Independent news coverage took another hit last week with the decision of the United States Administration to wipe the cost of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting from its budget. It is the most dramatic, but certainly not the only attack on news services independent of political, corporate or other sectional interests in recent times.
A combination of government indifference or direct interference and pressure from commercial interests is eating into the ability of news outlets to provide balanced, well-researched reporting at a time when this is needed more than ever.
In an increasing number of countries around the world, the media is either incapable or afraid of covering the issues of the day in a way than can do justice to the people it is supposed to serve.
And I am not talking about countries like North Korea, China or Vietnam where the wearying diet of nationalist propaganda simply reflects the unrelenting grip their governments have on the means of communication.
Nations which have previously had proud reputations for robust, independent reportage are seeing their news sources fall victims to tightened budgets, government tinkering and the whims of powerful elites that subtly and not so subtly manipulate the outlets under their control to reflect their interests and prejudices.
Never is this so apparent than in Russia which, for a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union enjoyed a vibrant, irrelevant and varied media that delighted in pushing the boundaries of its new-found freedom. That quickly ended in a repressive backlash so that now almost all outlets are controlled by the government or their stooges, and non-conforming journalists are hounded, in some cases into their graves.
In the United Kingdom a combination of short-sighted management, declining revenues and a failure to accommodate changing tastes has resulted in newspaper closures becoming an almost weekly event with hundreds of experienced news people thrown onto the employment scrap heap.
The British Broadcasting Corporation, which is administered by an independent trust, faces regular battles to hang on to the funds it receives from a £145.50 licence fee. Elsewhere, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which is dependent on direct funding from the government, has had to endure a series of cutbacks and retrenchments in recent years.
In a review of the increasingly parlous state of public broadcasting in South-Eastern Europe, the European Union was prompted to remind its members that public service media was the last path of mass communication left to its populations.
“The privatisation of that path by any partial interest (be it political, economic, or rooted in the particular interests of civil society segments) is unacceptable,” the statement said.
In relation to most other items that have to be paid for in a nation’s budget, maintaining a public broadcaster is ridiculously cheap. The Chief Executive of PBS, Paula Kerger, says it costs Americans just $1.35 per person per year — a tiny price to pay, which raises a worrying question: If cost is not the issue, is it simply that in the new order emerging before our eyes, there is a determination that its works must be hidden from independent scrutiny and judgement?