We live in a time with changes in the mass media sector, mainly due to new technology, and cheaper production costs of broadcasting programmes and exchange of information on social media using mobile phones and Internet. The gatekeeper role of the editors in newspapers, broadcasting stations and other media has been reduced. Now, almost anything can be circulated, including false and doctored information. The latest is called ‘alternative news’, which became a phrase this spring after President Donald Trump and his spokespersons altered facts and claimed they were entitled to do so. In the past, we were more concerned about what issues that were considered newsworthy; in other words, what was covered and what was not.

I believe that we are just at the beginning of major changes in the flow of information and news circulation. The technological developments have led to major democratisation in the field. In the recent decade or so, with the social media entering the scene, there is a more increase in open flow of information. Yet, in social media and in Internet, there is room for sub-groups, even extremist groups, to distribute false and propagandistic information. Some of that may be ‘whitewashed’ trough when finding its way into traditional media.

I believe that the traditional media channels will soon see a revival. They will use traditional distribution channels, in addition to Internet and even mobile phone. But the news and other material that they distribute will also have gone through a screening process by the gatekeepers, editors and professional journalists. The reputation of the media outlets will give a stamp of trust, also when using new distribution channels.

And what we sometimes think of as old-fashioned media regulations, gate-keeping, editing, re-writing and presenting news well, will be give renewed importance. This is indeed required in a world with such an enormous growth in information that we have seen in recent decades. We will all need somebody to help sort out, combine and analyse data, so that we can distinguish between facts and fiction, real and false news, truths and lies. We will also need to become better and more critical at judging the news we are bombarded with.

The American National Public Radio, NPR, has a magazine entitled ‘All Things Considered’, and that is from where borrowed the title to today’s article. The same name is also used in NPR’s flagship programme of news from 1971, coming as a more neutral outlet to the commercial news channels. When I lived in USA in the mid 1990s, it was a treat to listen to the programme every Saturday mid-morning when I was free.

Robert Siegel has been the anchor since 1987. He recently announced that he will call it a day next year, after having been at the helm for 30 years, with numerous awards on his bookshelf. From 1976-1987 he was heading the NPR-London bureau. That is also where he picked up much of the style and tune of the programme, being in BBC’s motherland and capital city. BBC was, and still is, the standard-setter of all public broadcasting, and maybe even broadcasting at large, including TV news, drama, sports, culture, international news, various entertainment programmes, and more.

Yet, I believe that America is the motherland of TV and cinema, indeed not public broadcasting. Many of the ideals and principles in BBC’s handling of news on the radio also became a standard for TV; facts would rain over fiction and entertainment in all news. Yet, the Americans have always loved the latter in a fight to be popular, have larger audiences and be able to increase advertising volume. True, it is important to make news, current affairs and other informative programmes entertaining. Americans are good salespeople, but they may sometimes go a bit too far, entertaining rather than informing audiences.

Today, we have all become commercialised and we are selling and buying news. We are at the crossroads in public broadcasting, in style, regulations and content. In financing, we have come to rely almost entirely on advertising and sponsorship of entire broadcasting stations. Print media, newspapers and books, struggle for market shares.

The old state-owned broadcasting stations, like that of Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation (PBC), Radio Pakistan (RP), and PTV have qualities and integrity that private broadcasting may be lacking. Yet, they may also sometimes be too directly controlled by the government. The framework for how to operate, notably the principles and practices for the public and private broadcasting, must be drawn up for long-term periods, whether it is about live broadcasts from the Parliament’s deliberations or other delicate and important issues and events.

In my home country Norway, the state broadcasting corporation, NRK, is built on the BBC-model, and it was only de-monopolised in the 1980s, after a long debate in parliament, the media and society at large about the role and function of the media, including financing and more. Competition between different channels will usually, at least in theory, improve quality. But it can also lead to sensationalism and superficial content in a race to be first with the latest news. Many TV channels, also in Pakistan, have become fond of talk shows, which are less costly to produce. They are not really news programmes, but rather commentaries about news and current affairs.

In my childhood and youth, we were all used to the official news from the state broadcaster, NRK, as Pakistanis were used to Pakistan Radio and later PTV. Such media corporations would collect news themselves, also from remote areas, but would also rely heavily on news agencies. In Norway, that was NTB, owned by the newspapers, plus the international news agencies, such as Associated Press, Reuters, and others. Till this day, NTB is as careful and reliable as a government source of news.

It should be added that although BBC and NRK are state corporations, they have a distance to their owners. The owners give overall framework and appropriate funds (from the taxpayers), but the actual operations are the responsibility of NRK itself, which has editor responsibility. There cannot be direct, ad hoc, government interference, either it is ordering to broadcast something live, or block it from happening. Complaints can be made about NRK’s and other media’s products. Recently, some such debates have been broadcast live, depending on public interest and, one could say, people’s need and wish to know.

Public Broadcasting in USA has a similar ideal role as BBC and NRK. NPB has some, but essential financial support from the government. Just now that issue is under scrutiny since President Donald Trump’s government wants to pull the rug under NPB and seize allowing taxpayers’ money to be used for it on national and state levels. Then NPB, too, would almost certainly be forced into selling advertisements for its income, in addition to the grants and contributions it otherwise gets.

Finally, when all things are considered, I believe there is a need for both public and private broadcasting, and for a revival of newspapers and other print media. There is a need for finding new ways of regulating the traditional media, Internet and social media. Most regulation can be done by media organisations themselves, but the government and others also have a say. We need to do this long-term, realising that parliamentarians, journalists and editors have key roles in society. The media’s role will be even more so in future. The current dispute in Parliament over live transmission or not of this year’s budget debate should have been solved under general regulations.

 

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.

atlehetland@yahoo.com