On Billag

My opinion on Billag(1) is complicated. It seems like it could fairly simply be replaced by payments from the general fund, overseen by a non-political body to evaluate applications for funding from SRF and regional providers. What we have in NoBillag, instead, is an attempt to Americanize the Swiss media landscape. Thankfully, I’m not the first to point this out, and I hope I won’t be the last. tl;dr, hey Switzerland, you want Bundesrat Trump? Because NoBillag is how you get Bundesrat Trump.

Admittedly, I’ve long failed to see, in a media environment in which radio and television ownership no longer correlate with public media consumption (and, indeed, in which the benefits of the information service provided by said public media accrue even to those who don’t consume it), why we need 230 semi-polite, semi-privatized bureaucrats to spot-enforce a regressive tax.

The NoBillag initiative before the Swiss people in March, however, is simultaneously far less well thought out and far more sinister than a simple reform to this system. It is, in essence, a frontal assault on media independence disguised either as a market reform, or as a 350 franc-a-year rebate for a television channel that doesn’t provide the Swiss right wing with the propaganda boost it seems to feel it deserves.

I’m voting No, and you should too, if you have the right. A Switzerland with this initiative’s text added to its constitution will be a Switzerland without public media. While a Switzerland without public media will, indeed, still be Switzerland on the day after SRF shuts down, America’s experience with political media privatization to date calls into grave question the ability of a multiparty democracy to survive in the long term without some consensus as to what the truth is, and independent(2) political news in the form of public media with a legal duty to provide information as a public service goes a long way toward keeping that consensus from decaying.

Like, I suspect, most Americans who have a smartphone, I spent way more time in 2017 rage-refreshing Twitter to catch up on the ongoing collapse of the institution of the Presidency of the United States than is probably healthy. I’m going to do less of that sort of thing this year: no amount of my attention from here in Wallisellen will change the fact that American democracy, in its present form, is a complete write-off, and will need to be rebuilt from the grassroots up with a revised political culture. I’m not optimistic that significant progress will be made here during my lifetime.

That political culture itself, though, is exportable, and remains a danger for any nation with politicians who seek power and can comprehend enough English to read and understand its propaganda. And the dominant event that amplified the least responsible voices of that political culture was the 1987 repeal of the Federal Communications Commission’s Fairness Doctrine. It would only be a minor overstatement to say that when the Reagan-and-Nixon appointed Commission repealed the doctrine, their decision itself based on the First Amendment, it was only a matter of time before a populist television star backed by a right-wing noise machine on the fringes of the Republican Party became President.

While right-wing ethnic nationalism is by no means a uniquely American phenomenon, I’d argue that the prosecution of it through entertaining disinformation(3) has been perfected there in the three decades since the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, and it is in this way that NoBillag, as proposed, is especially dangerous.

Supported as it is by those with apparent far-right sympathies, the NoBillag initiative smells less like a well-intentioned but uninclusive and generally incompetent attempt at administrative reform, and more like an attempt to give Switzerland its own Fairness Doctrine, to open the door for the profitable replacement of news with newsertainment, and the destruction of the common information base necessary for the functioning of a participatory democracy.

The world has one America, and I hope it finds its way one day. Let’s not build another here.

(1): For my non-Swiss readers who wonder what the hell I’m talking about: Switzerland has a compulsory radio and television licensing that works out to about 350CHF a year per household, for which, confusingly, you don’t even really need a radio or a television to be liable for. What this means is that, instead of an annoying pledge drive every so often on your public radio station, once a decade you get a guy ringing your doorbell at nine in the morning to ask why you haven’t paid, and when you explain that you’re in the same household with your wife, who forgot to change her name after marriage in her licensing record (which, indeed, is at the same address, which can be verified by reading her madien name, which is on the door, right next to yours), he asks you (only as politely and apologetically as required by law) whether she’s divorced you yet. On reflection, in terms of net mean annoyance over time, it’s probably better than the pledge drive. And yet…

(2): on which see Hanretty, C. The Political Independence of Public Service Broadcasters, 2009 PhD thesis, DOI 10.2870 / 13655

(3): from this week’s Economist, on Trump’s media consumption: “…Fox News, an entertainment channel…”

Brian Trammell
Brian Trammell
Scientist, Synthesist, Cyclist, SRE