Is It Really State Business?

04. November, 2008

Foto: Jackie Huynh

By using commercial rationale to justify the closure of a public TV show the frontier between public and private media become blurred.

Almost every developed country is experiencing debates, more or less intense, more or less publicized, on the role that the state should play as broadcast supporter or owner. Criticisms have been flourishing at two levels. First, state subsidy of particular kinds of radio and TV shows has been questioned, especially considering “cultural” or “intellectual” ones. Second, and more profoundly, some have directly challenged the principle of a state ownership of audio-visual networks. In other words, is it really state business to fund and support programmes which would concern only a small part of the population? Or, more drastically, is it really state business to control radios or television channels? Those worries have recorded notable successes through privatizations and suppression of several cultural programmes, sometimes very famous ones.

The central issue is about the state legitimacy for funding/supporting specific TV/radio shows, or even networks as a whole. In other words, what are the moral obligations of the state in this respect?

Commercial rationale

When a programme is cut, the common rationale is usually economic: because of too few listeners/viewers this programme cannot be supported anymore. At first sight, the argument seems sound. Less viewers means less advertisement space and, by consequence, a lower profitability. As announcers rely on the popularity of programmes to determine which price they agree to pay, if a programme is not popular, the prices at which the TV or radio will be able to rent its advertisements slots will decrease.

During a period of harsh competition, there is sometimes no other choice than offering programmes which will attract more viewers/listeners at the expense of more ‘marginal’ ones. However, the rationale is commercial, i.e. it makes sense for firms involved in a market and should sell (or, in this case, attract viewers or listeners) to maintain levels of profits which allow them to pursue or expand their activities. But, can we consider that a public media network should follow the same rules? There are strong reasons why the state should worry about using this rationale.

When public institutions decide to cancel programmes due to a lack of popularity, they are actually using the profitability rationale, and the consequences do not appear clearly at first sight. First of all, using the profitability argument for public media networks implies that, when the state owns a radio or a TV, it should be guided by the same motives as the private actor. By doing so, the frontier between public and private media become blurred. Then, a dangerous bet is made: proposing the same programming at private networks while, at the same time, trying to keep a distinct institutional identity built through years or decades of specific programming. It is not certain that acting like this will enhance the competitiveness of public broadcast. When a company is changing dramatically its market position by giving up some of its more well-known products, it exposes itself to worsen even more profoundly its situation by experiencing serious drops among its traditional public without gaining significant more viewers/listeners. In France, the public broadcast has recently experienced it. In particular, the news programme has become so similar to its main private competitor that a serious loss in the audience has happened, followed by a major institutional crisis among journalists.

In the long run, more and more people will wonder why the state possesses TV and radio channels, if it offers very similar programmes. At that very moment, it will become difficult to defend even the principle of a public broadcasting. All politicians would worry about such a perspective if we consider the strategic role than public radios and TVs can play in the field of political communication, but not only.

We should be careful. It is not to say that markets or private companies are evil because they are (partly) guided by profits. Such a discourse is far too simplistic. In a lot of domains markets are doing great in terms of reducing prices paid by consumers or favouring innovations. Instead of opposing market economy per se, the point is rather to define the line that we want to draw between private and public sectors. If we think that the latter should follow the rules of the former, so the distinction will quickly appear spurious. It is especially problematic for institutions like public radios or TV channels that are heavily financed through taxations. In the case of minor differences between private and public broadcasting, is there still a legitimate ground for the state to subsidy media networks?

Next stop – museums?

Still, media do not constitute a final stop. This rationale can (and will for sure) be applied to other non-profitable activities managed by the state. If “cultural” programmes should be cancelled due to their poor economic performances, what about free public schools, museums that charge fares inadequate to be self-sufficient, hospitals or police forces that are constantly in shortage of financial and human resources? Applying the profitability rationale, one may persuasively argue that those activities will be more profitable if taken in charge by private firms, which is absolutely right. Private schools, security companies, museums or clinics make more money than their public counterparts that, usually, record constant deficits. But is it all about money? Is there any risk about applying crudely the profitability argument to state owned or funded projects and organizations?

One may argue that large privatizations belong to science-fiction. Thinking so would be profoundly misleading. Let’s have a look to private schools or the recent development of private security companies. Usually such companies flourish when the state is not able or eager to take its responsibilities. So, why not apply the profitability rationale to all institutions evoked? Why not sell the Museum of Fine Arts or the Museum of Occupation to a firm, maybe from abroad, that will enhance them and make more money by charging higher entrance fees and developing ‘annex’ activities or merchandizing? At the end, the state and citizens would be better off. The level of taxes collected would increase and serve some other public projects.

If such avenues appear aberrant to most of us, it should be for some reasons. Again, where should the line between private and public sectors be drawn? More precisely, what kind of moral obligations are we eager to impose to state institutions? Do those reasons support the case for non-profitable shows?

Public interest

Numerous reasons exist to justify state involvement in those activities. It is not the place to review them exhaustively. However, it can be useful to distinguish major ones in order to test our moral intuitions about the role of the state and to derive from them a case for the public support of several activities, included “intellectual” shows. Two main arguments can be distinguished.

1. Institutions should support everything which depends on the “public” or “common interest”,

2. Public institutions display better overall performances, not just economic, when they support or manage specific activities.

(1) stipulates that everything which is in society’s interest, to say it simply, should be assumed by state institutions. The argument is easy to mobilize and seems to produce the best results to justify a state involvement. However, it generates a definitional obstacle. What can be characterized as “common” or “public”?

Two definitions are possible. First, the “common interest” can be apprehended as the interest of the “majority”. Historically, this meaning has been widespread. For instance, when a specific religion has been recognized as the state one. Nonetheless, this argument contains a serious drawback: it excludes “minority” concerns from the public space. Thus, even if the basic structure of our liberal democracies is majoritarian, it contains dispositions which aim to attenuate any excessive majoritarian pressure and protect, in some extent, the interests of people who do not share, on certain issues, the “majority” interests.

Ironically, according to this argument, the state can be legitimate in cutting programmes which are not gathering enough viewers or listeners. As the vox populi has expressed itself through remote controllers, the state must conform and cancel programmes which have not attracted enough viewers or listeners. But, this argument is flawed. As previously evoked, even if our democracies are majoritarian, it does not follow that interests which are not widespread should not be taken into account. For example, rural population are less numerous than urban one in almost all countries. Does it imply that public policies should disregard specific problems encountered by farmers? Moreover, it is not because something is wanted by the majority that the state has automatically a moral duty to compel. For instance, the fact that, in a given society, the majority considers slavery as a normal state of affairs does not imply that it is a compelling interest for the state.

An alternative version of the “common interest” argument that avoids such extremities is to attribute to institutions the responsibility of protecting and enforcing the true “public interest, even against the “majority” will. Such argument could justify the maintenance of the state funding or ownership of non-profitable events or organizations, because it was in the interest of the society or the nation. Or, it could lead to the contrary, to the withdrawal of the state involvement, all depending on opinions of the officials. So, the outcome is completely arbitrary and a weak protection is provided for public involvement into a large diversity of activities. Moreover, this argument is highly paternalistic. Officials are turned into demiurgic people who are supposed to have a more accurate view of people’s real needs than people themselves.

So, this rationale fits democratic standards (the respect for individual and popular will…) with difficulty. Of course, a large spectrum of public decisions are taken by civil servants or officials without consulting citizens. This aspect of political decision-making is difficult to escape, but it does not imply that paternalism is an acceptable principle of government. It is a practical necessity that should be limited and carefully controlled.

To sum up, arguments grounded in the public interest are weak or/and problematic at different levels. They can lead to impose the views of a so-called ‘majority’ on ‘minorities’ of different kinds or of an elite on the overall population.

Another option (2) is to insist on the state efficiency in handling certain activities or producing certain outcomes. For example, a strong reason in favour of a dominant public health care scheme is that the state is more efficient than private sector at managing insurance problems like adverse selection. For sure, private hospitals make more money, but by sorting risks, i.e. by refusing to treat the most disadvantaged people: a result morally objectionable. Moreover, offering a flat quality in health care services to a diverse population is in conformity with our egalitarian intuitions (no one should be deprived of an access to health care services of good quality due to her inability to pay for them). With minor differences, the same applies for public education and health insurance.

Moreover, state managed/supported institutions/activities are often the only mean to manage efficiently public goods. The story is no more about interests of a certain kind, i.e. an hypothetical judgement of what should be public or not, but about a particular type of goods. Public goods are goods that benefit to everyone and are not exclusory. Public defence is an example, as pure water or air. In spite of their social benefit, public goods suffer from one collective action problem: free-riding. Because it is individually more rational for people to exempt themselves from participating to the furniture of public goods while waiting other people to contribute, the state is legitimate to intervene, financing them through taxation. It is so because the state is the actor which is the most able to handle these problems of agency.

Thus, when speaking about economic performance, we get just a part of a bigger story. Of course private clinics, TV channels, schools are making more money than most of their public counterparts. However, the issue is not just about capacity for making profits. The scope is larger. For instance, subsiding schools will guarantee the society that (1) a relative equality of opportunities will exist among citizens, (2) coupling with compulsory attendance, some basic knowledge will be present inside the population (depending on the overall quality of the instruction).

Promotional tool

Now, does the same apply for media programmes viewed or listened only by a minority? Partly, yes. Nobody will deny the impact that a lively intellectual life has on the vitality and socio-economic performances of a society. Strong studies document this spill-over effect which concerns hard as well as social sciences and humanities. Better educated and informed people are viewed to make better citizens and deciders. In that respect, it is of course not sufficient to offer “cultural” shows. In addition, such programmes should reach a fair level of quality.

Furthermore, subsiding such shows has two important outcomes. First, in a context of an increasing human mobility, they can serve as promotional tools in order to prove, to people who think that “nothing happens here”, that, in fact, a lot of things are going on which deserve attention. Without that, a country is just adding another handicap to ones that already exist and, then, lower even more its capacity of attraction. It would be surprising that, for a country like Latvia, where patrimonial and cultural issues are so present and important, such a reason cannot be found convincing. Second, in a widespread context of legitimacy crisis of political elites, it is a “plus” to benefit from such public arenas in order to exchange about “culture”, but also about socio-economical and political issues before they will erupt in the streets through mass demonstrations, or even worse forms.

At the end, on this issue like on other social and political matters, nothing is obligatory. The most complete bunch of arguments can be articulated without convincing people of the worth of supporting “cultural” or “intellectual” shows. It is all about political reasoning. A society can decide to not support the intellectual life. It is a choice among others. Nevertheless, strong reasons exist to consider this choice as unwise. Some are mentioned in this article. If such reasons and others would not prevail, an insistent question will rise in a near future: for what reasons supporting museums, exhibitions and other forms of culture and arts? In short, it will be more and more difficult for the state to prove that those domains are, in fact, its business. raksts

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