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MEDIA: Public Broadcasting Faces Political Pressure

Robin van der Velden*

ROME, May 12 2005 (IPS) - State-owned television is facing increasing political pressure in several Western states.

Nowhere are pressures more visible than in Italy. "The duopoly of state and private broadcasters has resulted in (Prime Minister Silvio) Berlusconi running a TV monopoly," Marco Travaglio, journalist and author told IPS.

Since his election in 2001, Berlusconi controls almost all national television channels: as owner of the Mediaset Group he is in charge of three of the four private channels (Rete 4, Canale 5 and Italia 1), and as prime minister he controls the three public ones (RAI 1, 2 and 3).

"This monopoly is not only a huge threat for Italian democracy, but also illegal according to Italian law," says Travaglio, whose book ‘Regime’ analyses the state of public television under Berlusconi.

Travaglio says that on the one hand several constitutional court sentences and a law passed in 1957 declare that no television contractor can be elected to a public post, and on the other, laws introduced by Berlusconi’s government allow him to be prime minister while remaining the main shareholder of Mediaset (he resigned as chairman).

"Political parties should be monitored by the media, they should not be controlling the media," he says. "In Italy the relationship has been subverted; the Parliament, through a commission, monitors RAI."

Control of public television in Italy was earlier divided among the main political forces. Each of the three RAI channels therefore represented a different political view. But Travaglio argues that Berlusconi has managed to run all three public channels through a strategy of dismissals of critical figures (including respected journalists like Enzo Biagi, Michele Santoro, Daniele Luttazzi, and Massimo Fini) that has created an atmosphere of self-censorship.

"We have six channels that do the same thing," says Travaglio. "Commercial television, which was once an alternative to public television, has now become the dominant model." The debate goes on, but there are no new initiatives in Parliament to alter this situation.

The political independence of public broadcasting seems threatened also in the United States.

Of the eight members of the board of directors of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), six represent the Republican Party, including chairman Kenneth Y. Tomlinson. That Tomlinson criticises the "liberal bias" of public broadcasting comes as no surprise.

The CPB finances several public television and radio stations with state funds. It was set up by Congress in 1967 to ensure editorial independence of public broadcasters. Its budget for this year is 386.8 million dollars.

Tomlinson recently appointed external advisers to investigate what he sees as a liberal bias in media organisations funded by the CPB. Similar measures were taken last year against a programme hosted by Bill Moyer that was often critical of the Republican administration.

Tomlinson has promoted a new programme, The Journal Editorial Report hosted by Paul Grigot, editor of the conservative editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.

Tomlinson’s strong ties with the Republican Party became clear when he brought in (Republican) presidential adviser Carl Rove to lobby successfully against a legislative proposal to expand the number of representatives on the CPB board with previous broadcasting experience.

At a meeting with members of the Association of Public Television Stations and officials from the CPB last November, Tomlinson remarked that programming should better reflect the Republican mandate. He later said the quoted remark was a misinterpreted joke.

In Spain, a heated debate on reform of the state television and radio company (RTVE) followed the submission of a controversial report by a committee of five intellectuals. This "battle of the sages" as the nine-month sitting of the committee came to be called ended in a bitter battle of words.

"They didn’t say we had to solve a financial problem…some people expected our report would be a pretext to privatise part of it (RTVE)," Fernando Savater, one of the five ‘sages’ told IPS in Madrid. Those expecting such move were in for a surprise.

The committee was dissolved in March after it proposed state absorption of a huge 7 billion dollar deficit, cutting advertising time from 12 minutes an hour to nine, and increasing state subsidy from 5 percent to 50 percent.

It also recommended a BBC-style administration council whose members would act as trustees of the public interest in order to ensure freedom from state influence. In spite of differences over the recommendations, the text serves as a basis for legal reform of RTVE. The government said in April that a decision on its debts will have to wait until the reform is passed.

It will not be easy to find consensus in parliament, since the proposals were not approved unanimously by all the committee’s sages.

Four of the sages, including Savater, favoured a strong public television financed by the state; one thought the RTVE deficit should be met in part by selling subsidiaries and trimming staff. This view was discarded in the final document, but it managed to inflame a public quarrel.

The idea of reforming RTVE emerged when José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was elected prime minister in March last year.

Spanish public television was haunted then by its airing of the line taken by the former government of José María Aznar that the Basque separatist organisation ETA was behind the Madrid bombings of Mar. 11, three days before the election.

The bombs went off on four trains during morning rush hour, killing 199 people. It was Spain’s worst terrorist attack.

Aznar’s government instantly blamed ETA in spite of the fact that the bombings seemed out of character for that group, and in the face of denials by Arnaldo Otegi, leader of Batasuna (ETA’s proscribed political face).

A documentary on ETA victims was aired soon after the attack. The move was heavily criticised; some of the victims went public to say they had felt used.

Opinion polls indicated earlier that Aznar was ready to win a third term.. A bombing by ETA could have brought his party more support; an Islamic attack would expose his support to U.S. forces in Iraq – as it did.

*With additional reporting by Francesco Screti in Rome.

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