When Finland decided to change YLE’s funding structure from a one-size-fits-all fee to a progressive tax this past winter, the editor-in-chief of the Helsinki-based Helsingin Sanomat, the largest-circulation daily in Scandinavia, used the opportunity to highlight the unfairness of the system overall. Mikael Pentikäinen’s editorial criticized the new agreement for guaranteeing such generous funding for YLE without putting any restrictions on its expansion online, at a time when many other media companies are still wondering how to make any money online at all.
“We think they are pretty aggressive,” says Per Hultengård, attorney for the Swedish Media Publishers’ Association, referring to the public broadcasters. “I mean, they want to expand, they want to be on all platforms. Which is, from their perspective, natural. But when they are expanding on the local and regional markets, competing in more direct ways with the more regional newspapers, we think it’s fundamentally wrong as they are financed by this fee that the government obliges its citizens to pay.”
In 2009, the European Commission announced that it would require public broadcasters to subject any new platforms or services to a “public value test,” an evaluation that balances the potential value for its audiences against the potential impact it would have on the wider media market. It would then be up to each member state to decide whether or not to allow the new service to launch.
According to Hallvard Moe, a media researcher at the University of Bergen in Norway, the public value test was first used by the BBC, but was soon embraced by the European Commission, and is now established policy in Finland, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. (While Norway is not a member of the EU, it tends to align many of its policies with those of its neighbors.) The public value test requirement has not calmed public broadcasters’ critics, however, who say that market impact is necessarily hard to predict, and that its requirements are vague.
“This looks very good on paper, but it’s not really doing anything in practice,” says Hultengård—which is why his and other similar organizations are lobbying the EU for something stronger.
The public broadcasters, of course, oppose any policy that would hinder their ability to grow. Earlier this month, Jean-Paul Philippot, president of the European Broadcasting Union, which represents media organizations from 56 countries in Europe, defended the broadcasters’ right to expand online.
“For quite some time, public service media in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland have served as examples for the rest of Europe by demonstrating the clear link between properly-functioning public service media and properly-functioning democratic societies,” wrote Philippot. “However…we must contend with interests at the supra-national level, who wish to confine us to a sort of ‘media ghetto’ by reducing our access to broadcasting spectrum and seeking to impose restrictions and more political control over our activities.”
As the lobbying by all parties continues, it remains to be seen what restrictions may be placed on public service broadcasters in future media charters. Scandinavia’s public service journalists and producers all argue that maintaining the current funding and regulatory model is crucial: direct funding from the public keeps them independent; in exchange for that funding, the public expects fast and thorough news and entertainment—both on air and online. Costs go up along with those expectations, but staying big, they say, is essential to the public service they provide.
“It’s a balance of confidence,” says SVT’s Eva Hamilton. “As long as we can provide quality programs, as long as we have a first-class news coverage, as long as we have many correspondents, and as long as we have the best cultural programs in the country, then everybody accepts that this is a public service.”