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Public Interest Overwhelms Populists

Populism as a political force is fueled by angst. Itís a simple as that. The dressed up language of freedom, free-markets and free thought is just so much hot air next to good, old fashioned fear and loathing. Sometimes that moves voters; recently, to be sure. But sometimes voters reject the rants and bombast in favor of perspective.

Barts Fun RunSwiss voters rejected this past weekend the referendum initiative - called No Billag - to end collection of mandatory household license fees supporting public broadcaster SSR-SRG. Language in the referendum would have effectively prevented the Swiss government from finding an alternative form of financing. The seven regional television channels and 17 radio channels would have closed. Also at risk would have been about two dozen local privately-owned radio stations operating in rural areas as well as several cultural organizations and venues. Overall turn-out reached 54%, twenty percent higher than average for the quarterly national polling days, and the final tally showed 71.6% of voters saying “no” to “No.”

Arguments posed by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), principal sponsor of the No Billag initiative, named for the agency formerly collecting the license fee, were standard fare populist stuff: free people from paying for something they rarely or never use, promote private-sector solutions and take control of cultural institutions. Similar arguments have been and continue to be used for frontal assaults on public broadcasters across Europe. The SVP gained notoriety with the xenophobic, anti-immigrant initiatives between 2007 and 2010 promoted with the “Black Sheep” billboards. Those initiatives were largely successful though roundly criticized by human rights organizations. Again, fear and loathing trumps all reasoning.

There is, quite obvious from the results, no lear and loathing of the SSR-SRG among a large majority of Swiss voters. In no Swiss canton (state) was the “no” vote less than 62%. Voters in French-speaking cantons were the most opposed to gutting the public broadcaster, those in remote, sparsely populated Swiss-German cantons the least.

The Swiss, overwhelmingly, consider their society a community, a mix of languages, geography and economic circumstance. Swiss bankers ride the bus; hierarchy and entitlement exist but are not cool. Everybody’s phone number is listed, including the president. This fits neatly with direct democracy.

The Swiss public broadcasting license fee is substantial, CHF 450 per year. Businesses are also required to pay their part, a particular irritant for the free-marketers among No Billag supporters. About a quarter of SRG-SSR revenues come from advertising and sponsorship, almost entirely on television.

“The Swiss are not iconoclasts,” wrote daily Le Temps (March 4), the establishment voice in the French-speaking region, hours after the results were known. “They are not ready to sacrifice a pillar of national identity just because it is too expensive. One would not think of abolishing the CFF (Swiss railway service) simply because their fares are high and trains sometimes late. SSR falls into the same category. Whatever its flaws, it remains a proven institution and an indispensable element of the country's sovereignty in the field of information.”

The collapse of national carrier Swiss Air in 2001 rattled the country and the shock lingers. “Something did die in Switzerland that day,” said BBC correspondent Imogen Foulkes in 2007. “Not just an airline but an image the Swiss had of themselves and, more importantly, of their business leaders.” Further explanation of the high voter turn-out is not necessary.

Despite regular grousing about the SSR-SRG, the Swiss media sector, almost universally, wanted nothing to do with the “No Billag” initiative. “Voters have expressed their desire to preserve the Swiss media system,” said the Association of Swiss Private Radio (VSP) in a statement. “The mixed offer of public and private media has found wide acceptance.” (See the VSP statement here - in German). Swiss publishers and private sector broadcasters continue to press for limits to the SSR-SRG imprint on digital media.

Supporters of the “No Billag” initiative are unmoved, at least publicly. “People were afraid of a journey into the unknown,” explained initiative co-founder Andreas Kleeb, quoted by 20 Minuten (March 5). “We now have to keep the pressure high.” The plan is to propose legislation to the Swiss Parliament to cut the SSR-SRG license fee by half. “If these attempts fail, we will consider a new referendum.”

"Above all, this initiative has alarmed and mobilized the left-wing electorate,” said University of Zürich political scientist Michael Hermann, quoted by German-language daily Tages Anzeiger (March 6). SVP candidates for the Zürich council, on the same ballot, lost seats.

The Swiss public broadcaster does not come out of this completely unscathed. SSR-SRG Director-general Gilles Marchand and other executives fanned out to various news outlets to explain what may and may not happen next. “We have some room for maneuver in terms of infrastructure, administrative and IT costs as well as production processes,” he said to Swiss-German public TV SFR (March 5). There will be a “restructuring,” details to be announced.

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