2009; Ofcom, 2004, 2005, 2007); the idea of establishing an Institute for Public Interest News, a collaborative body dedicated to sustaining public-interest news in general (Cairncross, 2019); or discussions of whether public-service broadcasters could assume the role of public-service navigator (Burri, 2015a). In its most expansive form, the latter would constitute a sort of distributed media-policy initiative where public-service broadcasters assume the task of curating existing content so as to cultivate a culture of consumption diversity or at least stimulate or facilitate diversity of exposure (Burri, 2015a; Helberger, 2015; Helberger & Burri, 2015; Hoffman, Lutz, Meckel, & Ranzini, 2015).

Most importantly and in terms of legitimacy, the new European Broadcasting Communication (in force since October 2009) clarifies that all means of distribution are permissible to fulfill the public-broadcasting remit; however, it also brings about compulsory ex ante tests for new services. Accordingly, new or modified services of European public-broadcasting organizations have to be assessed with regard to their market impact and public value, the latter denoting the extent to which they meet the democratic, social, and cultural needs of a society. In accordance with the Amsterdam Protocol, the European Commission terms these Amsterdam tests (Ungerer, 2009), and they have been introduced in various countries proactively or reactively, with names such as the Public Value Test (United Kingdom), Drei-Stufen-Test (Germany), or Auftragsvorprüfung (Austria) (Bardoel & Vochteloo, 2012; Donders & Moe, 2011; Gonser & Gundlach, 2016; Gransow, 2018; Just & Latzer, 2011; Just et al., 2012; Moe, 2010). At the same time, the controversial notion of public value, which has been imported into the debate from public management theory (Moore, 1995), has also come to assume the role of a general principle against which the legitimacy of public-service broadcasting is henceforth to be judged (Just & Latzer, 2011).

Indicative of the pressure exerted on traditional public-service organizations and their quest for reinvention is also the shift in terminology from public-service broadcasting to public-service media. This is to substantiate the allegedly necessary expansion of the remit of traditional public-service broadcasters beyond television and radio into multimedia realms such as the Internet, thus to justify the transition to an enterprise in charge of providing public-service content regardless of the means of transmission—hence public-service media (e.g., Donders, Pauwels, & Loisen, 2012; Iosifidis, 2010; Jakubowicz, 2007; Lowe & Bardoel, 2007; Nissen, 2006; Tremblay, 2016). Hand in hand with this, arguments in favor of public-service broadcasting have shifted from presumably outdated techno-economic considerations (e.g., scarcity of frequencies, market failure) to value-based arguments (Nissen, 2006), including the often conjointly applied concepts of public value, accountability, responsiveness, and cooperation (Just, Büchi, & Latzer, 2017). These latter concepts refer in particular to a novel emphasis on the importance of the general public as the new target of accountability—as opposed to the original exclusive accountability of public-broadcasting organizations to politics (Bardoel, 2003; Jakubowicz, 2010; Van den Bulck, 2015). Such accountability is pursued, among other things, through direct cooperation with the public or audience or through other third-party partnerships (e.g., Debrett, 2015; Enli, 2008; Just et al., 2017; Raats, 2012; Vanhaeght, 2019; Vanhaeght & Donders, 2016). Together with this new accountability to the public, the questions of how the public perceives public service and how public-service broadcasters accomplish this task have gained relevance.

This article proceeds as follows: it first discusses the general origins of the term public service, together with the normative criteria, principles, and related concepts that have been established with regard to public-service media. Given the lack of a precise definition, these principles act as a sort of proxy for the term. Embedded in a short discussion of the new attention to the public, this article then reviews research that focuses on understanding the public perceptions of public service in the media.

Public Service: Origins, Meaning, and Operationalization in the Media

The term public service or rather “service public” has its origin in France, where it gained significance in the mid-19th century. In the first place, this was fueled by the work of the judicature of the Conseil d’État and the Tribunal des Conflits, for example in the Blanco case of 1873, in which the Tribunal des Conflits decided that the liability of the state for its employees employed as part of a public service is subject to administrative law and not civil law (Krajewski, 2011). Most importantly, however, the French public-service doctrine and similar elaborations of the term are grounded in the theoretical work of public-law scholar Léon Duguit (Duguit, 1921, 1923), who referred to public service as any “activity that has to be governmentally regulated and controlled because it is indispensable to the realisation and development of social solidarity” (Duguit, 1921 (here 2018), p. 48, emphasis added), essentially an “activity of general interest which is of such an importance to the entire collectivity that those in authority are under a duty to insure its accomplishment in an absolutely continuous manner” (Duguit, 1923, p. 431, emphasis added).

Although there is no precise universal legal definition of public service, either in France or in other jurisdictions (Krajewski, 2011; Segalla, 2006), there is general agreement about certain core elements and principles. Public service is always associated with a specific task and has an organizational and a functional dimension (Segalla, 2006). The organizational dimension refers to the assignment of the activity to the state, meaning that there must be a relationship with the state inasmuch as the state has a special responsibility for ensuring these services, although the state does not necessarily fulfill the tasks itself. Therefore, no clear legal organizational form can be derived from the notion of public service, and the service is solely defined on the basis of the general or public interest it seeks to satisfy and not with regard to who is providing the service. Consequently, private companies can also provide a public service—an idea that also underlies suggestions for public-service funds. In Switzerland, for example, public-service broadcasting is provided by a private association that is equipped with a public-service remit. The functional dimension refers to the fact that the activity is generally carried out in the public’s interest and that these services (e.g., infrastructure or content) are available for everybody according to certain principles. These core principles of public service are equality, continuity, and adaptability. They originated in France in the 1930s, established by the law professor Louis Rolland and hence known as the “Lois de Rolland” (laws of Rolland). They have come to be widely shared and recognized as constitutive of the term, and are, for example, also reflected in European policy discourses regarding public undertakings and public-service activities as well as services of general interest (European Economic and Social Committee, 2002; European Parliament, 1996, 2004; Just et al., 2017). Equality refers to the right of all users to equal, non-discriminatory access, for example in terms of prices and quality. Continuity means that the service must be offered without interruption, that is, there must be temporal and spatial continuity and an uninterrupted provision of public services, among other things, also in times of crisis. The public-service remit hence entails both privileges and obligations and the public-service operator may not discontinue the service at will or ignore unprofitable areas. Adaptability, finally, refers to the obligation but also the right of the state to constantly develop the service in line with changes in the economy or with regard to technological changes and by taking account of the public’s needs and changes to these needs (Prosser, 2005; Segalla, 2006). Recourse to these three core principles of public service also allows an appraisal of the permissibility of traditional public broadcasters’ extension of activities to the Internet (Just et al., 2017). Here especially the principle of adaptability is telling, where a positive reading would back the new strategies as long as they can be argued to serve the public interest or meet the democratic, social, and cultural needs of a society, while a negative reading would allow an institutional reorganization or even a complete withdrawal of the service.

A generally acknowledged agreement on certain characteristics of the notion of public service and the existence of widely shared associations and expectations of what it entails cannot disguise the fact, however, that there is little agreement on its meaning and no precise definition of the term. For public-service broadcasting, it is generally held that it is a contested, diffuse, and changing concept full of contradictions and variations in meaning (Moe, 2011; Scannell, 1990; Syvertsen, 1999). For example, the term is simultaneously understood, among other things, as public utility in terms of services provided and attendant ideas such as universal access or general enlightenment; as broadcasting in the service of the public sphere, thus in the fulfillment of civic duties; or as broadcasting in the service of listeners or viewers, with the emphasis on satisfying consumers’ or audiences’ needs (Syvertsen, 1999). The latter, especially, is contested, as it conflicts with the general assumption that the public interest that public-service broadcasters are to fulfill is not what interests the public—this could be attended to by commercial media—but what is in the general public’s interest, that is, in the interest of society at large and not of the individual consumer. However, the above-mentioned introduction of the public-value concept into the public-service broadcasting debate and the shift towards public-service media have most-recently led to a theoretical re-emphasis and greater attention to what individuals desire and value, as opposed to what political decision-makers presume to be in the public interest (Alford & O’Flynn, 2009; Just et al., 2017; Moore, 1995). This shift is disputed, for example, in the context of increasing personalization efforts, which are said to abandon the traditional idea of publicness or the public sphere in favor of individual and minority interests, which may make it difficult to guarantee social and political cohesion or may weaken the bonds with traditional media institutions (Andersson Schwarz, 2016; Just & Latzer, 2017; Nissen, 2013; Sørensen, 2013).

Essentially, public-service broadcasting is a normatively charged concept that is most often given conceptual clarity through additionally specified general principles, such as citizenship, universality, and quality (Born & Prosser, 2001). Furthermore, the absence of precise definitions is often compensated for through descriptions and circumscriptions of tasks in the relevant regulatory frameworks, which are often also communicated by the public-service organizations through mission statements and other institutional publications (Just et al., 2017). Among these are responsibilities to inform, educate, and entertain; to foster social cohesion, integration, and national identity; or to provide a forum for public discourse and a plurality of opinions. Altogether, the norms and values pursued by public-service broadcasters are very similar across different cultures (Mendel, 2011), and they have repeatedly been rearticulated, most lately with regard to public-service media. The European Broadcasting Union, for example, identifies six core values: universality, independence, excellence, diversity, innovation, and accountability (European Broadcasting Union, 2012, 2016). By accountability it refers especially to the need to listen to audiences and engage in meaningful debate, indicative of the new attention to the public as the target of accountability (Just et al., 2017).

Public Perceptions of Public Service in the Media

Public-service broadcasting has passed through a period of reinvention during which it established itself as public-service media and sought a new relationship with the audience or public, making it—at least rhetorically—its prime target of accountability. This also entails a shift from transmission mode to communication mode, essentially a shift from supply orientation to demand orientation (Bardoel, 2007). Ways of connecting with the public or of showing responsiveness are personalization efforts (Andersson Schwarz, 2016; Kant, 2014; Sørensen, 2013), which are increasingly facilitated by algorithmic selection (Latzer, Hollnbuchner, Just, & Saurwein, 2016); diverse participatory formats and strategies, which are pursued for different aims from widening democratic participation to audience appeal and revenue generation (Council of Europe, 2009; Debrett, 2015; Enli, 2008; Vanhaeght, 2019; Vanhaeght & Donders, 2016); or the integration of social media (van Dijck & Poell, 2015).

Although the public has become the prime target of accountability, there is little discussion or acknowledgment of the perceptions that the public has about the general idea of public service. Studies focus mostly on the general use or reach of public-service programs; their quality, coupled with performance; differences in image and quality of private and public media based on specific characteristics such as objectivity, professionalism, independence, or authenticity; the general appraisal of how the public-service media accomplishes its public-service tasks; or the general attitudes of the public towards a public-service provider (e.g., the results of the ARD/ZDF long-term study, the Massenkommunikation Trends [mass communication trends] in Germany; Ofcom’s PSB Annual Research Reports; the Swiss evaluation of radio and television use; or the GFK study to explore public views about the BBC). Altogether, it appears that these studies continue the dominant paradigm of audience research, which construes audiences exclusively as consumers (Hasebrink, 2011), but there have been few attempts that target the public’s appraisal of the general importance of the idea of public service. Just et al. (2017), for example, assess this general importance of the idea of public service with a representative survey in Switzerland in 2015. The study reveals that two-thirds of the Swiss population agree or strongly agree on the general importance of public service in times of the Internet, while less than half think that the SRG is doing a very good job in fulfilling it. Remarkably, people are more indecisive with regard to the appraisal of how well the SRG fulfills this remit than with the appraisal of the importance of public service. More than two-fifths neither agree nor disagree or do not or cannot give an answer to the question of whether the public broadcaster fulfills its remit very well. Interestingly, neither socio-demographics nor individual values—derived from Schwartz’s theory of values (Schwartz, 1992, 2007)—predict the importance of public service. For the authors, this points to the fact that there is a collectively shared normative agreement on public service. Essentially, public service is a value that is widely shared, socially solidified, and reflects something desirable and meaningful beyond individual consumer preferences, in their case to the Swiss citizenry.

The assessment that the overall importance of public service goes beyond individual significance is also evident in the 2018 ARD-Akzeptanzstudie (acceptance study), which compares the public value of the overall ARD public-service offer in the sense of citizen value with the individual value people attach to it. Essentially, it scrutinizes the questions of how important people consider the existence of the ARD offer for the German public in general and individually (van Eimeren & Egger, 2018). The results show that the general value of the ARD for society as a whole is higher than the individual value. Four-fifths of the population consider the existence for society as a whole as (very) important as opposed to two-thirds who rate the existence as personally (very) important.

The discrepancies in both the Swiss and the German studies (e.g., difference between importance of public service in general vs. accomplishment of public-service tasks by organization; difference between citizen and individual value) indicate that the assessment of the general importance of public service or a specific public-service offer invokes people’s reflective preferences, namely, meta preferences, as opposed to their individual preferences (Brennan & Lomasky, 1983; Kiefer, 2003). However, as Just et al. (2017, p. 1005) reason, this high appraisal “does not constitute an argument in favor of (public service broadcasting) as is. Rather, it may indicate the relatively slow pace of institutional change, where changes in the perceived value of public service lag behind visible changes, such as decreasing consumption of (public service) programs or perceived problems regarding utility and performance. Altogether this calls for further attention in research and politics toward the many questions relating to the formation, transmission, and change of such institutional values as a basis for policies for or against the idea of public service and its organizational specifics.”

Further Reading

Bardoel, J., & d’Haenens, L. (2008). Reinventing public service broadcasting in Europe: Prospects, promises and problems. Media, Culture & Society, 30(3), 337–355.Find this resource:

Burri, M. (2015b). Public service broadcasting 3.0: Legal design for the digital present. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Iosifidis, P. (Ed.). (2010). Reinventing public service communication: European broadcasters and beyond. London: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Just, N., Büchi, M., & Latzer, M. (2017). A blind spot in public broadcasters’ discovery of the public: How the public values public service. International Journal of Communication, 11, 992–1011.Find this resource:

Lowe, G. F., & Bardoel, J. (Eds.). (2007). From public service broadcasting to public service media. Göteborg: Nordicom.Find this resource:

Syvertsen, T. (1999). The many uses of the “public service” concept. NORDICOM Review, 20(1), 5–12.Find this resource:

Van den Bulck, H. (2015). Public service media accountability in recent decades: A progressive shift from state to market. In K. A. Ibarra, E. Nowak, & R. Kuhn (Eds.), Public service media in Europe: A comparative approach (pp. 73–88). London: Routledge.Find this resource:

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