Stephan Russ-Mohl argues that calls to end Switzerland’s broadcasting licence fee threaten the country’s public service media.
In Switzerland, friendships are being threatened by divisive debate surrounding the so-called ‘No Billag’ referendum. No Billag calls for the abolition of Switzerland’s annual compulsory licence fee for public service broadcasting – the bureaucracy that collects the fee is known as Billag – which currently costs every Swiss household 451 francs (385 euro) each year.
Opponents, who consider the payment unfair, want to scrap Billag altogether. However, the real target is the Swiss public broadcaster, SRG SSR, itself: an increasing number of citizens want to use the popular referendum to end all public funding for radio and television.
On March 4, 2018, Swiss voters will have to decide. In the meantime the topic is being fiercely debated in the media and on social networks.
Swiss television and radio licence most expensive in Europe
As a small country, divided into four language areas, Switzerland is far more dependent on a functioning, reliable public service radio and television than larger countries. This is particularly to ensure integration of the various language regions, as well as to provide audiences with adequate news and background knowledge. Yet, as the public broadcasting services must be provided in four languages, the Swiss television and radio licence is the most expensive in Europe. In Germany, for example, households pay 210 euros per year for ARD, ZDF and Deutschlandfunk.
A broadcasting ‘tax’?
Many voters are angry that the licence fee – as in Germany – has been converted into a de facto tax which every household has to pay, regardless of whether they access public service broadcasting services, or not.
The reasons that led to the institutionalisation of public broadcasting, almost 100 years ago, are now obsolete: at that time, broadcast frequencies were scarce while today users are drowned in a flood of information and entertainment provided by the internet. The initiators of the referendum believe the public should also be allowed to decide for themselves which media services they want to use and to pay for.
However, democracies depend more than ever on publicly-funded or subsidised media, to ensure the survival of high-quality journalism and media diversity. Platforms, such as Google and Facebook, have deprived traditional media companies of their advertising revenues, and a “zero cost” culture has been established on the internet. As a result, newsrooms are gradually being merged or are undergoing cuts. If users are unwilling to pay for independent journalism, such journalism can hardly be refinanced.
When media companies are no longer profitable, they are either swallowed by industry’s big players, or bought by oligarchs who may thereafter pursue political goals.
The threat: “Blocher TV” instead of Public Broadcasting?
The opponents of the No Billag initiative believe that “Blocher TV” will soon dominate Switzerland. Christoph Blocher, the father-figure of the right-wing populist SVP, the strongest party in the Swiss coalition government, has systematically expanded his media empire, which covers broadcasting and print. There are growing fears that a Swiss Silvio Berlusconi may be emerging.
In any case, the question of how to preserve media diversity has not yet been resolved. The country considered a model of direct democracy has rarely been so polarised: for some, the SRG SSR is a national shrine, for others, it is simply an outdated institution which has no right to exist in the digital age. The moderate voices of reason tend to be wiped out in between. Certainly, the small country needs its public broadcaster, and it should be allowed to unfold unobstructed on the internet. It could, however, be slimmed down. Advertising bans could help to secure journalistic independence, and also to ensure the public service does not take the bread out of distressed commercial competitors’ mouth.
The SRG SSR could also do much more to keep the four language regions together and to fulfil its core mission – simply to ensure good journalism. For example, in beats like foreign correspondence or scientific reporting, rather than competing with the private sector for sports rights and entertainment shows. The argument that public broadcasting is essential in order to correct market failures would also be much more credible in Switzerland and elsewhere if it did not hide its most sophisticated and educational programs late at night.
Is the excellent Media System tipping?
Libertarians and right-wing populists are on the verge of overturning a dual media system that has an excellent reputation among experts: This prevails due to the highly developed journalism culture at the SRG. It can be compared to the BBC at its best, that is, before Britain’s public broadcaster had to grapple with a number of scandals that damaged its reputation.
There is an animated public discourse about the future of the media in Switzerland. There is at least a flicker of hope. The Swiss Federal Media Commission, led by media researcher Otfried Jarren, has repeatedly nudged the government in Bern with plans to change the way the media system is funded. Along with most media experts, Jarren opposes “No Billag”. However, he and his commission leave no doubt that in a digitalised world, it is important to develop new, innovative forms of public journalism and media promotion. With this, the government in Bern may have discernible difficulties.
Translated by Jeanine Alessia Gössi, Master student in Corporate Communication at Università della Svizzera Italiana, from the updated original by Stephan Russ-Mohl in Tagesspiegel “No Billag”-Initiative: Ende des Gebühren-Rundfunks in der Schweiz?. Retrieved on 28.11.2017: http://www.tagesspiegel.de/medien/no-billag-initiative-ende-des-gebuehren-rundfunks-in-der-schweiz/20631310.html