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A Confused Notion of Public Broadcasting

First Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, who chaired the closing session of the 10th Russian-German Petersburg Dialogue forum in Yekaterinburg on July 15, was about to wrap up the meeting that preceded talks by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Dmitry Medvedev when he suddenly remembered to discuss a report prepared by the media working group. It was a good thing that he remembered because Merkel and Medvedev later made several important comments about it.

German and Russian media specialists spoke about the same problem that journalists and media executives worldwide worry: how to save the high-quality and more cost-intensive production of traditional journalism when the Internet is full of free information and consumers prefer entertainment to serious news. Representatives of Russia’s private media companies also complained to their German colleagues about how the country’s state-controlled media prosper with the help of government subsidies and, in turn, grab a piece of the advertising market, thereby depriving private media outlets of big pieces of the advertising pie.

But Medvedev poured cold water on the hopes of private media outlets when he said: “It seems to me that it does not make sense to set the goal of moving away from government media because both [private and government-controlled media] exist everywhere in the world.”

In this sense, Medvedev departs from the more liberal stance of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. As president,?  Putin never publicly spoke out so directly in support of state-controlled media.

I would like to believe that in defending the state-controlled press, Medvedev, who is leading the country’s modernization campaign, means that the media should play a more significant role in society than simply earning profits for their owners through revenues from the advertising of imported products and services.

But Medvedev did not have a clear vision of how the media could help modernize the country. Furthermore, his assertion that state-controlled media exists “everywhere in the world” proves that he is poorly informed as to how the media system is built in developed democracies. In Germany, for example, the ARD and ZDF public broadcasting companies are based on a fundamentally different business model than the state-controlled All-Russia State Television and Radio Company, which broadcasts the Rossia television network, or Channel One. (The U.S. equivalent is the Public Broadcasting Service.) By joining the Council of Europe, Russia has in fact pledged to switch from state to public broadcasting.

Moreover, creating a modern system of public broadcasting in Russia that responds to the challenges and opportunities of the digital age could itself become a major long-term project for modernization in the social, political and even economic spheres.

The experience of the West would be invaluable. At the same time, however, dozens of international conferences devoted to public broadcasting have been held and hundreds of articles, academic texts and documents have been produced on the subject over the past 20 years. If Medvedev wanted, he, as an experienced Internet user, could take just 30 minutes to find information explaining how Russia’s state-controlled media differs drastically from public broadcasting in other countries.

But for some reason, he has not done that. Perhaps he has more important priorities.

Alexei Pankin is editor of WAN-IFRA-GIPP Magazine for publishing business professionals.

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