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'Scrapping compulsory TV licence fees would be dangerous for Switzerland's direct democracy'

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File image of man voting in the Swiss city of Fribourg in 2014. Photo: AFP
11:59 CET+01:00
Switzerland goes to the polls on March 4 to vote on whether to scrap the compulsory licence fee which helps fund the country's national broadcaster, the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC), and over 30 regional radio and television stations.

Supporters of the so-called ‘No-Billag’ initiative – as the proposal to scrap the licence fees is known – argue it’s not fair that everyone should have to pay the yearly 451-franc levy regardless of whether they actually watch television or listen to the radio. They say the 1.37 billion francs a year spent on licences could be diverted to consumer spending and that the SBC would be more independent if it were not dependent on the fees.

But André Moesch, the director of subsidised regional television channel TV Ostschweiz (TVO) and member of the ‘Nein zum Sendeschluss’ committee which was  formed to opposed the No-Billag initiative, says scrapping the current licence arrangements would seriously threaten national cohesion in Switzerland. He argues the country would become a “media desert” and that this would be very dangerous for Switzerland's unique system of direct democracy.

The Local spoke to Moesch recently about why he believes the No-Billag motion poses such a threat.

Supporters of the No-Billag iniative claim that it will make the SBC more politically independent. Is that true? Is the public broadcaster censored because it receives funding from licence fees and the government?

This claim is pure propaganda. In fact, it’s the opposite way around. Thanks to the constitutionally-enshrined duty for it provide unbalanced reporting, the SBC is far more independent than most other media outlets. There is no political censorship of any type.

Swiss newspaper the NZZ recently came out against the No-Billag initiative but said the SBC had to trim down. Does the broadcaster waste money?

Maybe not waste exactly. But it is clear that the SBC has become too large in recent years. This is always the danger with subsidised businesses and that is why they need to go on “a diet” from time to time. The SBC needs to do this as well – that is why it doesn’t need to destroyed, as is the plan of the current initiative.

People in Switzerland often say SBC programmes are boring and that the shows on the private channels are more entertaining. How do you respond to that?

This is not a fair blanket assessment. The SBC has very successful, and also very varied programming. But like all state broadcasters, the SBC does not provide the most innovative offering. Private television channels are often braver on that front.

Are there hidden political and business interests behind the No-Billag initiative?

One widely-held theory is that the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) wants to do away with a troublesome SBC that is often critical of its position. [There is also a theory] that the SVP wants to make room for more private television channels it can then use to spread unabashed propaganda. Party figurehead Cristoph Blocher has brought several newspapers in recent years which he has then refocused along SVP lines.

The motto of the ‘Nein zum Sendeschluss’ committee is ‘Less diversity, less Switzerland’. Why are the SBC and the many regional television and radio stations so important for 'little' Switzerland?

With its four official languages, Switzerland needs a national broadcaster which is charged with ensuring national cohesion. Without it, the regions would drift apart. And the regions themselves need regional TV and radio for their own identity. If the No-Billag initiative is voted in, only the business interests of the regions will be served. Peripheral and mountain areas will be become a media desert. That’s a very dangerous situation in a direct democracy!

You head up the regional television station TV Ostschweiz (TVO; Television Eastern Switzerland). Why are the Billag licence fees so important for you? Could TVO survive without this source of income?

TVO is a regional television concession. We look after a region with around 600,000 residents. In economic terms that is far too small to survive off advertising alone. That is why around 50 percent of our budget comes from licence fees. To put it bluntly: without these fees we would have to close up shop.

Swiss households pay around 1.25 francs per day for the whole public television and radio network. For this amount of money, you can hardly buy anything in Switzerland. Why do many Swiss people feel the licence fee is so expensive?

Good question. I have the feeling the money argument is given too much prominence. Of course there are people in serious financial difficulties but for most people the fees are totally affordable. For many people, the more important question is the obligation: they don’t like the fact that everyone has to pay, including people who don’t listen to the radio or watch TV.

The counterargument is solidarity. In every state there are many things I pay for that I don’t use – from public transport to social support.

What is the worst-case scenario if the licence fees are scrapped?

The Swiss TV and radio scene would immediately be completely turned on its head. The SBC and the 34 subsidised regional TV and radio stations would disappear. In their place, there would be a purely entertainment-based offering, mostly from overseas, along with expensive pay TV for sport and also one or two right-wing propaganda channels. And some voters would then say to themselves: “But that is not what I wanted!”


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