Do We Need Another Public Service Broadcaster?

Questions concerning editorial independence, funding, and audience demand need to be asked about plans for a new public service broadcaster.

By Osama Al-Sharif

The government is pushing ahead with plans to launch another public service broadcaster that will consist of two new television and radio stations. The move has attracted a fair deal of controversy, especially among media experts who believe it’s vital that such an important project be discussed in an open and transparent manner.

Little is known about the new broadcaster beyond the fact it will be launched within the coming eight to nine months and that a prominent Jordanian journalist with no TV experience is likely to be put in charge of running it.

We’ve been assured the new stations will be free of government interference. A board of directors will be appointed by a Royal Decree and that board will be solely responsible for charting editorial policy. But the existing public service broadcaster, the Jordan Radio and Television Corporation (JRTVC), is also supposedly managed by an independent board, though in reality it lacks editorial freedom.

Concerns have been raised about how the project is going to be funded. Journalist and media expert Rana Sabbagh wrote in Al-Gad in August that the JRTVC received JD35 million in public financing for 2015, while it’s only expected to generate around JD4 million in advertising revenue during the whole year. So how worried should we be that Jordanian taxpayers are picking up the tab for the new stations? And what will become of the JRTVC? Past attempts to restructure and revitalize JTV, the corporation’s television arm, have all failed because the government couldn’t decide what to do with the 1,600 employees who are on the payroll of the 50-year-old station. The reality is that JTV had become a hot political potato which no minister dares to handle.

For a small country like Jordan, having two state-owned broadcasters is a luxury it cannot afford. The proposed new TV and radio stations will be free of advertising, which means that they will cost the Treasury much more than the existing JRTVC. Is this really the right approach?

Then there’s the matter of finding an audience for the new stations. A quick look at the current media landscape in Jordan suggests that it’s highly fragmented. JTV has lost the battle for viewership to the up-and-coming privately owned Roya TV station, which itself is unlikely to be making money or breaking even. The situation will be worse for the new public radio service, where more than a dozen local FM radio stations compete for a relatively small audience.

The truth of the matter is that public broadcasting is costly and highly competitive. The new project will find itself in competition with the private sector for talents, including presenters and producers, in addition to producing controversial and interesting programming.

In the Arab world there are no TV and radio stations that fit the concept of public broadcasting as we know it. The closest foreign examples are the BBC in the UK and PBS in the United States. Because of strong public financing, by law, the BBC has become a media empire. It’s truly independent from government influence and while its TV and radio stations do not carry advertising, they generate hundreds of millions of dinars in high-quality programming that are sold to broadcasters all over the world.

PBS is a much smaller entity and is entirely dependent on donations and sponsorships. It also has a very small share of the broadcasting market in America.

It’s misleading to compare Jordan’s proposed project to public broadcasters such as France 24, Deutsche Welle, or VOA. These are government funded media arms that broadcast exclusively to foreign audiences.

The biggest test for the new stations will be their freedom to report on issues of public interest. But at a time when journalists complain of restrictions and laws that prohibit free reporting, it’s doubtful the new entity will be able to report freely and without obstructions.

At any rate, if the government is adamant on creating a true public broadcasting service why not salvage the existing JRTVC by amending its law and investing in its infrastructure? It really makes no sense to build a new body when you already have something that can be made right. After all, it’s not what we want to call the local broadcaster that matters, but what role we want it to fill.