29th Sep 2023


Musk pulled Twitter's 'state-affiliated' badge — but it still hurts journalism

  • Elon Musk's labelling of public broadcasters as 'state-affiliated' or 'government-funded' opened up a can of worms (Photo: European Union)
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Elon Musk's Twitter caused a stir two months ago when it labelled several public broadcast media outlets, including National Public Radio (NPR) in the US, BBC in the UK, and Canada's CBC, as "state-affiliated" or "government-funded." These outlets, which are publicly-funded and editorially independent, pushed back hard, by scaling down — or, in NPR's case, ceasing — activity on the platform in response.

Twitter ultimately removed these controversial tags, but, at the same time, scrapped similar labels from the likes of Russia's RT and China's Xinhua, which have never shied away from their identities as government propaganda channels.

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  • Elon Musk's labelling of public broadcasters as 'state-affiliated' or 'government-funded' opened up a can of worms (Photo: Wikimedia)

However, the surprise in Twitter's case was not the lack of a coherent policy on labelling, but rather the confusion about the mission of public service media.

By grouping RT and Xinhua together with NPR, the BBC, and other publicly-funded broadcasters, Twitter failed to recognise the hallmark that distinguishes state-controlled media from public media: editorial independence.

Xinhua, for example, was created to disseminate government-approved messaging on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The BBC, by contrast, is guarded by structures that stop politicians intervening in its editorial decision-making process.

Unfortunately, the clear, and previously obvious, differences between state-controlled and publicly-owned media have blurred in recent years, due to attacks from politicians, who agitate against critical reporting, and private media, which, in many countries, has sought to destabilise the governance and funding models of public media.

This has driven calls — and even campaigns, in the case of the UK — to reduce the space for independent public media. According to 2022 data collected by the State Media Monitor, a research project covering 157 countries, approximately 84 percent of 595 state and public media outlets worldwide now lack editorial independence.

Out of the 102 public media outlets that have editorial independence, two-thirds are located in Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand. In vast areas of the Middle East and North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia, there has never been an independent public media outlet.

In Europe, 51 percent of all public and state media have editorial independence — a significantly higher concentration compared to other regions in the world. However, for a continent that prides itself on being the birthplace of public media, the proliferation of outlets that are editorially controlled is concerning.

This is particularly evident across large parts of Eastern Europe, where the experiment of transforming former state media into independent public media began with the fall of communism in the 1990s.

The scale of its failure, though, can be witnessed in Bulgaria's BNT, Hungary's MTVA, Poland's TVP and Polskie Radio, and Serbia's RTS, which all serve as mouthpieces of their country's governing administrations. The only exceptions, and truly independent public service broadcasters across this region, are public radio and television in the Czech Republic and the broadcaster, LRT, in Lithuania.

Yet, even in cases where public media has gained editorial independence, there are vulnerabilities.

The public broadcaster in Slovenia, RTVSLO, for instance, has fought a bitter struggle with the country's former populist prime minister, Janez Jansa, over the governance bodies of the broadcaster.

This tactic is commonly used by political administrations in the region — including the likes of Viktor Orban, whose allies now control Hungary's Media Council — to leverage control over public media outlets. However, thanks to a court ruling last May, RTVSLO operations are now appointed jointly by civil society groups and its staff, rather than parliament — a move that should uphold the broadcaster's autonomy.

'Defund the BBC' movement

Attacks on public media are also becoming common in western Europe. In the UK, a rightwing movement has been running a campaign to "defund" the BBC. The UK's national broadcaster is financed through a licence fee that all households in Britain are obligated to pay. The current Conservative-led government is considering reviewing the licence fee-based funding mechanism, but experts, from all sides of the political spectrum, have cautioned that removing this model could destabilise the station and jeopardise its independence.

Similarly, in Austria, ORF, which was established as an independent public broadcaster through a referendum in the 1960s, is now facing a crisis driven by increased political pressure and a push for funding reform that would strip the outlet of its income licence fee from 2024.

In Italy, too, the country's public broadcaster, RAI — which though historically subject to interference via its governing board — saw its CEO resign as a result of a "political clash".

It is true that public service broadcasters need to adapt with the times and adjust their offering, particularly if they are to attract younger audiences. And, if they are to achieve this, they will need to tweak their funding models and governance structures to give their audiences a larger say in programming and to be able to compete in the digital environment.

However, for such a transition to succeed, safeguards against political influence and market instability will be required. In many countries, we are talking about broadcasters that stand alone in upholding strong editorial guidelines; impartial mediums that are best placed to push back at disinformation, and political efforts to debase the media climate.

They do need reform, that is certain, but they also need support.

In an age of mistruths, the likes of NPR, the BBC and other independent broadcast arms provide an invaluable source of news, free of bias or spin, for millions of citizens. If we fail to recognise and defend their unique status, and value to society, our democracy will ebb further into decline.

Author bio

Marius Dragomir is the director of the Media and Journalism Research Center, a think tank focused on the study of media, journalism, politics and technology.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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