Parvez Iftikhar will be amused that I am proposing a fund, after objecting to his favorite Universal Service Fund. But that is how the policy game gets played.
We look at something that does not work at all or produces more bad outcomes than good (government-owned telcos with universal service obligations in the old days; government-owned media organizations now) and propose a solution that will reduce the harm (universal service fund for telecom; public media content fund for media). Then we see how the solution works and propose sunsetting it or shutting it down if it has been hijacked by nefarious interests.
Deng Xiao Ping called this crossing the river by feeling the stones.
The evidence shows that we in Sri Lanka are incapable of sustaining “independent” public media like the BBC. We should accept that fact and try something else, namely, a fund for public media content. Here, meritorious content that is unlikely to be produced by private producers under commercial considerations would be carefully defined and subsidized.
A fund and a management structure would be established to responsibly, fairly and transparently disburse subsidies to any media producer wishing to create meritorious content. The money will have to come from Treasury because any kind of levy on private producers will then result in them wanting protection from web-based competition. If the content is necessary for a decent society and we value it, we should pay for it.
I already hear the objections. If we cannot shield government media organizations from political influence, how can we ensure that the fund will be operated fairly?
We can make an effort to make undue influence difficult, but it will not be possible to guarantee success. The difference is that the bad things that can happen in a politically-influenced public media content fund are limited. It is unlikely that this money will be spent on propaganda per se. The worst that can happen is that crony producers will get more money than independent ones.