From the local to the global: transforming public media in Spain

Monday 15 May 2017

Speakers at the Teledetodos event in Madrid. Image: PMA

A recent meeting organised by think tank Teledetodos showed the country’s commitment to the values of public media, but also the numerous challenges it is facing, and will have to face, to truly thrive.

On Monday 8 May, public media experts, journalists, academics, politicians and members of the public convened in Madrid to discuss the future of public media in Spain.

The Spanish public media landscape is currently plagued by corruption, political interference, organisational and governance issues, a lack of an efficient funding strategy and popularity among the general public. Nonetheless, the values of public media and the willingness transform it are undeniably strong. All the attendees recognised the unique value of public media and the key role it plays in upholding a democratic society. The following report summarises the key discussions from the meeting. 

What does public media mean?

The speakers proposed a vision of public media as a social pact between the public, society and media professionals. They suggested that it should serve the function of a shared and collaborative space between citizens and journalists, where they can both work on their local realities. Ideally, it would have to answer to the demands of all the citizens, without targeting a specific audience, and be able to guarantee the right to information for everyone. In addition, it was said that a true public media organisation does not, and cannot, compete with the wider commercial market but has to find its own space, a space that can guarantee equal access to information to all citizens.

A matter of funding

However, in order to fulfill this vision, public service media needs to have the financial means to do so. Sustainable funding is essential for the effective running of any public broadcaster. Many of the financial models existing in Europe are very far from the one existing in Spain, where citizens only pay €38.9 per year, making the Corporación de Radio y Televisión Española (RTVE) the “cheapest” public broadcaster in Europe.  Given that Spain has strong regional identities, a federal or mixed funding model might be the most suitable solution. However, finding a model that is cost effective and takes into account the different local realities is going to be hard, especially as there is no widespread agreement on how much public media is actually worth and how much people are willing to invest in it. But one thing is clear: if public media funding keeps on coming from the state, there is no guarantee that a broadcaster can be truly independent.

Towards a better organisation, inside-out

There is little doubt that in order to survive and improve, public media in Spain will have to change. Digital transformation and inclusivity are only some of the discussed challenges and shifts that are unlikely to go ahead if both the government and the public do not begin to be seriously involved and committed both financially and ideally, to the unique value of public service media.

But public broadcasting must change from the inside too. Of course employees within public media organisations need to have the correct training but also the trust and motivation to perform well in this sector. Each regional office should have clear objectives to accomplish, as well the willingness to mobilise and nurture employees’ talent so that they can all have the opportunity to develop and reach their full potential.

Another important proposal is the establishment of a regulatory board that can guarantee the broadcaster’s quality. In fact, Spain does not currently have a separate media regulator but a general ‘umbrella’ body that covers everything, from gas and electricity to the audiovisual sectors, which functions without specific public media experts. According to the experts at the event, having a regulatory organisation with experienced members would be essential in guiding and advising a broadcaster, and essential to ensuring independence not only for public broadcasters but for the audiovisual sector as a whole.

However, these changes are unlikely to go forward or be able to be implemented successfully without strong political will to make them effective.

The political reform

The debate also expressed the urgent need for organisational reform within RTVE to address issues of corruption and inefficiency.

On Thursday Spain’s congress unanimously voted to discuss in a single reading a proposal by the socialist party PSOE. The proposal will change the way RTVE’s President and Board of Trustees will be elected, taking the first initial steps towards broader change. Previously they were both elected by a simple majority but following the possible reform, they will require consensus between parties with the requirement of a two-thirds majority of the Chamber. The new reform states that, once fully approved, “it will proceed immediately with the election of a new Board of Trustees and of a new president for the corporation”.  The amendments will soon be discussed and a final decision will likely be made before the summer.  

The two other political parties Podemos and Ciudadanos, joined by many other people at the event, agreed that this measure, albeit a progressive step, is not enough. They both called for the president to be elected not only by a two-thirds majority but also via a public exam and a prospective action plan for their mandate, in order to make their election as fair as possible and to guarantee a wider social consensus.

Reaching an agreement over this will be difficult, but the event provided a launching platform for people to discuss their ideas, to challenge the status quo of public media in Spain and propose ways to overcome some of its key challenges. It might take time and more practical strategies, but Spain has the right ingredients in the mix to make public service media work at its best.

The Public Media Alliance supports the call for free, independent and stable public media in Spain and will continue to follow and update on the situation.