Phillip Smith

Commentary: Do we really need state-funded news entities any more?

Yesterday, Mathew Ingram asked “[Do we really need state-funded news entities like the BBC any more?](” over on Gigaom.

After sifting through the commentary, and introducing some of my own, it appears that the crux of Mathew’s argument is about the size of the BBC budget, which is presented as 5 billion (dollars?).

Being a Canadian, and given that the article references the CBC, I immediately see this argument in the context of Canada’s national broadcaster (whose budget has been questioned constantly over the last five years of conservative government).

Let’s put this in perspective: the UK has a population of roughly 63 million. Canada roughly 33 million. The highest level of funding the CBC has reportedly received in the last ten years is 1.25 billion. If that was doubled for the population difference, the funding would probably be 2.5 billion. So, in theory, the CBC receives roughly half of the funding that the BBC does – and, if you asked many Canadians, I suspect they would say that was obvious, i.e., that the BBC outpaces the CBC as a global news operation.

So, on the surface, it would appear that the CBC is greatly underfunded, if we looked to the UK as a model.

There’s a catch-22 with “state-funded news entities,” however, and that is that state-funded media can become like a giant tree in a forest that prevents light from reaching the ground, and consequently makes it more difficult for private media to grow. If you’ve ever worked in private media in Canada, you’ve probably lamented the false sense of security that Canadians have about the health of their media ecosystem (sadly, one of the most concentrated in the world) because the presence of a large state-funded media organization makes everything seem okay (and by “everything seem okay,” I’m specifically referring to approvals for further concentration of media ownership in every market and every medium).

My arguments for state-funded media are straightforward: market failures would be likely to occur if a nation’s news coverage was left entirely to private enterprise. Those failures would likely include just about everything that doesn’t make money, like covering remote areas, the concerns of under-represented people, and – as we’ve already seen cut from many private media initiatives as they struggle financially – expensive and important investigative journalism.

The other more interesting point that Mathew touches on briefly (that I wish he would explore a bit further), is about the opportunity to explore some innovative funding models around state-funded media. The question is, however, is it even possible for a government to undertake such innovation? And, if so, what could it look like?

The Canadian media environment needs more innovation, there’s no doubt. There probably should be more news start-ups and more rapid reinvention in the established media space. But, for me, this should not come at the expense of a well-funded national broadcaster. It should – instead – be part of what Canada invests in to ensure that not all information that citizens receive is signed, sealed, and delivered by national media conglomerates.


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.