The Media Today

The public broadcasters facing tumult in Europe

May 21, 2024
 

Early last month, Uri Berliner, a senior editor at NPR, published an essay in the Free Press in which he chided his own newsroom for drifting into what he saw as inflexible progressive orthodoxy in its coverage of everything from Hunter Biden’s laptop to the war in Gaza. Berliner was suspended, nominally for failing to clear an outside essay with bosses in violation of NPR rules; a few days later, he resigned. But the fallout—which touched off heated debate both inside and outside NPR—has continued. Right-wingers dredged up old tweets in which Katherine Maher, NPR’s new CEO, espoused liberal views; House Republicans then convened a hearing to address “bias” at NPR and invited Maher, who provided written testimony but did not attend, citing a long-standing board meeting. (She has offered to appear on a future date.) Last week, NPR announced plans to institute a new layer of editorial review, a move some staffers reportedly feared could be seen as a sop to Berliner. The Free Press took a victory lap.

Berliner’s essay has precipitated a difficult moment for NPR (“Clearly we have a lot of eyes on our house right now,” Edith Chapin, the editor in chief, acknowledged in a memo outlining the new editorial layer), one driven by some distinctively American culture-war trends. In the global context, though, this moment does not look like much of an outlier; indeed, public broadcasters in various democracies are confronting various interlaced challenges and finding themselves defending their core values of public service and independence—more or less convincingly—in the face of competing pressures from the public, politicians, and their own staffs. The specifics of these challenges vary, of course, but three themes in particular recur: tensions around the war in Gaza, allegations of liberal bias emanating from the political right, and organizational challenges from workplace misconduct to funding shortfalls. All three find echo in the US public media landscape right now. The last, in particular, also points to a key difference between the US landscape and its counterparts—and where its most urgent crisis may lie. 

We’ve written recently about two European countries where public broadcasters have been at the center of sharp political tensions: Poland, where, as Luke Johnson reported, a new moderate government has embarked on a controversial effort to a reform a public broadcaster that the previous administration dragged far to the right, leading the latter’s allies to stage a sit-in; and Slovakia, where, as I wrote yesterday, the populist administration of Robert Fico—who was shot by a would-be assassin last week—has been accused of seeking to replace the public broadcaster with a politically pliable alternative. (A video of Fico’s alleged shooter suggested that he opposed this policy, among others.) In recent weeks (and ahead of elections to the European Union’s parliament next month), three other European countries have seen similar tensions play out around public broadcasting, albeit, perhaps, less dramatically.    

In France, public broadcasters have recently been rocked by a pair of controversies involving on-air personalities. Late last month, Franceinfo, a public radio station, fired Jean-François Achilli, a political journalist and host, after Le Monde reported that he had advised Jordan Bardella, an up-and-coming leader of Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National party, on a book project. (Libération subsequently revealed that he had also participated in media trainings for business leaders.) Achilli denied any formal arrangement with Bardella or other conflict of interest, but bosses said that there manifestly was a conflict, and that, crucially, Achilli hadn’t disclosed his outside work. After Achilli was initially suspended, various right-wing politicians and commentators accused taxpayer-funded media of engaging in censorship and double standards. Bardella described Achilli’s treatment as being “worthy of the worst regimes.”

Around the same time that Achilli was being fired, Guillaume Meurice, a satirist on a different public radio station, France Inter, repeated a joke he’d first made last year—referring to Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, as a “sort of Nazi but without a foreskin”—after a prosecutor cleared him of a complaint alleging anti-Semitism and incitement to violence. (“Make mugs and T-shirts,” Meurice quipped on air. “It’s my first joke authorized by French law.”) A few days later, Meurice revealed that he had been suspended as part of a disciplinary process that could lead to his termination. Some colleagues spoke out in Meurice’s defense, criticizing his suspension (as well as other recent programming changes) as a blow to free expression; one accused bosses of “trembling before the posts” of a popular anonymous Twitter account that has routinely critiqued perceived bias in public media. Last weekend, France Inter’s programming was disrupted as staffers went on strike, partly in protest of Meurice’s treatment. (Meurice met with bosses last week; he remains suspended.) 

All of this has come as the French government has been working to push through an administrative merger that, starting next year and officially from 2026, would bring various arms of France’s public broadcasting system under a shared parent entity. Supporters of the arrangement have argued that the merger will give the different broadcasters greater combined power in a competitive landscape. But it still isn’t totally clear what the process will look like—and unions representing staffers at French public radio and TV have called for their members to strike over the proposals, which they have characterized, variously, as unnecessary, anxiety-provoking for staff, and a pretext to cut funding. (Since President Emmanuel Macron won reelection in 2022, his administration already moved to scrap a license fee by which French citizens paid for public broadcasting, in favor of more centralized funding—a move, critics said, that left public media more reliant on governmental goodwill.)

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Last year, the government of Italy itself moved to cut by roughly a quarter the cost of a license fee that helps fund RAI, Italy’s public broadcaster. Indeed, since a coalition government headed by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, the leader of a party with neo-fascist roots, took office, also in 2022, RAI has repeatedly found itself at the heart of tensions even sharper than those at issue in France. Last year, the CEO resigned, citing political pressure, and new bosses were installed, one of whom was known for his far-right views; left-leaning on-air personalities departed, too, while a show hosted by Roberto Saviano, a prominent author on the Mafia, was canceled after he sharply criticized a government minister. (Bosses said the decision was a corporate one.) Governments have always exerted influence over RAI, but various internal and external critics have described Meloni’s administration as going much further than normal. One critic said that officials see RAI as symbolic of a left-wing “dictatorship.” 

This year, tensions have continued, including around the war in Gaza: in February, a rapper called for an end to “genocide” during a music festival broadcast by RAI; the next day, an anchor read out a letter from RAI’s CEO in which he expressed solidarity with the people of Israel without also mentioning the plight of Palestinians. (The incident led to pro-Palestinian protests outside RAI buildings; in Naples, police pushed back protesters with truncheons and several people were reportedly injured.) Last month, RAI canceled a monologue by Antonio Scurati, a prominent writer on the Mussolini era, in which he had planned to criticize “the heirs” of Italy’s fascist history—a move that bosses blamed on Scurati’s fee but that, in any case, made the monologue a bigger story than it might otherwise have been. (Talk about l’effetto della Streisand.) More recently, a union representing RAI staff pushed back, including via coordinated statements read by news anchors on air, after government allies tried to force the broadcaster to give more airtime to political speeches and ministerial commentary. Earlier this month, staffers went on strike, accusing bosses of threatening their independence and of behaving like “the owners of an ironworks.”

Finally, the Netherlands has likewise seen tensions around its public broadcaster. Earlier this year, a damning report on the workplace culture in public television found that three-quarters of staffers interviewed had experienced inappropriate behavior, including instances of sexual harassment and the throwing of furniture. The report was commissioned in response to allegations of bullying against a specific on-air personality, but some observers suggested that it could offer a political opportunity for Geert Wilders, a far-right politician whose party came out on top in elections last year and who has called, in the past, for the Dutch public broadcaster to be broken up. At the time, Wilders had yet to form a coalition government. Last week, there was a breakthrough on that front. Some of the details remained hazy, including the identity of the prime minister (Wilders has pledged that it won’t be him), but the coalition agreement reportedly calls, among other things, for a hundred million euros (around 108 million US dollars) to be cut from the public-media budget. This proposal could have been worse. But its full impact is not yet clear.

Even with more significant cuts to their budgets, countries like the Netherlands and Italy would still likely spend a lot more taxpayer money on public broadcasting than the US; indeed, as the academic Victor Pickard told my colleague Emily Russell last year, the US “is almost literally off the chart compared to how little we allocate towards our public broadcasting system compared to other democracies around the world.” Russell and Pickard spoke following a sharp round of cuts at NPR, which John Lansing, Maher’s predecessor as CEO, blamed on declining sponsorships and advertising revenue. Since then, public broadcasters in various US states have themselves announced cuts, or plans for them, citing similar financial pressures.

According to Benjamin Mullin, of the New York Times, certain NPR staffers didn’t just fear that last week’s announcement of the broadcaster’s new editorial layer would be seen as a defensive reaction to Berliner’s recent criticism, but also took issue with the hiring of a new panel of editors to oversee the initiative less than a year after the sharp layoffs. Chapin (who has reportedly rejected the Berliner fear in conversations with staff) said in her memo that the initiative will be supported by “external funders.” Per Mullin, Michel Martin, a top NPR host, pressed Chapin to identify them during an internal meeting. Chapin wouldn’t do so.


Other notable stories:

  • Recently, Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, told top department staff that he was “angry” about a number of leaks to the press concerning the war in Gaza—a conversation that itself leaked, to Politico’s Alexander Ward. Blinken was reportedly upset about leaks of classified documents and proposals to negotiate a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, Ward writes, arguing that they “made tricky negotiations even harder…and eroded trust within the State Department that documents or details of closed-door conversations wouldn’t find their way to a reporter.” One of the officials present, “granted anonymity to detail yet another private discussion, said Blinken’s message has since been sternly delivered throughout the department.”
  • Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein profiled Charlotte Behrendt, who oversees internal investigations at the New York Times, including a recent probe into leaks concerning coverage of sexual violence on October 7 that drew allegations (which the Times disputes) of harassment and racial profiling from the paper’s union. Behrendt’s style has been described by various staffers as prosecutorial. “If they want to have a corporate investigator, fine,” one anonymous staffer told Klein. “But it is certainly at odds with the public positioning the Times likes to do on how it treats its employees. I’ve been in HR conversations before; this goes well beyond those.”
  • And The Apprentice—a movie, scripted by the journalist Gabriel Sherman, that charts the early years of Donald Trump and his relationship with Roy Cohn—debuted at Cannes last night. The film is getting some positive reviews, but Variety’s Tatiana Siegel reports that Dan Snyder—the billionaire former owner of the Washington Commanders football team, who invested in the project—is furious with it, having paid in on the understanding that it would be “a flattering portrayal” of Trump. (It is not.)

ICYMI: A tale of two shocking stories about world leaders

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.