Editorial: State cash could kill community media

News that the Government may be interested in supporting community and non-profit TV and radio stations is a welcome surprise.

As is often the case when an acquaintance calls unexpectedly, however, there is a motive behind the niceties - a favour is required.

The catch? According to Ian Stewart, Labour MP for Eccles and chair of the all-party parliamentary community media group, the Government should use community media to help spread its public information messages.

It isn't hard to see the logic behind his desire to use such well-trusted channels to disseminate Government wisdom on everything from diet to truancy and the use of seat belts.

But the benefits for cash-strapped community media groups would be more ambiguous. Although the Government pound would, no doubt, be welcome, association with the state could bring unwanted outcomes.

The concept of mission drift is well documented in the funding arena - charities being tempted to bend their priorities, and sometimes their aims, to fit with funders' objectives so as to secure grants or contracts. If this were to happen with community media, it could turn lively grass-roots channels into top-down initiatives. And it's not far from top-down to turn-off, when viewers and listeners expect independent, alternative content.

The Community Media Association says working with government wouldn't damage community stations, as long as departmental and broadcaster priorities were aligned. There are situations when it can work. The British Heart Foundation's grisly 2004 government-funded anti-smoking campaign, showing fatty deposits in smokers' arteries being squeezed out of cigarettes, was phenomenally successful.

But how many viewers realised the campaign was government-funded? People trust charity campaigns and community media precisely because they are separate from the state. CSV, which works with local BBC stations, is rightly concerned: editorial independence is vital to credibility.

It's not clear how Stewart's proposal would work. A simple arrangement whereby government paid a fee every time it wanted to broadcast a public information message could operate like any other advertising agreement. But a more complicated system, with, for example, government providing longer-term funding in return for advertising or editorial coverage, would be harder to manage. If community media had to act as the mouthpiece of government, the risks of mission drift and impaired credibility would be real. Charities will need to decide if that price is too high.

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