Public broadcasting as an instrument of democracy

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Larissa M. Bieler is editor-in-chief of Nikkol Rot

Rightwing politicians are planning to privatise the Swiss public radio and television service. Clearly this debate is about influence, control over programming, power – and about a lot of money. The Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) is under pressure but not on the defensive.

This content was published on April 29, 2016 - 13:49

Digitalisation is revolutionising the media world. New technologies allow and demand new media formats. They are altering user behaviour and changing the competition landscape internationally.

Switzerland also needs a public service media company that reflects the country in the 21st century. In common with all audio-visual media, public service broadcasters in general and the SBC in particular are in a period of upheaval.

SBC, a publicly owned media organisation that is financed by a licence fee, faces particular challenges.

“There are many forces wanting to make an impact on the company,” says Adrian Zaugg, who heads the strategy team in the media company’s general management.

SBC must focus intensively not only on future scenarios and the challenges of the digital age, but also on justifying its own existence. A modern public service first has to be defined. So this summer, Switzerland and SBC, founded in 1931, face a broad debate on public service at the demand of a wide range of players from the worlds of politics, media studies and private publishing.

The central questions are: What should SBC’s mandate be in future, and how much SBC does Switzerland need?

First and foremost, the conservative right Swiss People’s Party wants to clip the wings of the public broadcaster. And the SBC on this scale with such high costs is no longer justifiable in the 21st century, People’s Party parliamentarian Natalie Rickli recently told the German newspaper Die Zeit.

Rickli works for the advertising sales company Goldbach MediaExternal link, “a company with a strong anti-SBC slant”, and she is president of “Aktion Medienfreiheit” (Action for Press Freedom). This pressure group demands that the SBC should only be permitted to provide what private media companies can’t offer.

Rickli would like to see more media competition and stresses in the ZeitExternal link article: “From the point of view of media politics, 2016 will be the most important year in a long time.”

Independence as the greatest good

What direction will the SBC take in the next ten years? It commissioned a study on the importance and the role of public radio and television in the digital age, undertaken by the think tank, Gottlieb Duttweiler Institut (GDI).

The study shows that it is precisely at a time of upheaval in the media landscape that the SBC has the opportunity to position itself as an instrument of democracy.

Director general Roger de Weck chose some clear words at the presentation of the GDI study, “Public 4.0 – The Future of the SBC in the Digital Ecosystem”.

The SBC must remain politically and financially independent and be accessible to a broad public. “At present the elite is mostly better served,” he said. In a society that is increasingly fragmented and monopolised, the SBC must function as an integrator.

This duty to build a community remains, “but must be conducted with more dialogue”.

This means that users should be more integrated into the product. The basis for this statement is, among other things, the study’s conclusion that the SBC’s importance and function is to serve as “the cement of the future societyExternal link”. It can contribute to the re-definition of direct democracy in a digital world.

Public service is essential for the functioning of democracy in Switzerland, particularly in the digital age. This is SBC's position in the debate over the mandate of the publicly-owned media company Keystone

De Weck: “Desire for Change”

The GDI study commissioned by the SBC ends with this conclusion: “Digital democracy is far more direct than analogue democracy: That is apt for Switzerland. Digital democracy is much more communicative than analogue democracy: That is appropriate for the SBC. Digital democracy is much more interconnected than analogue democracy: That fits an SBC which sees itself less as a broadcaster and more as a platform.”

The public service of tomorrow has the task of reaching beyond population divides to promote social cohesion and diversity of opinion in Switzerland - as a legitimate democratic force that is both financially and politically independent, according to the press releaseExternal link.

The digital revolution is an opportunity for an audio-visual provider that commits to ensuring quality for a wide public.

“In all national languages, for all generations. Innovation, cooperation and desire for change are our trump cards,” de Weck concluded.

This summer, after the Swiss government publishes its public service report, there will be a heated, exciting debate.

Let’s hope that this debate is for the most part orderly and conducted with arguments rather than fear and emotion.

For the SBC, this is an opportunity. For Switzerland, a great deal is at stake. Not influence, power or money but something much more fundamental for democracy: Social cohesion, values and a platform for opinion-making that is essential for democracy and unparalleled worldwide.

SBC and

The SBC delivers information on Swiss and international topics in all four national languages around the clock – on the radio, on television and online. It employs about 6,000 people across the whole of Switzerland.

The SBC operates under a national licence that confers on it a wide range of public-service duties. It has offered to cooperate with private publishing houses on a broad array of projects. is an independent unit within the SBC and is responsible for the company’s international mandate.

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