Across Europe, public service broadcasters -- organisations like the BBC in the UK, Rai in Italy, and SVT in Sweden -- are watched and trusted by millions of people each day. Most people, most of the time, believe what these broadcasters transmit. But how can we tell which of these public broadcasters are relatively independent from the government of the day, and which are politically subservient? And if there are differences, how can we explain them, or structure our broadcasters to be more independent?
These are precisely the issues that Dr Chris Hanretty has been writing about in a book and a series of articles.
An article in the British Journal of Political Science looked at the link between broadcasters' de facto independence from politics, and the theoretical, or de jure independence from politics that they have according to the legislation which governs them. That article showed that there are patterns of de facto independence (and by and large countries in the south of Europe which are problematic), but that these can be explained by the degree of de jure independence they have been given. In other words, those public broadcasters which aren't independent from politics have been kept on a short leash.
A follow-on book looked at the interplay between de jure independence, journalistic professionalism, and de facto independence in six countries -- Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden, and Denmark. Using archival sources, it showed how directors-general of different public broadcasters had used the space given to them by the broadcaster's de jure independence to set up rules to govern the broadcaster's output, which could act as a shield in battles with politicians.
Where broadcasters didn't have that space, the key concepts governing political journalism have been the invention of politicians as much as journalists or broadcasting executives. That's the case in Italy, where the debate on pluralism in journalism has been driven by politicians.
This work is important for understanding public broadcasting more generally, but is applicable to any organisation which has to carry out a public duty without interference from politicians. This work on public broadcasting has now been followed by very different work looking at how to engineer the independence of regulators like Ofcom and Ofgem, making sure that they take decisions in our best interests, not the interests of the current government.