Public broadcasting, more necessary then ever in the age of fake news

Analysis from Steve Ahern

For the past decade or more, public service broadcasters have found it necessary to justify their existence in the face of increasing competition, new technology and attacks from the private sector.
Now, in the age of fake news, the tide appears to be turning back in favour of public broadcasters.

The emergence of new technology since the 1990s disrupted the business models of private commercial media, particularly newspapers, decreasing advertising and commoditising journalism.

This trend gathered further momentum over the past decade with direct media services such as Pandora, Spotify and Netflix reinventing subscription media business models and further challenging commercial radio and tv broadcasters.

Across the world, traditional commercial media companies have looked for ways to address the challenges and halt the decline of audiences and revenue, using strategies such as: restructuring, new products and attacks on perceived rivals.

One of the tactics some commercial companies have used has been to criticise public service broadcasters, using a range of arguments, including: that they are a waste of tax payers money, too competitive with commercial media, and that compulsory funding from licence fees or taxes deprives the public of choosing what services they will spend their money on.

But things are changing. The advent of fake news and the emergence of a new common ‘enemy’ are causing battle lines to shift.

Internet giants such as Google and Facebook, that have successfully taken advertising revenue from traditional media without investing anything in journalistic resoures of their own, have become the new enemy.

And fake news has become the new rallying point for quality journalism and fact checking.

These new forces are, so far, outside the traditional control of governments and media regulators, so new tactics are required to deal with them.

Reining in the ‘internet giants’ and forcing them to be responsible citizens (however that is defined in each country) is an issue we have been keeping a watching brief on for some time.

Fake news is the other issue of growing concern, especially as countries approach election time. It’s effect is still being probed in the United States, and, with Germany going to the polls very soon, it is a major issue in Europe at the moment too.

I am currently in Romania at the Public Broadcasting International Conference where this issue is being extensively discussed, with some interesting trends emerging.

It’s about trust

‘Trustable’ is the new terminology being used for this point.
In a world where you don’t know which sources to trust, established media brands with good reputations for reliable journalism are considered more trustable than unfamiliar sources. This is good for all serious established broadcasters, public and commercial.

Like the ‘healthy heart’ tick for low fat foods, could we soon see a ‘trustable tick’ on social media sites and media news pages to help people verify the credibility of the source? If so, who would administer such a system?


There are many people who don’t even think to verify what they see on social media with trustable sources, because they either don’t care, or are not very discerning about news. To counter this, population-wide education campaigns are needed to convince people to check claims they see on the internet or on social media.

In Australia media and internet literacy education is well underway, with the regulator promoting sophisticated internet usage and schools introducing classes on verifying what is read on the internet, but there is more to do.

There are many promos on radio and tv stations telling us how good their news services are, but I am yet to see or hear a promo that says ‘if you see it on social media verify it with us.’ Such campaigns would also assist in sensitizing citizens to check what they find on the internet or on their social media feeds. If you are running a campaign like this, please send us details.

The Magic Box

When radio was first invented it seemed magic and powerful. People believed whatever they heard on the magic box – that’s one reason why the War of the Worlds drama in America was so powerful. But in time listeners learnt that some things were not real and became more sophisticated users of the medium.

Social media is still in the ‘magic box’ stage of development, many people are inclined to believe it just because it is on their social media feed.

Fact checkers

Around the world, fact checking organisations are emerging. This is admirable, but, as I said some time ago, many media organisations already have fact checking organisations within them… they are called newsrooms.

Where external fact checking organisations are needed, the best ones seem to be the ones that collaborate with established media, sharing the resources of NGOs, universities, public broadcasters and private broadcasters. There are examples of these in Japan, Germany and elsewhere in Europe.

There is a flip side of this. Who defines what is trustable?

Several so-called fact checking organisations initiated by governments in some countries were identified at the PBI conference as no more than political censorship bodies for the new era, which denounce genuine public-interest investigative journalism and only endorse government initiated media spin.

Spend the money where it is most effective

Funding new fact checking organisations from scratch is expensive, but tipping a smaller amount of money into credible existing organisations who are already doing fact checking is far more cost effective.

The Japanese government has given the national broadcaster NHK additional funds to set up an internet fact checking unit within its existing newsroom. NHK has collaborated with universities to run it with experienced senior editorial staff who oversee about one hundred interns on placements from their university journalism courses.

In Australia, Senator Xenophon’s ongoing media reform negotiations with the Turnbull government look like they will result another type of subsidised journalism scheme, which will assist smaller private sector news media to hire interns or early career journalists. Radio stations, smaller tv networks and small publishers may all benefit from the Xenophon amendments to the impending media reforms in Australia.

Institutions of society losing trust

Several studied presented at the PBI 2017 conference (eg, Generation What) showed declining confidence and trust in the institutions of society. Politicians, bureaucracies, banks, big businesses have all lost the trust of the public. Traditional media also falls into this category.

People are asking ‘who can I trust?’ in these uncertain times, and the answer seems to be ‘my friends and people I know,’ rather than governments, media or other institutions of society. Social media is often the place to find those friends, increasing the credibility of the social media platform they are on.

What not to do

When countering false information in a fact check post, don’t quote the original source directly and don’t link to them, it only helps them get more clicks and will promote their comments to others who may not have otherwise found them. When you debunk a false report, explain it in a general way, hijack the hashtag if there is one, but don’t give them credibility or clicks by quoting or linking to them.

Internet freedom

While internet freedom is laudible, it is also subjective. Something that is free speech or creative expression in one culture could be sedition or pornography in another.

Along with whatever decisions are made about news and reporting in the new media environment, each country needs to have a robust and inclusive debate about what its fundamental principles are regarding cultural norms and information regulation. While it would be nice to think that there could be world wide laws and guidelines on internet freedom, it is not possible, so countries should undertake public discussion to consider all issues as they develop their social media and internet freedom policies.

The up side

Let’s not forget what benefits the internet and social media have brought to the world.

The collective wisdom of humanity is now available in our pockets, it has changed lives and is reshaping societies for the better. Connections between people with shared interests anywhere in the world are now stronger than ever.

Strategic thinking about sophisticated internet usage and how to harness it to the benefit of media companies should recongise the benefits we gain every day from being able to connect with audiences in ways different from what we did in the past. Whatever decisions are made about funding, structures, rules, laws and regulations, they must allow the benefits of new media to be available to the population.

With the advent of fake news and its the potential threats to the institutions of our societies, the value of public service media is being brought back into high priority, and the adversarial arguments between public service and commercial media are being rearticulated in light of new developments and common enemies.

As one public broadcaster said during this week’s conference in Romania, “the only certainty in uncertainty.” News media are beginning to act together to face the uncertainty together and try and work towards the dual benefits of collective profit and public interest in a co-operative rather than a competitive way.

Steve Ahern will be a speaker at this year’s Radio Alive 2017 conference, on Friday, October 13 at the Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre.



See further reporting from the Media2020 and PBI Conferences on AsiaRadioToday


About the Author

Steve Ahern is a former commercial, community and public service broadcaster, programmer, senior executive and trainer who now runs his own company Ahern Media & Training Pty Ltd.

He was previously Director of Radio at the Australian Film Television and Radio School and is currently a board member of Australia’s Community Broadcasting Foundation. He also sits on the boards of various media services companies in Australian and internationally.

Steve is the founding editor of this website.



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