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The Tickle File is ftm's daily column of media news, complimenting the feature articles on major media issues. Tickle File items point out media happenings, from the oh-so serious to the not-so serious, that should not escape notice...in a shorter, more informal format.

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Week of July 17, 2017

Politicians seeking shade complain about public broadcasters
envy and resentment

Public broadcasters are routinely called out for a wide variety of sins, perceived and real. Nowhere is this more intense than in the UK, home to the world’s best known public broadcaster, the BBC. This week’s transgression feeding British tabloids is renumeration - salaries and such - for non-executive performers, also known as stars.

The BBC’s Royal Charter, the governing contract with Parliament, was renegotiated last year to include new budget and services cuts. In it, the BBC is required annually to disclose publicly the salaries of specific performers earning more than GBP 150,000 a year, a figure coinciding with the prime minister’s salary. Politicians of a certain quarter - and the newspaper publishers who love them - have long kept an inquiring eye for shameful misconduct by the BBC.

And so, they now have it, protestations by Director General Tony Hall about privacy issues dismissed. Of the BBC’s 43,000 contract employees 96 are paid as much as or more than Prime Minister Theresa May. Some are radio and TV show hosts, some are actors and, yes, some are journalists. Most are household names within the UK, a few in the wider world owing to the BBC’s global footprint. (See more about the BBC here)

UK media watchers - and their favorite politicians - were largely unable to seize upon top star’s salaries. Competitors pay more. Lord Hall complained last year that revealing individual salaries would lead to star poaching even though leading UK talent agents know everything about everybody.

Gender disparity, expectedly, rose to the headlines. Only about one-third of the best paid BBC talent are women. PM May called it a “disgrace.” Lord Hall said the BBC would do better.

Most public broadcasters - and their employees - are never faced with public disclosure of individual’s salaries. Thirty years ago, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, horrified to learn that National Public Radio’s morning show host Bob Edwards was paid more than he, tried to de-fund the public radio broadcaster citing “liberal” bias. That attempt failed but the politics of envy and resentment is everlasting.

Reporter's question provokes far-right outrage, violent threats
familiar path followed

All too often, sadly, reporters are threatened for asking questions, doing their jobs. Civil criticism is, of course, fair but threats to life andlimb shouldn’t happen. But they do.

Last week (July 13) at a regular European Commission (EC) press briefing, reported Euractiv (July 17), Polish TV broadcaster Polsat’s Brussels correspondent Dorota Bawolek asked a pointed question related to recent declines in Poland’s democratic institutions, notably the dismantling of Poland’s independent judiciary by the nationalist/populist Law and Justice (PiS) party. The question was, essentially, waved away.

She tried again: “You seem happier to comment on a country that is leaving the EU than a country that is in the EU and that, perhaps if you don’t answer, will want to follow that path.” Other reporters in the room pressed the same question and received the same response. (See more about media in Poland here)

"A group of journalists, both from Poland and abroad, tried to criticize the spokesman for almost 15 minutes,” said Polish radio RMF reporter Katarzyna Szymanska-Borginon, who was attended the press briefing, quoted by Polish news portal Wiadomosci (July 17). “The spokesman firmly refused. The dissatisfaction of the journalists was enormous.”

Almost immediately State broadcaster TVP used a clip of Ms Bawolek’s question in a news bulletin describing it as “a provocation.” Polsat was accused of “inadmissible” professional standards. Right-wing social media addicts erupted with threats, vile and violent.

Asked about the incident at a subsequent press briefing (July 17), spokesperson Alexander Winterstein said “the European Commission condemns all attacks on journalists” and “hopes it is a one-off case.”

With a thumb firmly on traditional media, online media under greater pressure: report
"blatant misinformation"

International media freedom watchers have long pointed out the lack of media independence in the Russian Federation. While traditional media refrains from any sort of critical reporting, lest terrible things happen, online and social media has been a center for rather vibrant debate. That is quickly changing.

A report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) (July 18) - Online and On All Fronts - details efforts to silence criticism online. Criminal prosecutions have increased - particularly since the annexation of Crimea - for online and social media posts considered “extremist expression.” Recently, a prank video clip of a blogger playing Pokemon Go in a Russian Orthodox Church and shared on social media landed him a conviction for “incitement of hatred and insult to the religious feelings of believers,” a legal construct that put punk-rock collective Pussy Riot in jail.

“Many Russians are increasingly unsure about what is acceptable speech and what could land them a large fine or prison term,” said the HRW report. Between 2010 and 2015 the number of convictions for “extremism” related to social media use increased seven-fold. (See more about media in the Russian Federation here)

“With few exceptions, mainstream media outlets have become the voice of the state and use elaborate propaganda tools to mobilize patriotic support for the government,” the report continued. “State-driven media outlets promote biased reporting and, at times, blatant misinformation on many issues of the day, especially concerning the situation in Ukraine.” All independent media outlets in the seized Crimean Peninsula have been closed, native Crimean Tatars notably targeted.

The new media star roars, money leaps
"conditioned response"

Subscription video on demand (SVoD) service Netflix now has 104 million subscribers. Netflix sells movies and TV shows, some it produces, to folks in 190 countries connected to the web. The company statement to investors on its business and subscribers (July 17) caused yet another eruption among stock traders by showing 5.2 million new sign-ups in Q2, well-ahead ahead of projections.

Nearly all financial observers noted two things: Netflix is deeply in debt, mostly for future original production costs, and investors don’t care. International subscribers have nudged ahead of US customers, 52.03 million vs. 51.92 million, respectively. And that international business is growing far faster. Reuters (July 18) referred to investor’s response (share price up 11% on the day) as “Pavlovian" - “more a conditioned response than logical thinking.”

There is plenty of competition in the SVoD segment. Netflix contends with Hulu, HBO Go and Amazon Prime in the US and just about every broadcaster elsewhere. Netflix is spending about US$ 6 billion this year on original productions, three times as much as HBO. “As we have said before, we expect to be (free cash flow) negative for many years.” (See more about video on demand here)

Online video consumption is - again - rising, according to media buyer Zenith’s 2017 Online Video Forecast (July 17). Measuring all sources - from SVoD services to YouTube and broadcaster-owned services to social media videos - in 63 countries time watching something online is forecast to jump from 39.6 minutes per day last year to 47.4 minutes in 2017. And, unsurprisingly, seven out of ten people will watch videos on mobile devices by 2019.

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