Throughout Europe, the enthusiastically, uncritically pursued antidotes to the “bad boys” that commercial media are said to represent are the so-called public service media outlets (PSMs). However, the question of how they have been faring and contributing to a better-informed public in Eastern Europe is an open one.

Hidden in plain sight since the 1989 transition from communism, the political control, manipulation of PSMs, and manipulating by PSMs is a brazen, day-to-day affair in Eastern Europe. Only the Baltic countries and the Czech Republic have fared slightly better: PSMs in the rest of the former communist countries have found themselves in a bleak cul-de-sac situated on quicksand.

The Polish government’s takeover of the country’s PSMs in February 2016 is the most overt infringement on the independence and freedom to pursue balanced, fact-based, fair journalistic coverage in the region. Europe’s supra-national institutions and the world’s media oversight NGOs thundered with righteous indignation, engaging in Quixotic campaigns to save these already inveterately compromised Dulcineas.

They were equally ineffective in opposing the changes in the media law package that brought more centralization and political control over Hungarian TV, Hungarian Radio, Duna TV, and the Hungarian News Agency, which in summer 2015 were integrated into Duna Media Services. And then there is Russia with its “Putin-Serving Media” institutions re-made to serve a controlling autocracy that exchanged the inferno of Marxism-Leninism for a form of nationalistic caudilloism. The West has proven singularly powerless to reverse the politicization and partisanship of PSMs, and Eastern Europe is simply unwilling to do so.

Western European PSMs are better by degrees, but scandalously bad behavior remains easy to find. The funding and regulatory model of the highly respected Scandinavian PSM has been challenged, and even the BBC, the much-vaunted paragon of journalistic virtue and independence, has succumbed on occasion. In January 2016, a BBC producer and two journalists admitted to manipulating the news to negatively impact Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn – a revelation that followed the BBC’s alleged political manipulation during the Scottish independence debates in 2014.

The dubious success and independence of PSMs in Europe is not an argument to get rid of PSMs. However, the notion that PSMs are a panacea for all the shortcomings of the commercial media needs serious reconsideration. PSMs can and often do become oligarchical institutions themselves, flexing their muscles in a most un-democratic way. To believe that PSMs have the authentic editorial independence and institutional autonomy to counter-balance “the risk of misuse of power in a situation of strong concentration of media,” and offer socially responsible journalism is to embrace a form of alchemy. Yet that was proposed in 2009 at the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw, Poland – Europe’s largest annual human rights and democracy conference.

After all, public institutions are not automatically less self-serving than private ones, as the American historian Gertrude Himmelfarb reminds us in her 2001 book One Nation, Two Cultures: “Power and ideology can be as corrupting as money.”

Solutions in Court?

It is galling to propose that PSMs are needed to carry out socially responsible journalism, therefore suggesting agreement and acceptance that all other media cannot and need not practice it. All journalism must be socially responsible, regardless of the nature of the platforms disseminating it. The unresolved problem is agreeing what that means in practice, as well as how and by whom deviations will be adjudicated and punished.

Given how fundamentally necessary socially responsible journalism is to democracy, critiques of journalistic practices, the exposure of threats to media independence, and voluminous, loud complaints are simply not enough. Perhaps we need a European Court of Professional Media Conduct.

Absent such an institution, why not make more extensive use of the European Court of Human Rights? It has done some good in the past, as its already extensive case law addressing freedom of expression and media and journalistic freedoms attests. Its power and reach need to be augmented, of course. This means enlarging and strengthening Article 10 (Freedom of Expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Simply put, governments, political parties, politicians, media owners and companies – anyone diminishing media autonomy and journalists’ freedoms to carry out their métier – should be brought to trial. Journalism watchdogs of the future can then tell the story of a good fight that may be registering some wins … but must be continued indefinitely. 

Peter Gross, Ph.D., is professor in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media, University of Tennessee, U.S.A.  He has written extensively on the subject of East European media and its evolution since 1989.