‘Public Service Broadcasting Should Not Be Run by the Government’
The caller on the phone, a close friend, was frantic.
“They are going to destroy us,” she said.
After calming her down, my friend - a senior adviser at a local commercial TV station - said that several of their staff are leaving to work for a new station that the government is setting up.
“How can that happen, we invested in these people and trained them, and we pay them well. And what is the government doing creating yet another TV station, doesn’t it have enough with the existing stations it owns? This will take away the little advertising we have worked hard to attract,” she said.
I quietly explained to her that there is nothing one can do about the poaching issue, and that the real problem is the mistake that publicly funded television is allowed to broadcast advertising, which clearly violates the principle of a level playing field.
The next day, my friend and I, and others, were invited by UNESCO to a celebration of Press Freedom Day held on the premises of the Royal Film Commission.
Half way through the event, the minister of state for media affairs spoke about the new TV station.
“It will be a truly public service station,” he assured those gathered, although he refused to say if it will refrain from broadcasting advertising.
UNESCO defines public service broadcasting as “broadcasting made, financed and controlled by the public, for the public”. The organisation further says that it “is neither commercial, nor state-owned” and must be “free from political interference and pressure from commercial forces”.
Jordan Radio and Television (JRTV), which owns and runs multiple TV and radio stations, is funded by tax payers and advertisers. One dinar is deducted from the electricity bill of every home, office and factory every month. JRTV also gets further taxpayer funding from the general budget.
The problem is in the way this money is spent.
JRTV has a bloated payroll, made up mostly of people appointed by the government, often as part of political patronage. Although on paper JRTV is supposed to have an independent board, the government directly appoints its director general as well as many of its senior managers.
UNESCO says that if public service broadcasting works properly, “citizens are informed, educated and also entertained. When guaranteed with pluralism, programming diversity, editorial independence, appropriate funding, accountability and transparency, public service broadcasting can serve as a cornerstone of democracy”.
When a government minister says that the new station will be truly a “public service” one, this is an indirect admission that the current station, which employs over 2,000 people and costs tens of millions of dinars, is not.
If the new TV station wants to apply international standards, it is important that at least two conditions are met. First, the government must stay away from owning and running this station so as to satisfy the state control condition - it should be “controlled by the public and for the public”. An independent board representing a spectrum of Jordanians should manage the station, totally divorced from government pressure.
Secondly, since public service broadcasting is, according to the UNESCO definition, not commercial and must not be “influenced by commercial pressures”, the audio-visual regulator must ensure that it does not deform the commercial broadcasting field by competing with commercial stations by cutting into the already small advertising cake.
The problem with asking this of the regulator, however, is that Jordan does not have an independent regulatory board. Media, both print and audio-visual, are regulated by a government-appointed director who is accountable to the very same minister of media affairs who wants to start this new station using public funds.
A much better and more efficient path to creating a truly public service broadcasting station would be to address the deformities at JRTV, which will no doubt once again take the lion’s share of advertising in the upcoming Ramadan season.
And instead of creating yet another satellite station, effort and support must be given to create local terrestrial digital stations once the migration from analogue to digital takes place in the coming months.
My friend’s worry about the future of commercial broadcasting in Jordan is real and it will unlikely be resolved as long as the government continues to be an active player in a field it is not traditionally known to do well in: the media business.
Governments should govern independently and fairly, representing the entire population. They should allow public broadcasting to be 'made by the public, for the public', rather than co-opting it as a government mouthpiece.
Photo credit: UNESCO, 2015