Media policy activism for public service media? The case of Switzerland.


Public service media (PSM) are an important policy instrument for safeguarding pluralism and the public interest in the media (see e.g. McQuail 2007). However, in a time that some call the digital or platform age and others describe as post-democratic or post-factual, PSM organizations are under pressure (see e.g. Public Media Alliance 2019). This paper argues that PSM, aside from smart management strategies and government support, also need civil society advocacy on their behalf to strengthen their legitimacy. However, such advocacy is not only rather rare; there is also a lack of research conducted about the phenomenon (Aslama Horowitz/Nieminen 2017, Horz 2018).

A country that is ideally suited for such a study is Switzerland. In the last few years, several associations dedicated to media policy activism (see Freedman/Obar 2016, Freedman 2019) – e.g. Media Diversity, Media for All or Strong Media – have emerged. In addition, in 2018, the Swiss voted on a national referendum ('No Billag') on the abolition of public funding for the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SRG). While a 71.6% majority of voters rejected the referendum, it still triggered a broad public debate on PSM policies (Geiser 2018). Using the findings from a document analysis and interviews with leading activists, this paper provides an overview on seven Swiss associations dedicated to media policy activism. It asks about their aims, strategies and networks, as well as their relation to the SRG and the ‘No Billag’ referendum.

Findings are generally in line with conclusions from previous research on media policy activism. The ‘No Billag’ referendum was a ‘window of opportunity’ (Hintz 2018) as it triggered a large debate on media policy. However, due to the ‘sheer breath, interrelatedness, and complexity’ (Lentz 2011: 323) of the issue, media policy activism in Switzerland remains the usual alliance of media industry professionals (Fenton 2018). As expected, resources are scarce (Regan Shade 2011), which is why associations have to set clear priorities in their activities. In addition, media policy activism in Switzerland is by no means free of tensions (Löblich 2016), which prevents long-term pooling of resources.

The study also shows that despite a temporal overlap, ‘No Billag’ has not triggered the foundation of new associations dedicated to media policy activism. Furthermore, while all associations studied are concerned with diversity and quality in the media sector, only one association – Media for All – was an active member of the opposition to the ‘No Billag’ referendum. Given that the SRG contains of a network of membership organizations including several regional concils, one might conclude that it should try fostering civil society advocacy by itself. However, authors (see e.g. Baldi 2008, Puppis/Künzler 2011, Tuchschmid 2015) have described the SRG management as rather ambivalent towards the SRG membership organisations.