News / 14.09.2010

Financing public broadcasting a hot potato for April elections

By Linus Atarah & Juha Rekola

As Finns prepare to go to the polls in parliamentary elections in April 2011, the financing of public broadcasting might become an election issue.

Last year a government-appointed committee headed by Member of Parliament Mika Lintilä to examine new administrative arrangements and financing reforms of YLE proposed scrapping the current television licensing fee and replacing it with a public “media fee” paid by all households. But the proposal was placed on hold by the Minister of Communication Suvi Linden, who deferred that decision to the new parliament that will be formed after the April general elections.

As a result YLE does not know how its operations would be financed beyond 2012 until a new government comes to power. So it would not be entirely surprising if journalists force public broadcasting an election issue by putting candidates on the spotlight with questions about their commitment to continuing of public broadcasting.

The proposed public “media fee” was to be paid by everyone irrespective of whether they possessed a television set or not. It is widely suspected that Linden’s was drained of the political will due to by heavy lobbying by the private media who have consistently fought against YLE’s strong position in the media market over the years.

The Chairman of YLE's Board of Directors, Kari Neilimo, gave an indication yet of what is to come in the forthcoming parliamentary elections when he suggested this month that YLE could be broken up into smaller business units in order to increase productivity and make up for its budget shortfall of 25 million Euros. It had supporters of public broadcasting, including many politicians arching their backs who thought it was an ominous indication that YLE would eventually end up in private hands.

However, Neilimo’s position does not appear to have open backing from the newly appointed YLE’s CEO, Lauri Kivinen who said that various options exist but no decision has been taken on any preferred option.

“We need to concentrate resources on people and on quality know-how, not on walls,” Kivinen said.

The former executive from Nokia-Siemens Networks, who assumed leadership in YLE a few months ago, would probably prefer a restructuring of YLE that could involve downsizing and selling off assets of the company.

As someone new in the broadcasting industry Kivinen has to carefully navigate the political minefield and win maximum consensus from politicians for continuous funding. That is probably why he is still holding his cards closed to his chest.

Commercial media opened up their game in an editorial of Helsingin Sanomat (the new Chief Editor & Publisher of which, Mikael Pentikäinen,  also is the chairman of the Finnish Newspaper Association), after YLE proposed a 6% raise in the present TV-license fee. The editorial openly stated that the fe is too high, and in future public broadcasting should be financed from the state budget – “on the same level with other public needs:”

“A broadcasting company is needed in Finland, but only to produce public service. Obviously, YLE nowadays offers also such programmes that would be available for citizens also without YLE and public funding. Therefore YLE leadership should question what the company does, and concentrate in public service. All electronic media is not public service, even if in Pasila (YLE HQ) that has been a way to think.”

The political parties still are somewhat confused and undecided, after the carefully built consensus of the Lintilä Committee was demolished by Lindén. Future months will tell what kind of future is awaiting Finnish public broadcasting.   

Meanwhile, a decision has been taken to restructure the Swedish-speaking radio and television (Svenska YLE) unit where some radio and television programmes will axed as part of cost-cutting measures within that unit. Some of the programmes are to be outsourced. The measures will result in reduction of more than 20 jobs in Svenka YLE by 2011.  

The unions expect more job cuts in near future. Arto Nieminen, President of the Union of Journalists laments the lack of political will from political leaders to make a firm decision on how to finance public broadcasting. “It is depressing, it means that politicians do not care about what happens to those people working in YLE”, he said.


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