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How the Right Governance Can Strengthen Audiovisual Broadcast Archives

Recently we had the pleasure of talking with Prof. Dr. Katharine Sarikakis about the research project she supervised: The Governance of Cultural Memory Through Audiovisual Broadcast Archives. Prof. Dr. Sarikakis resides at the University of Vienna where she is a Professor of Media Industries, Media Organisation and Media Governance. Together with senior researchers Olga Kolokytha, Izabela Korbiel, Krisztina Rozgonyi of the Media Governance & Industries Research Lab they turned this extensive topic around in this research project.  

In short the project aimed at exploring enablers and constraints in archives governance, in relation to the accessibility to and availability of AV archives for European citizens. For which they looked at the preservation and accessibility in four European countries. Time to learn more about the research Prof. Dr. Sarikakis and her team conducted.

Could you briefly highlight the need of research into this topic?
KS: There are two main reasons why we need more work in this area. The first reason is rather a moral cultural one: we have the responsibility to reflect about our past and become better in our future so that humanity moves forward, not backwards. The fact is that archives are not simply “boring” artefacts stored in dusty cellars, but living pieces of common memory for societies across the world. Hence, their preservation and curation is important because archives hold the “knowledge of the world” and they can help societies find the wisdom, too, if used properly. Archives contain two sorts of information: one, the very items they  entail, whereby the content itself is important as a matter of information and as a matter of cultural product. Hence we have access to archives for the kinds of information they provide about cultural practices which had been dominant in the past; the other sort of information is what the totality of archival items and collections tells us about our cultures and societies, through the choices and selections and value we place collectively on the storing and saving material for current and future generations. What this “meta-analytical” dimension of the information archives can provide us with is crucial for any studies into the development of human cultures, from politics and economics to cultural expression.
The second reason is a moral, political economic one: in our times content is king. And this is true for both cultural products through which new products can be made, from documentaries to re-mix culture; but also for the production and fact checking of news programmes, to hold power accountable. The core place of archives in supporting democracy ultimately, as it does come down to that, cannot be overstated.

Public Service Media (PSM) surely play a big role as they are the main providers of European content. What are key challenges these institutions face?
KS: PSM’s have three major challenges to face: the constant attempt or temptation for interference by the state; the repeated pressure by the private sector to withdraw from popular programming; and often themselves, the sense of entitlement and sometimes sense of naval gazing as organisational cultures. In the digital era, they are the best equipped to provide know how, foster new talents and lead the way towards multiple expressions of democracy by supporting accurate and quality news programmes, daring cultural programmes and taking risks. For that, they have already a huge asset, their own archives which in most countries constitute the main source or one of the few major sources of archives.

In what way are these institutions different from commercial broadcasters?
KS: They are different in two fundamental ways: they are not chained to the profit making game; they are ultimately property of the public of the citizens as a society. This means that the prioritization of public space for open debate is the core mission. This includes taking risks, being innovative, countering anti-democratic trends, supporting the societal well-being.

This research focussed on four European countries, namely Poland, Austria, Hungary and Greece. Why these four countries?
KS: Because of the political and financial variations and because their Public Service Broadcasters (PSB’s) are telling an important story about the future of European democracies. The Greek broadcaster reopened after an anti-constitutional and violent closure in 2013. So it has lost a lot of ground over these two years (2013-2015) in projects such as digitisation of archives, in addition to all the problems associated with such a major undertaking. The Austrian broadcaster on the contrary has enjoyed a long and prosperous historical development and stable leadership for a few decades and this has allowed it to become a cornerstone in Austrian society. Hungary has undergone a massive and intensive political turbulence with the shutting down of pluralistic media markets and the increasing pressures on civil society organizations. Within this climate the “over-financialization” of the Hungarian PSB as critics argue, is not motivated by a desire to support independence and the aims of public service but to cement political interference. Poland is a country in transition, this transition however is not towards a mature democracy but a sudden step back that has raised concerns and a strong reaction of the European institutions. The civil society is quite strong in Poland. Here the archives are also in the midst of changing institutional architecture.

The project investigated legal and structural aspects in the governance of AV archives. The role of copyright and neighbouring rights plays a big role, and are definitely constraints all institutions have to deal with; could you give us the key takeaways on this topic?
KS: In all countries, the problems copyright law is raising due to digitization and re-usage possibilities are not to be underestimated. Everywhere, immediate unrestrained access by citizens is ultimately inhibited in part because of copyright. Even in cases where the most open access policies have been adopted as is the case of the hitherto development of archive access in Hungary, the state of which is now uncertain. In Greece, searching for right owners for example takes invaluable resources from a very tight set of budget and personnel, and the claims to copyright often lead to the omission of material and ultimately, one can argue to partial silencing. For example, there was a recent case where a documentary about the works and life of an internationally known writer had to be altered completely as no permission was given to use existing material.

In the report you speak of recent structural changes in the governance of archives; which are these changes?
KS: The institutional architecture of archives change in some cases especially with the move to mergers and uncertain future due to the deployment of technology. On the other hand, personnel cuts and shrinkage of budgets are forcing archival institutions to make difficult decisions, delaying digitisation, restricting openness of archives to society. For example, the digitisation process in some cases is halted due to chronic underfunding, some archives have to outsource to private companies, although not in the cases we examined but elsewhere in Europe, by cofinancing digitisation they claim rights of use of the archives. This is to my opinion a loss of public wealth and public assets.

The cool thing about this research project is that you indicate set points of action which must be taken, on the following levels:

  • legal status;
  • independence;
  • financial stability;
  • professional cultures;
  • global reach and challenges;
  • innovative practices.

In an ideal world; could you briefly underline what you would like to see happen in the near future (in regards to these levels)?
KS: An ideal situation would be for both the state and PSMs to think seriously about archives and fund and rejuvenate the professional human capital in archiving work; integrate archival personnel in the newsroom and the operations of the PSM; and expand the social reach to schools as integral elements of learning, and to citizens overall as points of information and research.

Archives should be given a protected status and public service status and should be treated as world heritage as they incorporate nothing less than global human culture and testimonials in so many ways.

Moreover, archives as organisational structures should be opened to society for creative usage of material, to attract the interest of younger generations. As part of a broader concept of media literacy, archives should pursue proactively the education of the public as to their usefulness, mission and identity.

Finally, PSB’s in particular should seek to engage more stakeholders such as academia in supporting them to explore innovative ways for archives to be better and more visibly integrated in today’s treatment of culture, social and world affairs.

Could you tell us about the already implemented innovations that take place as we speak in the four countries and which are true testimonies of the possibility of change in other institutions?
KS: Overall, different organisations exhibit their own innovative efforts. Hungary has in the past produced a comprehensive programme of free and democratic access to archives for all. It remains to be seen how much of that is to be valued and remain free from political interference. Austria has a dedicated archivist appointed at the newsroom for the best integration of archives and news. Greece has maintained the archives of all broadcasts during the two years of closure, which contain programming and news deriving from processes of self-governed PSB’s! Poland’s Nina archive is recognised as a cultural heritage institution.
These innovations are rather symptomatic, they do not derive from a collective coordinated effort. They are also quite fragile, depending on the political will and commitment of governments. It is important to note, however, that now witnessing a newned, and long overdue attention to archives, the public service and archivist associations and organisations, as well as the public media have the opportunity to seize this great opportunity to overhaul any instances and areas of stagnation.

The full research report can be read here.