Monday, May 29, 2023
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Juan José Videla

​Journalists and the public media: a lonely struggle

Ph.D in Information Sciences and professor of Audiovisual Communication at the University of A Coruña

Public media are absolutely necessary. This should be as resounding as it is clear. It is an affirmation, rather a declaration of principles, that I make at the beginning so that no-one is deceived or confused in the light of the criticisms I may make in the course of this article. They are essential, if only to cover the gaps or absences in the private media.


Why is it essential that public media exist? For the same reason that public hospitals, toll-free roads or free and universal education are necessary. This is, because they reinforce the right to information. I use the verb "reinforce" since obviously the public media do not exclusively own the task of allowing the free flow of information and opinion; private media have also, and with greater responsibility if possible, given that they are more numerous, guarantors of the right to plural information, inherent in parliamentary democracies.

Now that we have stated the value of public media, we can describe what their activity should be: neutral ideologically, be of quality from the content point of view, rigorous in economic management, open to all social groups, outside of commercial constraints and at the service of the general interest. These are not minor considerations, and in fact they are quite relevant and exemplary if they are put into practice, something that in the Spanish case has not been the norm, not only at state but also at regional level, and with governments of all ideologies.

The examples of this are varied, but basically we could summarise them as news bias and negligence in the management of budgets. 

The RTVE in the governments of Felipe González, José María Aznar and Mariano Rajoy, or the CRTVG in the mandates of Manuel Fraga, Emilio Pérez Touriño and Alberto Núñez Feijoo reveal numerous examples of public media misuse. I refer to the Spanish and Galician cases because they are the ones I am familiar with, although without doubt any reader could cite examples of other regional television channels.


It is not appropriate at this point to explain why this has happened, but in my opinion it is related to the way in which the political parties take over all the institutions that they consider essential to guarantee their permanence in power. It has also been influenced by the fact that RTVE, the great Spanish public media, was created in the midst of Franco's dictatorship, that is to say, being at the service of a dictatorial regime holding an audiovisual monopoly. When the transition arrived and the subsequent democratic normality, the new governors discovered that RTVE served their interests quite well, and to different degrees, this same vice is reproduced later in the regional television channels.

Forty years have passed by since the first elections, and the public media landscape still has much to improve.

All the professionals who work in them know this because they are the ones who are the first to suffer the consequences of their mismanagement partisan use. There is the dramatic experience of the Canal Nou employees, the Valencian radiotelevision, liquidated at the time by the Alberto Fabra government as the end result of catastrophic economic management. The employees found themselves out on the street and those responsible found themselves places in other offices.

I have had the opportunity on numerous occasions to discuss the role of journalists in the public media. Among other things because for twenty years I have worked in one of them. I argue that working in a public environment is quite easy. However, journalists have intrinsic responsibilities. Regarding the information, a public medium has to do something as simple as giving voice to all the protagonists with rigour and professionalism. This is to say, we need to present the news by offering all the aspects that are honestly considered essential for the audience to form an opinion and develop as a citizen (I reiterate that private media can also act in the same way, depending on their owners' values and criteria).

Public media journalists have been denouncing the prostitution of the role of these media in Spain for years. 

In the absence of institutionalized editorial guidelines, more or less formal groups dedicated to overseeing the activity of public corporations and denouncing their spurious use have proliferated, both from the point of view of news content and entertainment in general. Undoubtedly, in an ideal world there would be institutional channels of internal control, but this does not look likely in the short term. As a result, we have to trust everything to the professionals' initiative.


What are this control work's guidelines? Precisely what appears in article 2.1 of the State-owned Radio and Television legislation currently in force, but that could be applied to the rest of autonomous television. "The state-owned radio and television public service is an essential service for the community and the cohesion of democratic societies that has as its objective the production, editing and broadcasting of a set of radio and television channels with diverse and balanced programming for all types of public, covering all genres and destined to satisfy the news, culture, education and entertainment needs of Spanish society, disseminate their cultural identity and diversity; promote the information society, promote pluralism and participation and other constitutional values, guaranteeing access to social groups and leading politicians".

It is evident that this is not happening. Beyond any other consideration, it is up to the professionals to ensure its actual enforcement. Other groups may stand by them, but they are the first and only barrier to avoid manipulation and violation of the principles that should govern their activity. We say that they are the first because they are in charge of selecting and preparing the contents; and so, to the extent that they fulfil their task they will be defending the value of the public environment; but they are also the only firewall against manipulation and partisanship because, apparently, nobody else seems to be interested in putting a stop to public media bad practices. Certainly not some of those responsible for the newsrooms and the great majority of the directors and managers, put into their jobs by political parties.

This vision of the situation of the public media and the role that journalists should have may change in the future. Reality and perspectives do not inspire optimism. In any case, it is up to the agents involved to take measures, to the extent of their responsibilities, to ensure compliance with article 2.1 of the aforementioned Radio and Television legislation.



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