Struggling public media in Europe are under attack from right-wing politicians
Right-wing politicians in the U.S. have threatened public media funding for decades. Most recently, President Trump proposed eliminating federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which helps fund NPR and PBS.
It’s not just in the U.S.
European countries continue to face attacks from conservative parties, some to a greater extent than in the U.S., that threaten the freedom of the press in a democracy.
Here’s a look at five European countries whose public media are facing threats from the right.
Austria is a coalition government. The center right’s People’s Party, the current leading party, reached an agreement with the far right’s Freedom Party, now a minority partner.
During the 2017 election campaign, the Freedom Party heavily criticized public media. A representative of that party is now the head of the board of the ORF, Austria’s national public broadcaster.
In February 2018, Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache attacked ORF for left-leaning bias, saying in a speech, “I can promise you one thing: I will ... do everything to ensure that ORF is reformed, finally becomes a public institution, finally reports objectively and in a neutral way, and that the coercive fee is done away with.”
In April 2018, Austrian right-wing lawmaker Norbert Steger, who is on the board of ORF, threatened to fire a third of ORF’s foreign correspondents, claiming the ORF was “biased” in its reporting on parliamentary elections in Hungaria.
“The rhetoric [of the Freedom Party] is that the media should be in private hands because they believe freedom of expression is guaranteed by private enterprises,” said Josef Trappel, professor of media policy and media economics at the University of Salzburg. “An overly simplified view that they have.”
The government held a discussion on the state of public media on June 7 and 8.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban has attacked media since 2010, when he helped pass legislation that created the National Media Communications Authority. The Authority has the power to impose fines for coverage it considers unbalanced or offensive.
Right-wing party Fidesz led Parliament to create the Authority, putting all state-run media under a council whose members are appointed by ruling party members.
"Public media has been totally conquered by the government since 2010,” said Daniel Renyi, a journalist at 444.hu. “Now they have four channels to communicate the rhetoric of the government. It's just full-time government propaganda.”
In 2016, conservative-nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party gave the government the right to appoint the heads of public television and radio, lessening the independence of public media.
As a result, over one hundred media workers were fired because they weren’t supportive of the PiS.
The PiS argues that public broadcast journalists are biased in their coverage and need laws to be "impartial, objective and reliable.” Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the party and Poland’s Prime Minister, has used Hungary as an example for a conservative vision in Europe.
“We don’t want to destroy democracy,” Kaczynski said. “We want to make it real.”
In March 2018, nearly 72 percent voted against a referendum — the “No Billag” initiative — that would have ended mandatory licensing fees for public broadcasts.
This signaled a major defeat for Libertarian parties and the far-right Swiss People’s Party, which almost exclusively backed the initiative. They argued the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) was too large and must save money, and that ending the fee would enable a more open market.
“At present we have a near monopoly with a state-controlled broadcasting company,” said Florian Maier, secretary general of the No Billag campaign. “But by cutting down the subsidy it receives, a freer market for the media will exist in Switzerland.”
The BBC is recognized as an institution with long-standing tradition and credibility.
But that hasn’t stopped the political right from targeting its budget.
“For the libertarian right, there’s no space for something that’s publicly funded; it’s regarded as something too costly for the taxpayer,” said Steven Barnett, a U.K. media studies professor at the University of Westminster. “The simplistic approach is that the market defines what is good, and markets are perfect.”
Like other countries, the right tends to accuse public broadcasters in the U.K. of partisanship and bias, even while they know the political risk of attacking such institutions. Also similarly to the U.S. and Switzerland, the argument against public media focuses much on the financial price of it.
The libertarian right is the “ideological opposition to the BBC,” Barnett said. “[The idea is that] any money invested in the public sector is preventing the private sector from making money, providing no cost to the taxpayer.”
How the U.S. fends off attacks
Michael Isip, executive vice president of KQED, Bay Area’s NPR and PBS affiliate, said it’s crucial to have the support of the House and the Senate.
He lobbies hard because funding is never guaranteed, but the stakes aren’t very high for his station because representatives in the House and Senate have been, for the most part, backing public media for decades.
“It’s like preaching to the choir,” Isip said. “I spend more time saying thank you for your past support and reiterating what requests are.”
He said there are three message points about the value of public media: education, public safety and civic value. Year after year, he emphasizes the importance of their core values. However, depending on who’s in the House and the Senate, he might need to provide more education and information about what public media does and the importance of them.
Citizens have also taken matters into their own hands with Protect My Public Media, which encourages people to contact their lawmakers in support of public media.
And in the U.S., at least, public media seems to be doing ok.
Marco Brunner contributed reporting to this article.