In Latvia, support for public service media is strong but neither politicians nor people appear ready to invest more to keep standards of journalism high. Several battles are ahead, including over the funding model and the independent character of public media.
The maturity of any democratic system and civil society can often be judged by the state of the national public service media. It is a fact I was recently reminded of during the presentation of Jānis Juzefovičs’ study Public Service Media and Society: Attitudes, Views, and Expectations. Study into Audience of the Latvian Television and Latvian Radio and the following discussion about the adoption of a new Public Service Media Governance Law by the Saeima (Parliament of Latvia).
Public opinion on the role of public service media and official efforts to strengthen the media space this year show that there is a long way to go before we can say that Latvia has a mature civil society.
The media, of course, also have to significantly step up their efforts of effective countering targeted propaganda aimed at winning people’s hearts and minds through information warfare.
The important and good news is that support of Latvian population to public service media has always been high, and it even increased in recent years, contrary to other former Eastern bloc countries. The above study shows that 59.1 per cent of respondents either fully or strongly disagreed with the statement “public TV and radio is redundant because other, private media, can also play their role”.
Compared to 2010, the support for public media among Latvian population has increased by 12.2 percentage points. This shows that the population generally has high support for public service media and is convinced that other media would not be able to substitute the public service media.
However, the demographics of popular support are not as positive. The loyal audience of Latvian Radio (LR) and Latvian Television (LTV), or those who regularly listen to or watch LR and LTV and, thus, have a more positive opinion about offered content, has not changed much. It is mostly comprised of older generation of Latvian-speaking population, which represents the upper socio-economic class, especially in terms of education.
While 12.9 per cent of respondents aged 64-75 admitted that they have not watched LTV content in the past 6 months, the same share in the 25-34 age group was 31.9 per cent.
One of the reasons why LR and LTV struggle to attract a younger audience is continued resource constraints or insufficient funding for the development of innovative content formats. This weakness is especially apparent when instant and resource-intensive response to rapid changes resulting from the development of new media is needed. The younger and middle-aged population is much more demanding in this regard.
Unfortunately, Latvian public service media have no means for piloting new initiatives. There is no funding to invest in new media platforms, more investigative and analytical content or closer focus on smaller groups of society that have less appeal in the eyes of advertisers despite being equally important part of society.
That is why public service media should prioritise a universal outreach, a feature that sets them apart from commercial media.
More content in Russian
But, reaching of the ‘ever-elusive’ younger audience is not the only challenge faced by public service media in Latvia. Russian-speaking population has become a hot topic in recent years. They are heavily exposed to pro-Kremlin disinformation.
While the Minister for Culture continuously insists that there is no need to invest more public funding in content delivered in Russian, polling results clearly show that the demand for public service media content in Russian remains very high. Almost 80 per cent of Russian-speaking respondents either fully or strongly agreed with such a statement.
The single news portal of LR and LTV – LSM.lv – is well-positioned to address this issue. One of the key findings of the study is that LSM.lv equally succeeds in reaching the Russian-speaking community and those families that speak Latvian. Overall, the demand for public service media platforms among the Russian-speaking population is lower than among Latvian speakers.
Nevertheless, as the study shows, the level of trust among Russian speakers towards LSM.lv is almost the same as among the Latvian-speaking population. LR and LTV have traditionally been considered by Russian-speaking community as more Latvian-oriented media, and therefore – except for Channel 4 of the Latvia Radio that broadcasts in Russian – less trusted by the Russian speaking community.
What is interesting is how both ethnolinguistic groups answered the question about the role of media in information warfare. The share of Russian and Latvian-speaking respondents who said that the government should not intervene in the work of public service media, even during the time of information warfare, was almost equally large.
Moreover, although Russian speakers generally tend to trust Latvian public service media less, they believe that LR’s and LTV’s coverage of global politics is as impartial as the position presented in Russian official media.
Useful but not independent
The rather low trust in the independence of public media in Latvia among respondents is an unexpected and worrisome finding of this study. When presented with various characteristics for describing LR and LTV, 70 per cent of respondents chose to describe public service media as ‘useful’ and ‘competent’, and less than 40 per cent of them favoured the description ‘independent’.
However, we should not blame only public service media for the poor evaluation of their performance in this vital criterion for public service media. Respondents who claimed that their opinions were represented in public service media included both the voters supporting political group promoting liberal values, New Unity, and those who support the conservative group, National Alliance.
It almost precisely mirrors the actual situation – public service media have been criticised by parties from all over the political spectrum. There is no reason to say that LR or LTV has supported any particular political views.
The relative distrust in the independence of public service media actually reflects society’s low confidence in everything associated with the ruling class, and public service media have traditionally been perceived by people as part of the establishment, not the society. Our study clearly shows that those respondents, who considered LR and LTV to be official rather than public media, also tend to distrust the Saeima.
Such opinion is presumably also reinvigorated by actions of the public media regulator, the National Electronic Mass Media Council. Its decisions in recent years have often been quite irrational and poorly justified from a professional point of view.
What makes public media strong?
So, it is no surprise that people’s perception of the role played by public service media in the development of democracy, including funding and responsible governance models, remains relatively vague. Increase of public service media funding was broadly supported by respondents. However, many still believe that funding should come from the national budget and not compulsory subscription fees, which is the main source of funding, for example, in the case of Western and Nordic public service media.
The population does not really know what public service remit is and how it is given. Such remit defines the annual work agenda of LR and LTV, but 75 per cent of respondents claimed they are not aware of how and who decides what kind of content LTV and LR should produce.
The need for clear criteria in the planning and evaluation of public service media content was one of the main reasons why 30 years after the restoration of independence Latvia finally decided to adopt a new Public Service Media Governance Law.
The law would also provide robust and measurable media performance indicators, which would make decisions regarding the appointment and replacement of LR and LTV board members more transparent.
Big decisions still ahead
Unfortunately, a public discussion with responsible officials on the Public Service Media Governance Law shows that little progress has been achieved. One of the main battles is the one for the funding model, where a certain percentage of GDP is earmarked for public service media to ensure their independence has already been lost. Another important issue, the political influence over the new composition of National Electronic Mass Media Council, has also been put on hold.
Meanwhile, the government of neighbouring Lithuania responded to escalating information warfare in 2014 by earmarking a share of personal income tax revenues as public service media funding. In 2020, the budget of Lithuanian public service media – LRT – will increase by 5 million euros and reach 46 million euros in total, whereas the aggregated budget of LR and LTV is around 28 million euros.
The Estonian public service media, ERR, has received an additional budget allocation of several million euros to finish the construction of TV and radio complex with modern studios for both types of media this year.
The Baltic Centre for Media Excellence titled its series of discussions on changes in the governance of public service media “Can Latvia afford strong public broadcasters?”. We posed this question not only to politicians who are involved in the process of adoption of the new law and are obviously struggling to make decisions that should ensure real independence and growth of public service media.
This is a question that should also be answered by media themselves because they have to constantly explain and show more actively why high standards of journalism are so important for the whole society.
Last but not least, it is a question to people: are you ready to invest more, invest more of your own money, to have access to reliable information that can have a decisive difference at a critical point in your life? Because it is, in fact, a question about whether we can afford a stronger Latvia.