Private and public media systems
Today’s media has infiltrated into many aspects of society. It acts as a powerful tool in shaping public opinion and belief. From the latest breaking news to the latest political scandal, the media presents the public with information and reports around the clock. The means by which this information is presented, and by whom, largely differs from state to state. However, in order for a state to have an effective media system, it must be composed of multiple sources. This assertion holds particularly true for a democratic state.
Because freedom of speech and diversity of opinion are democratic ideals, numerous media sources are required to ensure this. Therefore, in order for a state to be genuinely free, its mass media system must be composed of both private and public corporations in order to generate a plurality of ideas and opinion. Private and public media systems differ considerably from one another. The largest difference exists amongst their means of ownership. Private media sources are owned by large corporations.
These media sources are profit oriented and are primarily accountable to their shareholders. They are largely free from government censorship and control. They receive no government funding and rely heavily on advertisers for their income. 1 All media sources in the United States of America are privately owned. For example, General Electric, the countries tenth largest corporation owns one of America’s leading media sources, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). 2 Public media sources are owned and operated by a government.
The state provides the funding and resources necessary to run the company. The British Broadcasting Corporation is a prime example of a public media source. It receives its funding from the Crown and is ultimately accountable to the British Parliament. 3 Nevertheless, various and effective measures have been put in place to avoid government censorship. Conversely, public media in China is highly regulated by the government and is largely used to espouse government propaganda. Its daily operation relies heavily on instructions and guidelines given from the state. Unlike the BBC, China’s public media is limited in terms of what it can and cannot report. As the aforementioned has stated, a state needs a public media system in order to protect democratic ideals. However, the public media system that is run in China is not sufficient in undertaking this job. Rather, a country needs a media system that is operated similar to the BBC. The reason for this stems primarily from the BBC’s independence from the government. The BBC operates as a separate entity that is largely removed from state control.
The Ullswater Committee (appointed by Parliament to consider the future of the BBC) outlined the relationship that should exist between the BBC and the Government in 1933. The policy was affirmed when the House of Commons resolved that: This House, being satisfied that the British Broadcasting Corporation maintains in general a high standard of service, is of opinion that it would be contrary to the public interest to subject the Corporation to any Government Control… that controversial matter in rightly not excluded from broadcast rogrammes, but that the governors should ensure the effective expression of all important opinion relating thereto. 5 The infrastructure of the BBC makes it possible for it to operate separate from the government. Leading the BBC are its twelve governors. The Queen on advice from Cabinet Ministers appoints them. They have the vital responsibility of defending the BBC from political and commercial pressures. They act as trustees of the public interest safeguard the corporation’s independence. These duties that they must uphold are entrenched in the BBC’s charter.
The Director General is directly below the Governors. He/she acts as the BBC’s chief executive and editor-in-chief. Underneath the Director General are the sixteen Division Directors. They are each responsible for one of the BBC’s sixteen factions. These Division Directors, alongside the Director General, form the executive committee. 6 The Governors appoint the Director General, while the Director General appoints the Division Directors. Both the Governors and the Director General have the power to appoint individuals without consulting the government. 7
The way in which the BBC functions allows it a great degree of government independence. Individuals separate from the Parliament run the corporation. They are largely detached from government influence. As well, both Houses have passed legislation that limits their involvement with the corporation. This helps to ensure that media material is free from government propaganda and control. The BBC’s framework permits it to report what it feels is relevant without being checked by the government. On the contrary, the Chinese government heavily regulates its public media system, the Xinhua News Agency.
The Agency is largely intertwined with the government and is seen as an extension of the Communist Party of China. Xinhua is directly responsible to the Party’s Propaganda Department, which is under direct control of the CPC’s Central Committee. The Propaganda Department has the responsibility of closely monitoring decisions made by the Central Committee concerning news media, and of making sure that these decisions are widely publicized through Xinhua. The Party directly monitors the agency through hiring veteran Party members to oversee media content. 8
The intimacy between the state and Xinhua is reflected in the agency’s broadcasting. The media is forced to propagate the Party’s programs, policies and directives. The Agency is required to accept the Party’s leadership and ideology as its own. There are often strict penalties for anyone who disobeys these rules. For example, dissenting journalists may be forced to write self-criticisms and undergo the risk of being fired or demoted. Consequently, the way in which Xinhua is run limits the plurality of ideas and opinion in Chinese society. The Chinese public is only receiving what the Party desires them to hear.
They are being fed Party propaganda that has the capability to shape public opinion. If China’s media system were be truly democratic, the government would have to cease interfering with the agency and allow it to report what it deems appropriate. For this reason, a democratic society needs to adopt a system of public media similar to the BBC. This is because the BBC allows for a large degree of ideas to be generated within society keeping in tact with democratic ideals. The benefits of this type of media system are further elaborated on below.
Perhaps the largest benefit that emerges from this particular type of public media system is the legitimacy it holds over a private media system. This system possesses a larger degree of legitimacy than any private media corporation does, because it commands a greater amount of credibility. This credibility is due to the lack of any external forces, which would inevitably taint the system’s news coverage. As a result of the company’s credibility, broadcasters can focus on reporting accurate and pertinent stories. They are free from the constraints that plague private and heavily regulated public media companies.
This principle is of pivotal importance to the BBC. It is entrenched in their mandate that: Trust is the foundation of the BBC: we are independent, impartial and honest. Audiences are at the heart of everything we do. We take pride in delivering quality and value… 9 The BBC is able to uphold these values because of the way the corporation is run. Unlike private media systems, the BBC receives its funding from the British government. As a result of this, they do not have to worry about pleasing corporate sponsors in fear of having their funding pulled.
If the BBC were to rely on sponsors for revenue, its programs would be influenced by the companies who pay for them. These companies would be more concerned with their own motives rather than with program quality. 10 Overall, the BBC provides its public with reliable and trustworthy service. The checks and balances that have been installed in the system ensure that the news media goes unaffected by internal and external influences. Unfortunately, this is not the case for the private media sector. Private media corporations are limited in what they can report by numerous factors.
If a state were to have a media system comprised solely of private media sources, the public would suffer to a large degree. Unlike the BBC, American media companies are primarily accountable to large corporations and powerful individuals. Regrettably, the corporations that purchase these media companies do not do so to provide the public with reliable news. Rather, they buy them as investments that will yield a maximum return as quickly as possible. 11 Because of this, restrictions are placed on broadcasting any material that may hinder a company’s image or success.
For example, in 1979 the publishing company Simon and Schuster decided not to publish a book that was about to begin printing. This book, written by Mark Dowie disclosed that the Ford Motor Company had knowingly produced dangerous gas tanks in its Pinto cars. The company decided that it was cheaper to pay off heirs of the dead than to spend a few dollars per car to make the tanks cheaper. However, when the President of Simon and Shuster received word of this book, he declared that he was vehemently opposed to it, for the manuscript made all corporations look bad.
Consequently, the book did not go to the press. 12 To further illustrate the hold corporations and individuals have over private media sources, one only needs to examine the stories run by the New York Times during the American 1993-1994 health care debate. During the debate, the paper only ran stories in favour of ‘managed competition’, a program that would have been profitable to major health care corporations. Other proposals for reform, such as the one tier health program run in Canada, were criticized or ignored.
The reason for this was that four members of the New York Times board were also directors of major insurance companies. As well, two board members were also directors of pharmaceutical companies. 13 Had the newspaper printed stories opposing the ‘managed competition’ plan, this would directly conflict with the interests of the Time’s board members. As a result, the public only received information favouring half of the debate. Examples such as the ones cited above are numerous. Undoubtedly, the restrictions that owners are placing on private media companies have negative effects on society.
Since the news media is so often censored, the public frequently receives a distorted version of the news. The stories that were left unpublished in the two examples cited above contained relevant and important information that should have been relayed to the public. Because the public is almost completely dependent on the news media to alert them of public problems, having only private media systems in a state is not sufficient. This is because private media sources will not alert the public to any information that would threaten the interests of their owners, even if it were in the best interests of the public. 4 Therefore, a public media system such as the BBC is needed to provide the information that would otherwise go unreported by many private sources because this system is free from the constraints that plague many private sources. Although a public media system such as the BBC possesses a greater amount of credibility and reliability than many private media systems, a state still needs both systems to be democratic. This is because having only one source of news does not generate a plurality of views in society. One media source results in one opinion.
If one media source dominates a country, something vital is lost to a democratic society: a spectrum of various ideas. 15 Even if the information the public receives from a private media system is distorted, an individual living in a democratic state should have the opportunity to listen to it. Despite the high level of integrity possessed by the BBC, it is not completely flawless. This contention holds true in light of the recent scandal surrounding a report made by a leading BBC journalist, Andrew Gilligan, and its consequent repercussions.
Mr. Gilligan’s report claimed that the government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair deliberately exaggerated the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction before the US-led invasion. When Gilligan’s source for the report, David Kelly, had been revealed, Dr. Kelly committed suicide. This led to an investigative report headed by Judge Lord Hutton into the death of Dr. Kelly and subsequently Gilligan’s report. 16 The Hutton report concluded that the BBC’s story was based on unfounded allegations.
The report criticized the Board of Governors for failing to fully investigate Gilligan’s report, which would have almost certainly led to the discovery that it was wrong. 17 As this situation proves, the BBC is also capable of reporting faulty news. When a rare circumstance such as this arises, it is vital to have other media sources in a country to hold the public system accountable, as was done in Britain by various media sources. This ensures that the public is not only receiving the BBC’s account of the event, but other accounts as well. Overall, a society cannot be a democracy without a dual system of media.
A media system that is composed of both a private and public sector provides society with more information and ideas than a single system could. A public corporation such as the BBC, is essential for it goes largely unrestricted when reporting the news. However, private media systems are also needed for they provide society with alternative viewpoints and can place a check on the public media system. If both of these systems exist simultaneously within a country, society would be exposed to a multiplicity of ideas. Because this is a fundamental aspect of democracy, the country in turn would be a truly democratic state.