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Explaining the De Facto Independence of Public Broadcasters


Institutions operating beyond direct control of government, such as central banks, constitutional courts and public broadcasters, enjoy guarantees of de jure independence, but de jure independence is no guarantee of de facto independence. This is especially so for public broadcasting, where cultural variables are often assumed to be decisive. In this article, the de jure and de facto independence of thirty-six public service broadcasters world-wide are operationalized, and de jure independence is found to explain a high degree of de facto independence when account is taken of the size of the market for news. Other variables considered in previous literature – such as bureaucratic partisanship and the polarization of the party system – are not found to be significant.

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1 Íñigo Emilio Lledó et al. , ‘Informe para la reforma de los medios de comunicación de titularidad del estado’, Report for the Consejo para la reforma de los medios de comunicación de titularidad del estado (February 2005); Gentiloni Paolo, ‘Linee guida per la riforma della Rai’, available online at (2007).

2 Krauss Ellis S., Broadcasting Politics in Japan: NHK and Television News (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000); Inglis Ken, This is the ABC: The Australian Broadcasting Commission 1932–1983 (Melbourne: Black, 2006); Burgelman Jean-Claude, ‘Political Parties and Their Impact on Public Service Broadcasting in Belgium’, Media, Culture & Society, 11 (1989), 167193.

3 Etzioni-Halevy Eva, National Broadcasting under Siege: A Comparative Study of Australia, Britain, Israel, and West Germany (London: Macmillan, 1987).

4 Picard Robert, ‘Assessing Audience Performance of Public Service Broadcasters’, European Journal of Communication, 17 (2002), 227235.

5 Grilli Vittorio, Masciandaro Donato and Tabellini Guido, ‘Political and Monetary Institutions and Public Financial Policies in the Industrial Countries’, Economic Policy, 6 (1991), 341392.

6 Herron Erik and Randazzo Kirk, ‘The Relationship between Independence and Judicial Review in Post-Communist Courts’, Journal of Politics, 65 (2003), 422438.

7 Elgie Robert and McMenamin Iain, ‘Credible Commitment, Political Uncertainty, or Policy Complexity? Explaining the Discretion Granted to Independent Administrative Authorities in France’, British Journal of Political Science, 35 (2005), 531548; Gilardi Fabrizio, ‘Policy Credibility and Delegation to Independent Regulatory Agencies: A Comparative Empirical Analysis’, Journal of European Public Policy, 9 (2002), 873893.

8 Feld Lars and Voigt Stefan, ‘Economic Growth and Judicial Independence: Cross Country Evidence Using a New Set of Indicators’, European Journal of Political Economy, 19 (2003), 505506; Cukierman Alex and B. Webb Steven, ‘Political Influence on the Central Bank: International Evidence’, World Bank Economic Review, 9 (1995), Table 3.

9 Coppedge Michael and Reinicke Wolfgang H., ‘Measuring Polyarchy’, in Alex Inkeles, ed., On Measuring Democracy (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1991), p. 50, emphasis added; Dahl Robert A., A Preface to Democratic Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), p. 70; Dahl Robert A., Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1971), pp. 23.

10 Bischoff Carina S., ‘Political Competition and Contestability: A Study of the Barriers to Entry in 21 Democracies’ (doctoral dissertation, European University Institute, 2006), pp. 112, 117.

11 Gentiloni , ‘Linee guida per la riforma della Rai’, §2.6.

12 Cukierman Alex, Central Bank Strategy, Credibility, and Independence: Theory and Evidence (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992); Cukierman and Webb , ‘Political Influence on the Central Bank’.

13 Information on executive turnover was obtained from broadcasters directly and from LexisNexis news coverage. The most recent chief executive of each PSB has been omitted where including their tenure would reduce the value of TOR. Data on government changes was taken from Budge Ian, Woldendorp Jaan and Keman Hans, ‘Party Government in 20 Democracies: An Update (1990–1995)’, European Journal of Political Research, 33 (1998), 125164; Müller-Rommel Ferdinand, Fettelschoss Katja and Harfst Philipp, ‘Party Government in Central Eastern European Democracies: A Data Collection (1990–2003)’, European Journal of Political Research, 43 (2003), 869894; and subsequent issues of the European Journal of Political Research, except for Chile (Dieter Nohlen, ‘Chile’, in Nohlen Dieter, ed., Elections in the Americas, Volume 2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)), and for the French language community and the Flemish community in Belgium.

14 MORI, ‘Quantitative Research to Inform the Preparation of the BBC Charter Review 2004’, report of a research study conducted on behalf of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 2004.

15 COMPAS, ‘Attitudes Toward Broadcast Issues, Canadian Content and the CBC’, survey carried out for the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, 1999, p. 7.

16 CSA/Marianne, ‘L’image des journalistes et l’objectivité des médias’ (27 February 2003).

17 Eurisko Istituto and Montesi Maria Pia, ‘Immagine della RAI’ (internal company document, 1988).

18 Olsen Johan P. and March James G., ‘The Logic of Appropriateness’, Arena Working Paper 04/09 (Centre for European Studies, University of Oslo, 2004).

19 Etzioni-Halevy , National Broadcasting under Siege, pp. 89.

20 Kahneman Daniel and Tversky Amos, ‘Availability: A Heuristic for Judging Frequency and Probability’, in Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic and Amos Tversky, eds, Judgement under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

21 International Institute for Management Development, IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook 2006 (Lausanne: International Institute for Management Development, 2006). In so far as PSBs are public services, respondents’ answers to this question may be affected by the independence of the PSB, causing endogeneity problems. However, the context of the question, which is preceded and followed by questions on state administration and bureaucracy, suggests that respondents’ primary focus when answering will be on state bureaucracy.

22 UNESCO, ‘Daily newspapers: Total average circulation per 1,000 inhabitants’, (2007).

23 Hallin Daniel C. and Mancini Paolo, Comparing Media Systems: Three Models of Media and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 64.

24 Hamilton James, All the News That’s Fit to Sell: How the Market Transforms Information into News (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004).

25 Petrova Maria, ‘Newspapers and Parties: How Advertising Revenues Created an Independent Press’. Unpublished working paper (2007), available from

26 In Mazzanti Alessandro, L’obiettivita giornalistica: un ideale maltratto (Naples: Liguori, 1991), p. 14.

27 Mazzanti , L’obiettivita giornalistica, pp. 49, 91, 189.

28 Hallin Daniel and Papathanassopoulos Styliano, ‘Political Clientelism and the Media: Southern Europe and Latin America in Comparative Perspective’, Media, Culture & Society, 24 (2002), 175195.

29 Patterson Thomas and Donsbach Wolfgang, ‘News Decisions: Journalists as Partisan Actors’, Political Communication, 13 (1996), 455468.

30 Ullswater Committee on Broadcasting, Report of the Broadcasting Committee 1935, Cmd. 5091 (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1936).

31 Castronovo Valerio, Fossati Luciana Giacheri and Tranfaglia Nicola, La stampa italiana nell’eta liberale (Bari: Laterza, 1979), p. 64.

32 Data for the Baltic countries were taken from Hoyer Svennik, Lauk Epp and Vihalemm Peeter, eds, Towards a Civic Society: The Baltic Media’s Long Road to Freedom (Tartu: Baltic Association for Media Research/Nota Baltica, 1993); data for the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Flanders and the French language community in Belgium were imputed from parent countries. It is likely that the model fit would have improved had separate 1975 data for these latter four areas been available; the Belgian French-language broadcaster has lower levels of independence than predicted, and the French language community reads fewer newspapers than Flanders; the same is true for Slovakia compared with the Czech Republic.

33 It might be thought that this control variable is in fact be an independent variable in its own right, reflecting either the legacy of a Leninist philosophy of the press (cf. Milton Andrew, ‘Bound but Not Gagged: Media Reform in Democratic Transitions’, Comparative Political Studies, 34 (2001), 493526) or turbulence related to processes of democratization. First, for all that they were under Soviet influence, it would be a mistake, however, to think that a Leninist philosophy of the press applied equally well in Poland, Estonia and Russia; or to think that stated commitments to such a philosophy were incompatible with the development of professional norms (see Curry Jane Lefwich, Poland’s Journalists: Professionalism and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990)). Secondly, it is not the case that democratization-related turbulence led to inflated values of TOR or VUL: of the shortest-serving executives in each of the nine post-Communist countries included in the analysis, six started as chief executive after 1999; the remaining three started between 1991 and 1994.

34 Hallin and Mancini , Comparing Media Systems, pp. 59, 61.

35 Orlando Ruggero, ‘Letter to Harman Grisewood, Director, BBC Spoken Word’, BBC Written Archives Centre File E1/1008/3 (11 July 1954).

36 Quoted in Briggs Asa, Governing the BBC (London: BBC, 1979), chap. 1, p. 20.

37 Hallin and Mancini , Comparing Media Systems, p. 61.

38 Heinonen Ari, ‘The Finnish Journalist: Watchdog with a Conscience’, in David Weaver, ed., The Global Journalist (Cresskills, N.J.: Hampton Press, 1998).

39 Huber John and Inglehart Ronald, ‘Expert Interpretations of Party Space and Party Locations in 42 Societies’, Party Politics, 1 (1995), 73111.

40 Therefore, it is entirely possible that the low correlation observed in previous works between de jure and de facto independence results from a mis-specification of those legal features which affect de facto independence.

41 Powers of dismissal may, of course, also be interpreted as a method of sanctioning.

42 Gilardi , ‘Policy Credibility and Delegation to Independent Regulatory Agencies’; Elgie and McMenamin , ‘Credible Commitment, Political Uncertainty, or Policy Complexity?’

43 Coppens Tomas and Saeys Frieda, ‘Enforcing Performance: New Approaches to Govern Public Service Broadcasting’, Media, Culture & Society, 28 (2006), 261284.

44 In cases where the number of members was large and the methods used to appoint them divergent, I have assigned different scores for some part of the board, and averaged these scores. For example: in Italy following the passage of the 1975 reform of Rai, six members of the sixteen member administrative council were nominated by the majority shareholder (the state, coded here as the executive), whilst the remaining ten members were nominated by a parliamentary committee. The score is therefore equal to [(6 × 0.25) + (10 × 0.75)]/16.

45 Information on legislative standing was taken from: Australia: The Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983, as amended; Austria: 1966 Broadcasting Act; Belgium (Flemish-language community): ‘Décret relatif à la transformation de la BRTN en une société anonyme de droit public’ (29th April 1997) (French-language translation); Belgium (French language community): ‘Décret du 14 juillet 1997 portant statut de la Radio-Télévision belge de la Communauté française (RTBF)’; Bulgaria: The Radio and Television Law of 1998; Canada: the 1991 Broadcasting Act; Chile: law 19/132 of the 30th March 1992; Czech Republic: 483/1991 Coll., Act of the Czech National Council of 7 November 1991 on Czech Television and Metykova (2005, ch. 4); Denmark: Law no. 215 of the 11th June 1959, law no. 421 of the 15th June 1973, and law no. 374 of the 10th June 1987; Estonia: The Broadcasting Act of 1994, as amended; Finland: Act on Yleisradio Oy of 1993, as amended; France: Loi ordinaire 74-696 du 07/08/1974 relative à la radiodiffusion et télévision, loi n° 82-652 du 29 juillet 1982 sur la communication audiovisuelle; Germany: Statute of ZDF (April 1962), as amended; Hungary: Act on Radio and Television Broadcasting, act I of 19th May 1996; Israel: Israel Broadcasting Authority Law, no. 5725 – 1965; Japan: The Broadcast Law, no. 132 of 2nd May 1950, as amended; Latvia: Radio and Television Law (consolidated); Lithuania: Law on the National Radio and Television, No I-1571 of October 1996, as amended; New Zealand: The Television New Zealand Act 2003; Norway: The Broadcasting Act of 4 Dec. 1992 no. 127, as amended; Poland: The Broadcasting Act of the 29th December 1992; Portugal: the Television Broadcasting Act, Law no. 32/2003; Republic of Ireland: The Broadcasting Act, 2001; the Broadcasting Act, 1976; the Broadcasting Authority Act, 1960; Romania: Law no. 41 of June 17 1994, ‘On the Organization and Operation of the Romanian Broadcasting Corporation and of the Romania Television Corporation’; Slovakia: The Act on Slovak Television and Monika Metykova, ‘Regulating Public Service Broadcasting: The Cases of the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Ireland’ (doctoral dissertation, Masaryk University, Brno, 2005), chap. 4; Slovenia: The Law on Radio and Television of 1994; South Africa: the Broadcasting Act 1999; Sweden: Information made available by SVT; Switzerland: ‘Statuto della Società svizzera di radiotelevisione (SRG SSR idée suisse)’, of 22 November 1991, as amended; United Kingdom: Successive Royal Charters and Agreements with the BBC; United States of America: The 1967 Public Broadcasting Act, as amended.

46 Gran Brian and Patterson Robin, ‘Law and Weak Links of Independence: A Fuzzy-Sets Analysis of Children’s Ombudspersons’ (unpublished working paper), available from; Goertz Garry, Social Science Concepts: A User’s Guide (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006), pp. 129139.

47 Rumphorst Werner, ‘Model Public Service Broadcasting law’ (Geneva: UNESCO, 1999).

48 Results from the regression without imputation did not differ significantly; they are available on request.

49 Chondroleou Georgia, ‘Policy Networks in Comparative Perspective: Media Policy Networks in Britain and Greece’ (paper presented at the ECPR General Conference, 2001).

50 Bartolini Stefano, ‘On Time and Comparative Research’, Journal of Theoretical Politics, 5 (1993), 131167, at p. 148.

51 An additional model including audience share – on the basis that politicians may avoid interfering in PSBs which dominate the market lest they be seen as engaged in a power grab – was also tested, but the effect of ‘share’ was not significant. I thank an anonymous reviewer for suggesting this possibility. Results are available on request.

52 Bootstrapped estimates after 1,000 iterations obtained using Zelig, by Imai Kosuke, King Gary and Lau Olivia, ‘Zelig: Everyone’s Statistical Software’, (2006).

53 Riker William, ‘Implications from the Disequilibrium of Majority Rule for the Study of Institutions’, American Political Science Review, 74 (1980), 432446, at p. 445.

* Department of Social and Political Sciences, European University Institute (email: ). The author wishes to thank Adrienne Héritier, Michaël Tatham, Alexander Trechsel and the anonymous reviewers of this article, whose comments and criticism greatly improved the argument. He also thanks Niki Yordanova, Elias Dinas, Jeppe Olesen, Lúcio Tomé Féteira, Peeter Vihalemm and Katie De Noël (European Broadcasting Union), all of whom provided data, and Kristen Kufel, who helped with German legal texts.

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