Are public broadcasters ‘independent’ of the capitalist system and state?


Twitter, acquired by Elon Musk late last year, has faced a new round of condemnation from Public Broadcasters—including NPR, CBC, and the BBC—after they found themselves labeled as “state-affiliated media,” joining the ranks of state news outlets that include Russia Today and Xinhua. Since then, the labeling was replaced by a designation of “government-funded media,” before both designations were removed not only from public broadcasters, but also state news agencies.

While this episode is foremost a result of Elon Musk’s notoriously thin-skinned and ongoing attempts to get back at or silence critics and detractors, it raises the question of just what these public broadcasters are, their relationship with their respective states, and whose interests they represent in the name of the “public interest.”

Common perceptions

A key argument brought forward by these public broadcasters and their supporters, most of whom consider themselves left-leaning, is that they are a far cry from the rival state-owned news agencies. Editorial independence, they claim, is protected and ensured by the government acts and charters establishing and regulating these organizations. Further, funding obtained through taxes and state institutions reduces the degree to which they are subject to the pressures and vagaries of capital, shareholders, or the need to generate profit, and provides the resources to carry out higher quality reporting. As a result, they can be trusted to provide a relatively “impartial” and “unbiased” picture of current events.

This perception is reflected in statistics gathered by Reuters’ Institute Digital News Report for 2022, despite broad decline in perceived trustworthiness of major news broadcasting in general. Public or state-owned broadcasters, the BBC and Channel 4 News, are the United Kingdom’s first and third most trusted news sources, considered trustworthy by 55% and 54% respectively. In the United States, the BBC is only second to local news stations, according to those polled, rated trustworthy by 46%. PBS, while not listed in Reuters’ data, was found by a YouGov poll to be trusted by 41%, and NPR is in the middle of the pack at 34%. In English Canada, the CBC and BBC are among the most trusted news sources at 59% and 55% respectively, while CBC, via Ici Radio-Canada, is trusted by a whopping 71% in French Canada. [1][2]

General considerations

However, these narratives obscure how these broadcasters select for employees who will parrot, and how they work to manufacture consent and support for their states and the capitalists they represent. As a capitalist state exists to uphold and pursue the interests and power of its capitalist class, it has little interest in providing support to public broadcasters unless it expects some return on the investment. But thanks to their supposed independence and air of objectivity, the public media are ultimately better able to effectively act in the interest of the states they are affiliated with.

Several aspects shared by public broadcasters serve to ensure they continue to serve the interests of their capitalist states. The most obvious is that they are quite aware that their funding is contingent on their continuing value to capital and the state. As a result, they simply can’t afford to antagonize the state on whose patronage they rely, in whichever form, as doing so would put the entire enterprise at risk.

Further, public broadcasters are structured in the same way as all institutions in modern, capitalist society, with the same general effects. Like virtually any employer, these broadcasters are operated hierarchically from the top down. You are hired on your perceived ability to suit the needs and represent the interests of the company and management, and promoted based on whether you continue to do so. In the words of the late socialist activist Peter Camejo: “The truth is that in all these institutions there is a very worked out, institutionalized way of going up. And on the way up, you sell your individuality, you commit yourself to the values of the system.” [3]

Even if we were to suppose complete independence from the state, the employees of public broadcasters, whether a low-level journalist or a high-ranking executive, remain intertwined with the capitalist system. If they have any intention of moving on to another company or working for the state in the future, they must carry out their work in a way that will appeal to future employers. This is before even considering how many of those brought on by public broadcasters, especially at executive levels, come from outside companies, government agencies, or the existing political parties. They don’t suddenly stop representing those interests and moving in those circles when they move on, especially as any future career opportunities rely on effectively representing capitalism’s interests.


However, it is worth examining, in summary, some particularly influential public broadcasters and the myriad ways they are connected with the capitalist state and capitalists in general. As the world’s oldest public broadcaster, one of the largest broadcasters in general, and one which is trusted throughout the Anglosphere, the British Broadcasting Corporation provides an illustrative example.

The BBC, originally the British Broadcasting Company, was founded as a private company in 1922, jointly owned by radio manufacturers and granted a monopoly on civilian radio broadcasts. However, it took its current form as a direct result of the 1926 General Strike. With newspapers across Britain shut down as workers walked off the job, the BBC was granted the right to broadcast coverage of the strike.

Some in the British government, most notably Winston Churchill, argued that the state should take complete control of the BBC. However, seeing the value in apparent independence, and given general-manager John Reith’s opposition to the strike, they instead allowed formal independence. Summarizing this state of affairs, Reith recorded in his diary, “They did not commandeer [the BBC], but they know that they can trust us not to be really impartial.” [4]

Over the course of the strike, the BBC systematically undermined the workers, banning broadcasts from the Labour Party and putting off broadcasts from the Archbishop of Canterbury while Reith brought the prime minister to his home to coach him through his broadcasts. In return for services rendered, the BBC was reconstituted with a royal charter as the British Broadcasting Corporation and given a radio monopoly that lasted until 1973. Reith was given a knighthood, and the BBC won the name of “British Falsehood Company” from the workers.

Events surrounding coverage of the UK’s participation in the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq shows what happens when the BBC contradicts the interests of British Imperialism. Richard Sambrook, then BBC Director of News, recalled government hostility intensifying to the point that, following coverage of “a hospital, or some casualties or something, [communications strategist] Alastair rang me about 10:30 p.m., absolutely screaming down the phone, saying words to the effect of: ‘If you don’t get this crap off the airways we’re going to throw everything we’ve got at you’.” [4]

The boot came down after BBC coverage of the government’s deliberate revision (“sexing up”) of the September Dossier on Iraq’s supposed WMDs, in part at Alastair’s request, in order to justify invasion. Despite the unsurprising findings of the pro-government Hutton Inquiry that most of the BBC’s claims were accurate, the government was cleared of almost all wrongdoing, and blame for the scandal, and the apparent suicide of Ministry of Defense bio- warfare expert and whistleblower Dr. Kelly fell entirely on the BBC. The chairman and director-general were forced to resign in the aftermath, the former replaced by the far more conservative Michael Grade (who would go on to become a Conservative Life Peer), while the latter was replaced by Mark Thompson to resolve what he called “a massive bias to the left.” Reflecting on this episode, Sambrook stated that “the BBC has to be very, very careful, because it is in the end dependent on a political deal to exist.” [4]

Today, the BBC remains under the purview of the BBC Board, responsible to parliament, one third of whose members are selected by the British government, including the chairman. The British government also determines the BBC Charter and licensing fees, which together define its role, structure, and funding. Inevitably, the majority of its board members and executives are drawn from the ranks of executives from private companies. This includes chairman Richard Sharp, who worked for JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs for a combined 30 years, during which he was at one point current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s boss. The current director-general is a former Tory politician who has barred employees from attending trans rights and BLM protests.

The BBC’s continuing commitment to the interests of British capital is exemplified in its coverage and depiction of social-democrat Jeremy Corbyn. Over just one period, the height of the 2016 Labour leadership challenge on June 26 to July 5, 2016, over four times as many issue-frames on “BBC News at Six” were critical of Corbyn than were supportive, and not a single headliner was positive, compared to countless negative ones. Further, twice as much unchallenged airtime was provided to sources opposed to Corbyn than supporters, and Corbyn was consistently referred to as hostile, intransigent, and extreme despite being on the defense against the party right. [5]


National Public Radio, as one of the United States’s two largest national public broadcasters and the primary catalyst for the opening episode for this piece, makes a worthwhile second case study. Its importance is shown by the fact that White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre felt compelled to make a statement that NPR “is an independent news organization. That is clear. If anyone were to follow their coverage, it is clear that they are indeed an independent news organization.” [6]

A key point of NPR’s argument has been that only 1% of its revenue comes from the federally funded and overseen Corporation for Public Broadcasting. However, as Howard Husock, former member of the CPB’s Board of Directors, notes, this is at minimum incredibly misleading. While it receives only 1% of its revenues (which totaled $316 million in 2022) directly from the CPB, this ignores tens of millions paid to NPR via middlemen. By law, 23% of the $103 million given in grants to public radio stations must be spent solely on “acquiring or producing programming that is to be distributed nationally and is designed to serve the needs of a national audience.” Given how few national radio public broadcasters there are, and that NPR is by far the largest, as much as a quarter of the $93 million the NPR categorizes as “core and other programming fees” could be, in effect, federal funding. [7]

While it proved little more than bluster, Trump’s repeated threats of cutting CPB funding were grounded in the reality that it can be cut or eliminated at the whim of the U.S. government, which NPR must keep in mind when considering its programming. Instead, however, it received its first funding increase in a decade during Trump’s presidency, with bipartisan support. Clearly it is seen as performing a useful service by both parties of American capital.

Beyond the question of “state-affiliation,” that NPR only receives a minority of its income from state sources raises the question of where the rest of its revenue comes from, and what influence it has on their reporting. The lion’s share of revenue, $135 million or 42%, comes in the form of “corporate sponsorships,” funding provided by companies and organizations for advertising. The need to attract and maintain these sponsors, like the funding provided through the CPB, creates pressure to provide news and reporting that suits the interests and politics of capital. The flip side of this is that the receipt of this funding means their reporting generally suits a section of capital’s interests.

Finally, NPR and its management is just as thoroughly integrated with the U.S. political apparatus and capitalism as any other public broadcaster. Its president and CEO since 2019, John Lansing, was the Obama administration’s appointment for CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, the official propaganda arm of the federal government, from 2015 to 2019. USAGM is responsible for Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, and other state news organizations intended to support American foreign policy and imperialism overseas, and incidentally, were also spared the title of “state-affiliated media” until last month.

Far from an outlier, NPR executives are often drawn from the USAGM and its broadcasters. Kevin Klose was an executive for Radio Free Europe before, and president and CEO after, his 10-year stint as president of NPR from 1998 to 2008. Ken Stern, COO from 1999 and CEO from 2006 to 2008, was a senior advisor for both Bill Clinton’s 1996 presidential campaign and the USAGM International Broadcasting Bureau. The rest, naturally, are largely drawn from other private companies regardless, and ultimately represent their interests as a result.


Given the reality that these public broadcasters are so closely intertwined with the interests of the states and capitalists that fund them, the reasons behind their objection to the title of “government-funded” or “state-affiliated” media is obvious. In the words of Bridget Serchak, director of PR at Voice of America: “this new label on our network causes unwarranted and unjustified concern about the accuracy and objectivity of our news coverage.” [8] These labels draw attention to the simple fact that these broadcasters are neither “objective” (not that such a thing is possible) nor free from “interference from government officials,” and undermines their ability to act as effective mouthpieces for the needs of their state and capital.

It was for this reason that the previous Twitter guidelines specifically excepted “state-financed media organizations with editorial independence, like the BBC in the UK or NPR in the US” from the label while applying it to imperial rivals and targets.

The fact that broadcasters and media organizations like the BBC and NPR are believed by so many to be disconnected or independent from the organizations and interests of those that fund them and the capitalist system in which they exist allows them to be far more insidious. No organization is independent from the class and social relations that give birth to and surround it, and thus, it would be inaccurate to frame such entities as being completely objective, independent, or apolitical.

This is not to say that socialists shouldn’t read, listen to, or watch public broadcasters, or mainstream, bourgeois news in general. To do so would severely limit our ability to keep up with current events, they provided a major source of information for this article, for example, not to mention the general goals and ideological justifications of the capitalists and states they represent. If nothing else, that broadcasters generally need to at least maintain an air of objectivity and accuracy in order to operate means that much of the information they provide can be generally correct, even if it will be spun to their ends when possible. However, they must be read critically, with an understanding of whose interests they are intended to buttress, and supplemented whenever possible with reports from the ground and an understanding of the socio-economic forces in play.


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