Sunday, November 18, 2007

What’s the best way to fund public media?

The new Polish government wants to abolish the license fee. Yippy? Not really. They want to fund public media via direct taxation. A step backwards? Back to the future?

Donald Tusk was finally sworn in as Prime Minister of Poland on Friday, and so was his new cabinet – mostly from Civic Platform, some from junior coalition partner PSL, plus a few unaligned ‘experts’.

How this new coalition will go is anyone’s guess. I was talking to Stanislaw Gomulka last week, the economist who worked with Leszek Balcerowicz during the ‘shock therapy’ following the demise of communism.

Gomulka was one of the names touted as possible finance minister in the new government, before it was announced that Jacek Rostowski would fill the post. Stanislaw told me that even if he had been asked – and nobody from Civic Platform had approached him – he would have turned it down: “Too much politics involved...”, was the reason for not being interested.

Civic Platform have lots of plans to reform public services – privatize parts of the health system, etc...but as Gomulka said to me – “The political reality of the coalition [PSL are essentially a centre-left group, and is there , as in France, really a consensus in the country for such a radical change?] will put a stop to much of that.”

But one of the plans they do seem to be determined to go through with is the reform of financing public radio and TV. At the moment TVP and Polske Radio are funded from the license fee, just as the BBC is in the UK (though Polish public media runs ads as well, making up 25 percent of the revenue - at least there are no commercials on BBC domestic service).

But only 40 percent actually bother to pay the license. It is a very difficult ‘tax’ to collect.

So Tusk and co. want to fund the public media via direct taxation from various ministries’ budgets.

Law and Justice (PiS), now in opposition, do not like this idea. They say that this will tie public media - funded by central government - ever closer to that government.

It’s a reasonable argument – if it wasn’t being made by PiS, who have tried to use public media as a counter weight against most of the private sector, which they see as infested by a post-commie/liberal oligarchy.

And anyway, all post-communist governments have planted ‘their people’ in the top posts of the public media. It’s the Polish way. It’s just the way things are here.

So public media will always be seen as a plaything of whatever government is in power.

PiS are also not below using the EU (Euro-sceptics, so they are) to back up their arguments, occasionally. They point out that the European Commission has recommended the license fee as the best source of revenue for public TV and radio.

New times need new finance

The European model of having a private media sector and a public one was a good one, I think. It meant that there was a large diversity in programming.

But since the media has completely changed in the last ten years, with many new channels and methods of distribution – cable, saellite, internet, mobiles – the media scene looks very different now. So maybe the old European model has to go?

Diversity in programming is no longer an issue. And that diversity will continue to grow as new technologies develop.

Maybe it’s better to just privatize large chunks of it, and have a small budget left to broadcast the types of programming that private broadcasters could never, or would never want, to fill?

Or maybe Polish governments will remain stuck on a different wavelength from the rest of us?


Anonymous said...

A telling comment from Gomułka: too much politics in being a minister. Perhaps we should stop electing ministers for economics.

beatroot said...

I think that is unfair. What he was saying was that he is an economist - and to have to wrestle with the the political realities would stop him being an economist and turn him into a politician.

Economic policy should always be a political matter, but not all economists should, or want, to be politicians.

Anonymous said...

The first question that has to be asked is why the taxpayer is paying for public TV and Radio when the private sector can provide these services at no cost to the taxpayer. What is the benefit of state sponsored media except to be a mouthpiece for the views of the government of the day.

Is there any benefit to the public from state sponsored media?

beatroot said...

What is the benefit of state sponsored media except to be a mouthpiece for the views of the government of the day.

Are you saying that the BBC is the mouthpiece of the British government? That would be rather a shock to the current New Labour government, just as it would have been to all the governments that have been before it, in UK, as far as I can remember (all British governments think the BBC are a bunch of subversives).

No - public broadcasters can be free of government influence, and have been.

The point is whether that funding model works in the new media world. I don't think it does.

Anonymous said...

Law and Justice (PiS), now in opposition, do not like this idea. They say that this will tie public media - funded by central government - ever closer to that government. It’s a reasonable argument.

No, it's not. On several levels.

First, the license fee is essentially a tax. You must pay it even if you don't watch TVP -- you must pay it if you own a TV set. So it's essentially a luxury tax on owing a TV set. Therefore the difference between a license fee and a tax is only a technical one -- the former is collected by TVP itself, the latter would be collected by the revenue office.

Second, so far every equipe that came to power was replacing people in positions of influence in TVP and PR. Singling out PiS here has no factual basis -- well, they have indeed mastered this art, but were not the first (nor the last, I dare say) to practice it. And this is indeed unavoidable with the current financial structure of TVP and PR: these are stock companies (hence TVP S.A.), with the state owning 100% of stock. Which means that the company CEO is appointed by, and responsible to, the Minister of Treasury. So the point about a particular financing mechanism tying the company to the government is moot, since TVP is no more independent from the cabinet than any government agency!

Third. The ruling party already has a grip on the media, even private ones, by appointing members of the watchdog body, KRRiT. Remember, that KRRiT can fine a broadcaster, or even revoke their license, essentially at its own discretion.

To summarize. This is a non-issue. If the changes were to have any practical impact, they would have to encompass the financial structure of the TVP (i.e. privatize the whole thing) and the bylaws of KRRiT (i.e. make its members publicly electable). Everything else is hogwash.

On a more general note. It seems to me that PO has found a coalition with PSL to be very convenient. It absolves them of not delivering all the radical changes they promised (they promised to privatise TVP, remember?). They can always say that they wanted to do it, but PSL forced them to maintain the status quo. (The dirty secret is the current status quo is very convenient for the ruling party, and this is the real reason why no deep reforms have been undertaken in the last 18 years).

beatroot said...

Singling out PiS here has no factual basis --

But I never singled out PiS...I said all governments do's the 'Polish way'.

TVP is no more independent from the cabinet than any government agency!

But it does not have to be that way. Poland needs an independant civicl service – full of professionals who will do a professional job.

But not here. The civil service in general far too politicized here, and that will take a long time to get rid of.

But I repeat: in today’s new media world, public service media is looking anachronistic. Get rid of it.

Anonymous said...

I should have rephrased my previous comment; real reform would represent a debate about privatization of state owned media versus whether to finance the status quo from the left or right pocket.

In Poland, which is not an advanced democracy like the UK, the publicly own media is not the BBC or anything closes to it. Therefore would it not further the cause of a developing democracy by removing an instrument for propaganda.

How does state owned media serve the public good when it’s an expensive duplication of what’s delivered by the private media?

Frank Partisan said...

Does the private media in Poland have any social obligations in Poland as delivering news, announcements in time of public disaster etc?

Anonymous said...

The problem is that the private media is not objective. While PiS may have used TVP while in power, the vast majority of the private media was completely biased towards PO. TVN has been an embarrasment. And I don't write this as a supporter of PiS (or PO). You have given no reason for stating that a public media is out of date. It's needed and provides some accountability as at least governments can be voted out. Ever tried casting your vote against Murdoch?

Anonymous said...

Diversity in programming is no longer an issue. And that diversity will continue to grow as new technologies develop.

Not sure about that claim. Just because there is a growing diversity of distribution channels offered by private media, that does not mean that the content they distribute is diverse.

Private media distributes content that sells (so that your evening sitcom has cans of brand name cola sitting conspicuosly sitting on the table - this may already happen on TVP - I'm not sure I dont watch their sitcoms ;-)) while public media can still have a role in distributing content that is not always subject to the demands of mass market consumption. This is true particularly in the cultural domain which remains fairly independent of admittedly important issues of political bias to incumbent governments.

Anonymous said...

BR: "public service media is looking anachronistic. Get rid of it."

My kids owe more than a bit of what really good they are today to PBS programming (in the US). Indeed, when they were little, that's all my wife and I let them watch. They were all a bit old for the t-tubs though. But certainly, Reading Rainbow and Bill Nye the Science Guy were daily fixtures in our kid's early lives.

And if you nix public tv, at least in the US context, there'd have been no shows like Cosmos, all the Burns' histories, Nova,and I could go on and on.

So methinks getting rid of public tv is a bad idea. It will only be as good, though, as the folks willing to struggle to make good things happen on it. And of course the government interferes. Again, struggle and resistence...

Anonymous said...

That said, I'd be happy if they cut all the Brit stuff except for Monty Python.

Anonymous said...

Out of interest, the TV license fee is actually quite simple to collect. All you need is a list of who lives where (which the government has), a list of who has a TV licence (which TVP should have) and a team of people to go round to the addresses which are not on the list of people who have a license. A handheld detector can tell if a television is being used in premises which do not have a license. Not that tricky really.

beatroot said...

Costs loads of money, mate.

There are other schemes too. Put the licence as a proportion of the electric bill - that's what they do in Germany and some other places.

Geez PSB is not really 'public' TV, it is run on donations etc, is it not? So not really from taxation etc.

The principle of charging everyone who has a TV set to buy a licence can't be right anymore. OK, when there were just four channels - two private, then that is a good balance.

But these days people can easily have a TV and avoid public TV altogether. In fact, very many do.

TVP also takes adverts. That distorts the advertising market.

So why not a PSB system like POland and forget the rest of it.

Anonymous said...

No, not entirely run from donations. Federal tax dollars are appropriated to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and then to Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR) as direct appropriations and also in the form of direct handouts and tax deductions for contributions made by individual viewers. And the National Endowment for the Humanities, National Science Foundation and other federal agencies put a lot of tax money into grants to cover the costs of producing all sorts of shows with the expectation that they will air on "public" television and radio.

Anonymous said...

Why should there be any "public media" at all? The Ducks' attempts to take control of TVP as their personal propaganda mouthpiece would not be possible were it a private enterprise.

Brad Zimmerman said...

I second geez's motion: why in the hell should anyone have to pay for public TV is beyond me. It's too bad that whatever government is in power thinks it ought to automagically have a friend in broadcasting but it isn't some sort of universal law.

Have the pubic voluntarily fund the majority of public tv and we would see a vast, vast shift in how it operates and the people it serves. Public radio and TV in the US is one of the few truly great mediums left there.

The end result would also mean one less pie the government has its fingers in.

Anonymous said...

Why should there be any "public media" at all? The Ducks' attempts to take control of TVP as their personal propaganda mouthpiece would not be possible were it a private enterprise.

Possibly true. But instead you then have only private media owned by rich media barons (mention no names) with their own political agendas to drive. From the frying pan into the fire...

For me the more important issue is distribution of cultural content with a degree of independendence from issues of commercial demand. On the political influence front, the media will never escape that, private or public (even the ducks or at least their friends can sit on the boards of a private media concern).

Oh and btw I think this thread shows a fundamental difference in the perception of public TV between those from Europe and those hailing from the US. That's probably because there are fundamental differences between say the UK model and the US model, as beatroot's previous comment suggest, which may explain the difference in views....

Anonymous said...

I didn't motion against government funding of public broadcasting.

I think the mix of government funding sources in the US works out pretty well further mixed in with public support.

Unknown said...

Of course, there is a widly different view of 'public media' (which is tiny) in the US and public media, say, the UK where I am from, which is huge. The BBC is one of, if not the most, repected brand in Britain, bar none, these days (Rolls Royce is German now etc).

The BBC is a fantasic organization, by and large. But in the last decade or so it's funding is coming under increasing has changed from the old thing it was. It now has a brilliant web site - best in the world, I think, it has led the way into digital etc.

And I think that new ways of funding can be found for it. New media is based on ways of funding and I don't see why public media - and I mean REAL public media, a la European - should be left out of that process.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
beatroot said...


We should be distancing governments from public media - this proposal strengthens governments position. said...

To my mind everyone may read it.

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