Radio: Can training journalists transform societies?

Public service broadcasting is widely seen as a basic pillar of an open, democratic society in Britain. It’s epitomised by the BBC with its three aims – to inform, educate and entertain its audience.  When commercial television (ITV) and, later, commercial radio (ILR) were licensed the same public service values were embedded in the independent sector, where their traces still survive under Ofcom’s regulation.

The idea that an active electorate need accurate information about the society in which they live is expressed in the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines, with their emphasis on impartiality, fairness and balance.  No-one would pretend that public service broadcasting in Britain is perfect, but it’s undoubtedly preferable to the media culture that operates in many other countries.

When the western Allies were rebuilding West Germany after the second World War, Britain exported the idea of public service journalism to its sphere  of influence where it took root in magazines like Der Spiegel and in the regional broadcasting services, such as Nord Deutsche Rundfunk.

So when Communist regimes in central and eastern Europe collapsed in 1989, it’s not surprising that the BBC was approached to help transform journalism in countries like Poland, which set themselves the goal of building open democratic societies.  More than $1 billion was invested in media development aid to the countries of the ‘enlarged Europe’, according to one researcher.

Through its Know How Fund, the British Government invested £52 million pounds in a range of development projects in Romania, including (under the heading of ‘governance’) the BBC School of Broadcast Journalism in Bucharest.

Between 1992 and 2001, the BBC School trained around 500 young  journalists.  But did the seeds of public service journalism sown in the school take root in Romanian media?  In a recently published research paper, I interviewed one cohort from the school (where I was the trainer in 1994) about their experience of the media before and after the course.

The results of this research show that there was a window of opportunity in the early to mid ’90s, when new radio stations were open to the idea of public service broadcasting.  But as the commercial potential of these stations became apparent, they were taken over by bigger networks and gradually subjected to a heavy mix of commercial and political pressures.  This contributed to a decline in journalistic standards which has been widely diagnosed.

One of those interviewed – the former head of the BBC’s Romanian Service, who is now a member of Romania’s media regulating body  – described a ‘downward spiral’ in the broadcast media alongside a dramatic decline in the printed press.  In the current severe recession, he observed that it was difficult for the broadcast regulator to maintain journalistic standards, even if it wanted to. 

All this raises interesting questions about the effectiveness of outside intervention in the media of societies in transition.  While the BBC now focuses its international efforts on supporting local initiatives, other players continue to stress the importance of journalism training in the building of new democracies.

The full research can be accessed in Journalism Practice Vol. 7, No. 3

James Stewart

About James Stewart

Senior Lecturer in Radio Journalism.
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