Perception Is Reality

Public Service Media vs. Private and Commercial Media

Posted on: October 10, 2008

It is a very arduous task, if not impossible, to affirm whether it is the privately or publicly owned media that facilitate democracy and act as a counterweight to institutions of power. The reason in part is the existence of various schools of thought on notions of the public sphere, the constitution of democracy, and cultural hegemony. Another facet of this conundrum draws from the problems of cultural integration and dominant ideologies, and how they are very intricately connected to these notions of democracy and publicity. In this paper, the author will attempt to discuss the differing schools of thought on the public sphere, moving on to discuss the nature of both the public and private media, drawing a conclusion as to which form serves a democratic way of social life.

The idea of the public sphere was first proposed by Jürgen Habermas in 1962 in his book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Fraser, 1999). In essence the public sphere is a location where people of all statures can come together to discuss matters of public (or common) interest, all the while “bracketing” (Fraser 522) differences in class, and consequently, establishing the right to opinion for everyone involved or effected by the matters. In other words, this institution would facilitate democratic participation of the public, acting as a counterweight to the government and various institutions of power. Inevitably, the media would play a pertinent role in facilitating this democratic participation, providing a springboard for democracy to function effectively, keeping a check on the state (Fraser, 1999).

However, in “Rethinking the Public Sphere,” Nancy Fraser talks about how the utopian ideal of a public sphere of equal representation is flawed in its very foundation, since it fails to take into account inequalities within democratic and stratified societies. Fraser explains that it is a cause for concern “whether it is possible…for interlocutors to deliberate as if they were social peers in specifically designated discursive arenas, when [they] are situated in a larger societal context that is pervaded by structural relations of dominance and subordination (526).”

            This is a very serious accusation; however, Fraser demonstrates how women, folks of divergent ethnicities, and plebeian men were excluded from this sphere. Views that would conform to the dominant ideologies would be discussed, those of “private” interest being marginalized (524). Jane Mansbridge elaborates this further, explaining how the “transformation of ‘I’ into ‘we…’ mask[s] subtle forms of control (Mansbridge in Fraser 525).” Certain viewing angles would be encouraged, others frowned upon; and subordinated groups would encounter difficulty in voicing their opinions, and made to conform. In other words, although the public sphere would ideally be pluralistic, it would come to establish the power bloc as its fundamental constituent; those individuals of the upper-middle class with similar goals (Helfield 2008).

In light of the above, true representation of the masses in a democratic way by means of the media would have to cater to the subordinated groups; members of the “counter-publics,” such as the transgender, and the plebeian class (Fraser 523). Concurrently, the views posed should be diverse, impartial and objective. Both the private and public service media claim to perform this function.

According to Allan Brown, the elements of public service media are divided into two groups, the first one defining its place in relationship to the state, the people, and other broadcasters. The second defines its philosophy. Essentially, public broadcasting should be funded by the audience to whom the services are offered on a wide scale. The broadcasting service should be free of all prejudices and “vested interests,” demonstrating nationality, accountability for all interests, and uncompromised quality. Brown sums up the reason for being of public broadcast services in their potential influence on values, attitudes, and beliefs (Brown 4-5).

John Reith, the then managing director of the British Broadcasting Company saw great potential in the public broadcast system as Scannell informs us: “Broadcasting had a responsibility to bring…all that was best in every department of human knowledge, endeavour, and achievement.” The utopian view of the media was that it would bring together the various classes, promoting “social unity.” Pluralism as a foundation was essential (Scannell 122).

This demonstrates the public service media’s role: the fundamental principle that this form of media was founded on was to cater to a democratic way of life and representation. It is imperative to understand that the public service media works constantly towards promoting issues that are of general interest. This consistency to achieve a chimerical outcome is fundamental to public media.

It may be argued that the private media performs this function equally efficiently, if not better than the private media. However, as it will become evident, this does not necessarily hold true. With a wide variety of media outlets and programming to choose where we get our entertainment and information (including news) from, one would come to an immediate conclusion that this diversity is ideal. However, at closer inspection, we see a flaw highlighted by Congressman Bernie Sanders who says that “what we see, what we hear, and what we read is being controlled by fewer and fewer, large multinational corporations.” What this does, as Mark Crispin Miller goes on to explain is that the “ostensible diversity” of programming that we are provided with, in reality“conceals actual uniformity.” Monopolistic power allows for owners to control the masses, what Charles Lewis, from the Center for Public Integrity, calls the strongest lobby in America (Orwell Roles in His Grave).

Robert McChesney, founder of explains what this concentration of ownership means. On his website, he highlights that “consolidation” leads to fewer viewpoints, reduced diversity in programming, less coverage of issues of common interest to local communities, and more biased journalism that leaves the institutions of power unchecked. Often, these media work in collaboration with governments in order to turn lies into truth, casting a curtain on how the public is being duped into believing that their interests are being accounted for. Sanders further discusses the issue about how the media trivializes issues into entertainment instead of educating, a role that is fundamental to the public service media (Orwell Roles in His Grave).

            The way private media legitimize status of individuals is also something to look at (Lazarsfeld and Merton 20-21). When conglomerates provide funding and resources to politicians for their campaign, for example, there comes into play the notion of quid pro quo: something for something. The media then will not air any controversial content due to a conflict of interest. This is summed up in the documentary, Orwell Roles in His Grave, which highlights how the public interests are being “accounted for” behind closed doors without informed consent.

            We have seen the role of private and public media in relation to serving the democratic process. However, what is disturbing is how the public service media are under threat by lawmakers. Vested interests are pushing out small, independent radio and television channels from the market, “crippling” any alternatives to commercial media. Over time we see that there is a constant struggle to cut funding for public service media ( Public Media). With this in mind, it is safe to say that the private media that claim to be serving public interest, are actually trying to homogenize diverse, democratic societies without the average citizen realizing. This is detrimental to any society, particularly that of Canada which is a mixture of individuals of various race, religion, ethnicities, and identities. It threatens the very notions of democracy and tolerance as well as responsible journalism. It is therefore the author’s conclusion that it is the public service media that legitimize democracy in mass society due to the nature of its struggle and strife to serve the public rather than to homogenize them. The Prince Karim Aga Khan, founder of the Aga Khan Development Network in a collection of his speeches in the book, Where Hope Takes Root, highlights time and time again the importance of pluralism existing both in fact and in spirit. It is the job of the media to fill in the space between the nation-state and the public to build a strong, pluralistic, civil society.


3 Responses to "Public Service Media vs. Private and Commercial Media"

[…] his name and with it his power, has reached. However, there is a flaw in this system as stated by Congressman Bernie Sanders, “what we see, what we hear, and what we read is being controlled by fewer and fewer, large […]

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About the Author…

Born in Karachi, Pakistan in an Adventist hospital, I grew up in a city where on one side I experienced poverty and oppression, while on the other I had the good fortune of Tabish Bhimani being a member of an upper middle-class business family...more...

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