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Governments around the world are reconsidering their investment in public broadcasting. Citizen knowledge and government accountability may hang in the balance.

The CBC is in the midst of a 10 per cent reduction of its federal budget allocation – and Thursday's budget could deliver further blows. The BBC is cutting 2,000 jobs and implementing a 20 per cent cut in funding. Even PBS, smaller in both ratings and public funding, is subject to similar concerns. In one of the strangest (albeit entertaining) moments of the recent U.S. election campaign, Mitt Romney suggested firing Big Bird.

Funding for public broadcasting is an issue not just because of recessions, however. It has been surrounded by questions and controversy for some time. We know what public broadcasters are supposed to do: to inform, entertain, and – most importantly – educate. In the Canadian case, there is also the effort to maintain a unique cultural identity. These aims are achievable, in principle, because government funding helps free public-service broadcasters from the vagaries of commercial revenues.

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Not all public broadcasters rely on government funds alone, however. For instance, roughly 40 per cent of CBC revenues come from outside the federal government.

Particularly in this period of fiscal restraint, then, we need to ask ourselves two questions. First, how important are the goals of public service broadcasting? Second, how insulated from commercial constraints do public broadcasters need to be in order to achieve those goals?

On the first question, the answer is clear. Representative democracies require informed citizens. Easy access to independent and quality news media is central to political participation. It helps us form opinions about policy. It helps us hold our governments accountable. News also affects personal decision making in fundamental ways. Economic news can alter spending and savings habits, just as environmental or science news lead to major lifestyle changes.

In short, news matters, and we're generally better off with as much (quality) news as we can create.

An answer to the second question is a little more complex. One concern is that the need for commercial revenue undermines broadcasters' ability to serve the public interest. A station that needs insurance-company commercials may be reluctant to criticize insurance companies, for instance. But commercial income has also helped specialty news channels such as CNN thrive.

That said, debates about the value of public-service broadcasting news programs have thus far lacked empirical evidence. The debate has not directly considered whether public broadcasters actually make people more informed.

Our recent goal has been to make a contribution in this regard. Our work, recently published in the British Journal of Political Science, rests on a large survey of citizens conducted across six countries with strong public broadcasters: Canada, the U.K., Japan, Italy, South Korea, and Norway. We measure knowledge of current affairs, both domestic and international. We also measure news exposure – where people get news, and how much attention they pay to it.

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Results suggest differences in the impact that public broadcasters have on public knowledge. Public broadcasting is not always informative. Italian viewers of public broadcasting, for instance, tend to know less than viewers of the major private competitor. (In fact, Italians are typically better informed by avoiding news broadcasts altogether than by regularly viewing RAI.) Watching BBC news has a much stronger positive effect on knowledge relative to private broadcasters.

Canada sits somewhere in the middle range. Citizens who rely on the CBC for news score only marginally better on current-affairs indicators. The bang for your (public broadcasting) buck is much better in the U.K., Japan, and Norway. Not coincidentally, in these countries the levels of funding and independence from government are much stronger.

In the end, it may be that public-service broadcasting requires an all-or-nothing approach. More fully funded, more independent public broadcasters can make a difference where public knowledge is concerned. A piecemeal approach to public broadcasting produces much weaker, even inconsequential, results. We should perhaps have fully public broadcasting, or just abandon the idea altogether.

That said, governments' decisions about the funding and independence of public broadcasters also have implications for the degree to which citizens are able to hold those governments accountable. Reduced funding for public broadcasting may well lead to less accountable governments.

The strongest public broadcasters (of which the CBC is not) quite clearly help produce more informed citizens than do private broadcasters. Whether governments want to invest in this kind of public broadcasting, given the current fiscal climate, is an issue that Canada – and countries around the world – must consider.

Stuart Soroka is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at McGill University. Blake Andrew lectures in the Department of Political Science at Bishop's University.

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