A press fit for the purpose?

Finding a new model for press and public service broadcasting

Despite the Internet’s growing significance as vehicle of freedom of expression, public service broadcasting and the printed press will remain for some time the visible face of the watchdog on power. In western Europe, the traditional media need to prove they are still capable of performing this role, writes Judith Vidal-Hall.

Proceedings brought by political leaders are weakening the European freedom of expression model and, in so doing, are undermining its external policy and the universal impact of its values. […] The heads of European governments, like their parliamentary colleagues, are gaining notoriety for their increasingly systematic use of proceedings against the news media and its journalists. The latter have to endure the insults which political leaders allow themselves to indulge in ever more frequently in their statements, following, in such matters, the deplorable example of press freedom predators and overlooking the moral obligations inherent in their public office. In Slovenia, the former Prime Minister is thus competing with Silvio Berlusconi and [former Slovak PM] Robert Fico by demanding no less than 1.5 million euros from a journalist who denounced irregularities tainting certain procurement contracts. In France, the presidential majority could not find words harsh enough to label journalists who inquired into the Woerth/Bettencourt affair. But the prize for political meddling goes to the Greek government.

So opens the 2010 Press Freedom Report from Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF). It goes on to deplore the fall from grace of a number of EU countries – by no means all of which are among the “new democracies” of central and eastern Europe. A shocking comment on the press model we exported to the post-communist world after 1989, much of it the result of “anti-terror” legislation and the “protection of national security” in the wake of 9/11. It was a story that failed to make the headlines in most western European papers in the way it might have done. Yet, as the year ended, much of the world’s press was consumed by a story that epitomized what the phrase “freedom of the press” has come to mean.

Millions of words and a good deal of hot air have been spent on the WikiLeaks phenomenon, some, more illuminating than many, on this website.1 Opinion runs the gamut of emotions: in the USA it stops little short of outright panic and calls for the execution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on a charge of “treason” – though even Fox TV also takes full advantage of the leaks to sex up its evening broadcasts. Others concentrate on securing his arrest and extradition on what appear to be spurious charges of rape in Sweden. Among more rational voices there seems to be a consensus that Assange and his team have taken freedom of expression and transparency to an unprecedented level. Not since the darkest days of glavlit and censorship in the Soviet Union has free speech been so fashionable a cause.

Others, however, argue that the link between press and Internet has been irrevocably changed for the worse; yet others that the symbiosis demonstrated between the print media and the new technology has given the latter a new lease of life at a moment it needed it most. As Marc-Olivier Padis, editor of the journal Esprit, points out in a forthcoming issue, opinions have an inconvenient habit of dividing along the lines of that small and happy band chosen for the publication of the WikiLeaks data – New York Times, Guardian, Le/ Monde, El Pais and Der Spiegel – and their rivals, who could only look on with envy.

Extreme political reactions are not our business here, more the impact of the leaks on the future of the press. Are we being blinded by the scale of the revelations – 251,287 separate cables amounting to some 13,000 pages – to the fact that we have been here before? Is this the way of the future or simply the past come to life? Isn’t it more or less what journalists have always done, particularly that supposedly endangered species, the investigative journalist? Is WikiLeaks more than simply a provider, the source mediated to the page, much as Woodward and Bernstein did for “Deep Throat”, the anonymous source who spilled the beans on the Watergate affair that eventually brought down Richard Nixon? Or is it a breakthrough in a new and very different construct of democracy?

As Henry Porter, commenting in the Observer, reminds us, “Nothing is new.”2

In the 1770s in Britain, a libertine, wit and radical journalist fought parliament and succeeded in forcing it to allow the daily publication of each day’s proceedings in the House, something that had been denied previously by those in power on the grounds that it would endanger national security and prevent the smooth running of the nation’s affairs. The name of this reprobate, John Wilkes MP, became synonymous with liberty and a free press. He was prosecuted for “seditious libel” against the person of King George III and forced to flee to France – not then synonymous with freedom of any kind. On his return, he was imprisoned in the Kings Bench Prison in south London, despite the protests of an unruly mob of supporters at the prison gates. Assange’s incarceration in Wandsworth Prison would have made him something of a neighbour.

“It took a libertine to prove that information enriched the functioning of British society,” says Porter. The government fought him with the legal instruments at its disposal and some that were not. Attempts to destroy his credibility by sexual entrapment failed, as did his expulsion from parliament. The government was finally forced to climb down. The kingdom continued to function much as before, the people were the wiser on the doings of their representatives – and today a statue of the man stands at the heart of London’s Fleet Street, onetime centre of the UK newspaper industry.

So far so good; the parallels are almost too obvious. But what of the nature of the information supplied by WikiLeaks and the manner in which it has been served up to the papers involved?

The answer is probably yes: size does matter. The sheer volume and scope of the material and the threat it poses to the security systems of those who are the victims of its exposures – diplomats, kings and politicians, bureaucrats and bankers, and, no doubt, more to come – have changed the game. These are not the one-off revelations on Iraq and Afghanistan: this source will continue to drip feed the press for months yet and change the relationship between newspapers and the Internet as it does. The future of information looks very different from the past.

In the meantime, the besieged print media has been given a shot in the arm when it most needed it. Though the Internet is a powerful vehicle for freedom of expression and opinion, it has not usurped the traditional media’s role as “Fourth Estate” – a phrase also coined in the eighteenth century by Edmund Burke, a passionate rival of Wilkes. The press will remain for some time the visible face of the watchdog on power and guardian of the people’s interest – though if Julian Petley is right, it has already forfeited that role. How else than through the journalists and front pages of Europe’s more serious newspapers could Assange have got the stories out? Who, other than the men and women trained to do it, is going to wade through the sheer volume of raw data and make sense of it for the reader?

The reports that follow indicate that the traditional media, public service broadcasting as well as newspapers, is in poor heart, as much the victim of recession and the loss of advertising revenue on which it has been over-dependent for a century at least, as the inroads of technology. Contrary to the popular belief that technology is the culprit in the oft-predicted “death of print”, a recent study from the Reuters Institute in Oxford states:

While the industry has certainly suffered severe declines in revenues in several countries in recent years, the latest downturns seem to be more closely connected with the relative degree of dependence on volatile revenue sources like advertising and on the differential impact of the global recession than with the spread of the Internet.”3

As Juan Luis Cebrián, chairman of the Spanish publishing group Prisa and a founder of Spain’s flagship daily El Pais, said some time ago: “The trouble with our daily newspapers is that they are sustained by a system that dates from the past century, an economy of supply, whereas the digital economy is one of demand. We are at a point where the role of the mediator, which is what characterizes representative democracy, is in the process of disappearing.” He adds that journalists, too, as mediators between the public and news and events, are guilty of failing to come to terms with the new generation of bloggers and digital “informers”. All the blame for journalists’ failure is pushed onto the papers, “these old papers we use to wrap up our bananas at the greengrocers”. Nobody’s giving it nearly enough thought, Cebrián concludes mournfully.

Not entirely true: the head of the French daily Libération, Laurent Joffrin, has proposed that ISPs be “taxed” or subjected to a levy for the support of the press. German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, anxious about the loss of the public sphere and the weakening of democracy should the press collapse, endorsed his idea. The European Commission is consulting on the matter. It is evident that the state newspaper subsidy that has been provided in France, as in other western European countries since World War II, is no longer adequate; proposals by the Sarkozy government to further subsidize delivery seems little more than a stop gap. As Cebrián implies, our traditional media model is, like other institutions (including our form of democracy), no longer fit for purpose: nineteenth-century dinosaurs in the digital age.

But technology cannot so easily be let off the hook. If Marshall McLuhan was right back in the 1960s that each change in technology affects us in profound and not always measurable ways, the impact of the latest, exponential leap of the technology of communication is having a significant impact on the way we acquire information, the way we read and how we chose to get our news. McLuhan’s main argument, elaborated in The Medium is the Massage, is that new technologies such as alphabets, printing presses and even speech itself, affect our social organization.4 According to him, the advent of print technology contributed to and made possible most of the salient trends in the modern period in the West: individualism, democracy, Protestantism, capitalism and nationalism. Others can argue the toss whether money or technology is more instrumental in the difficulties of the old media; like print in its day, Web 2.0 has radically changed our communication habits and preferences.

One of which is the fact that information on the Internet is globally available – over 50 per cent of the regular visitors to the Guardian website Guardian Unlimited are from the US – and opens up global perspectives while the structure of the traditional media remains essentially confined to a national audience. And since we are talking about the media in western Europe, it seems relevant to observe at this point that for all our commitment to the idea of a united Europe, we do not even have a European media. And on Habermas’ theory, that means we do not have a European public sphere and there is little hope for the democratization of the EU.

Again, it’s not a subject much discussed. One who has is Peter Preston, formerly editor of the Guardian, on this website. While the EU has become a supra-national force, he says the press hasn’t followed. “It remains bound by national, even regional, chains. Pragmatism drags its principles down – and, as they fall, the edifice of Europe may creak and slide, too.”5 Who is to monitor the infamous “democratic deficit” of the EU and argue for change? Some blogger in cyberspace, maybe, but it will not have the impact or authority of real time journalism. Preston was writing six years ago; since then the EU has expanded once more – and still there is no paper that makes “Slovenia and Sweden feel they are part of the same enterprise”.

Much the same is true of public service broadcasting (PSB). In the UK, anxieties in the run up to digital switchover have been debated at some length: the future of plurality, diversity not to mention funding. But in Europe as a whole, where PSB is a less sacrosanct institution than the UK’s flagship BBC, the debate has hardly begun, as Petros Iosifidis describes. In The Netherlands, there is a different situation again: for historical reasons, much as in Belgium though to a vastly greater extent, Dutch PSB is fragmented, somewhat chaotic and under threat of dramatic funding cuts, as reported by Angelo van Schaik.

Apart from the common problems of falling revenue and circulation, the picture across western Europe’s newspaper world is by no means uniform. In Germany, for example, Thomas Leif regrets how an ever closer symbiosis between lobby groups, politics and the media is having a corrosive effect on quality journalism. In Greece, meanwhile, the problem is an historical one dating from the time of the Colonels. Their regime ended in 1974 but since then, as Stylianos Papathanassopoulos writes, politicians and papers, which are far too closely entangled, have both sunk in public esteem. While Ireland, the most recent country to turn to turn to the international financial institutions for a bailout, struggles with the consequences of its spending spree, the media, too, prepares itself for leaner times (see the article by Michael Foley). Ironically, the one exception to the general trend is Italy, where despite its financial worries the press has acquired a renewed energy and purpose in the land of Il Cavalieri, aka Silvio Berlusconi, and his media empire. It may not last, says Giulio D’Eramo, but while it does, it is leading the campaign against corruption in politics and the scandalous behaviour of the Prime Minister. While Jean-Francois Juilliard, Secretary General of the media monitoring organisation Reporters Sans Frontières, worries about the disturbing evidence of intimacy between government and the press under Nicolas Sarkozy, Irena Maryniak looks at the arrival of the new boys on Europe’s media landscape and sees signs of hope – at least of resources – for Europe’s beleaguered and impoverished newsprint. Are Le Monde‘s new owners about to divert France’s most distinguished paper to ends of their own? What do the young Russians have in mind in the UK and France?

Which brings us back to the quotation that heads this brief overview. It is inevitable in any survey of this kind that criticism is to the fore. “It is disturbing to see several EU member countries continuing to fall in the index [of free expression]”, continues the RSF 2010 Press Freedom Report. “If it does not pull itself together, the European Union risks losing its position as world leader in respect for human rights. And if that were to happen, how could it be convincing when it asked authoritarian regimes to make improvements?” France has fallen to 44 in the ranking, Italy to 49 and Greece sits with Bulgaria, Benin and Kenya at 70. Can we any longer hold up to scrutiny the media model we exported to central and eastern Europe 21 years ago? Is it any longer fit for purpose?

Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens, "Twelve theses on WikiLeaks", and Felix Stalder "Contain this!".

Henry Porter, "Comment", The Observer 12 Dec 2010.

David A. L. Levy and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen (eds.) The Changing Business of Journalism and its Implications for Democracy, Reuters Institute: Oxford 2010.

Marshal McLuhan with Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects produced by Jerome Agel, 1st Ed.1967, Random House; reissued by Gingko Press, 2001.

Peter Preston, "Dialogue of the deaf".

Published 31 December 2010
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

© Judith Vidal-Hall / Eurozine



Subscribe to know what’s worth thinking about.

Related Articles

Cover for: Freedom of speech under duress in Belarus, Poland and Ukraine

Poland is descending on a path toward more and more authoritarian tactics to curb independent journalism, while Belarus has long been enduring direct repression, especially since last year’s revolution. In Ukraine, however, the majority of mainstream media is owned by oligarchs, and public service is trying to gain ground to balance them out.

Cover for: When all hope is lost, why not be optimistic?

When all hope is lost, why not be optimistic?

Research and education in Hungary and Germany

The rapid dismay of Hungarian universities has upset international observers recently. However, the illiberal vanguard state doesn’t hold a monopoly on academic pressure. In this conversation, Hungarian critic Anna Gács and German historian Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger discuss political interventions, cancelling and more.