Journalist chief: Press freedom in Europe ‘not just a Hungarian problem’

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Even as a growing number of challenges – including new media, the economic crisis and the rise of populist politics – are threatening the independence and viability of traditional media in Europe, quality journalism remains as necessary as ever to democracy, argues Aidan White, the former head of the International Federation of Journalists.

Aidan White is a long-time campaigner for journalistic freedom and was secretary-general of the International Federation of Journalists between 1987 and April 2011.

The IFJ is the main global trade union for journalists with over 600,000 members. It is involved in programmes such legal defence funds for media and monitoring attacks on journalists worldwide.

He was speaking to EURACTIV's Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

How bad is this global crisis for journalism? When there is less money for the media, does media freedom suffer?

We have to see the crisis in two forms. First of all there certainly isn't a crisis for freedom of expression. Today we have many more opportunities to express ourselves than ever before thanks to the Internet and social networking and access to technology. People can express themselves very effectively.

The problem about it is that we are living in a time in which we are overwhelmed by information and it is very difficult to distinguish what is useful and reliable information. That is why journalism is important.

At the same time as we've had an expansion in our capacity for free expression, we've had a contraction in the opportunities to get access to reliable information. One of the reasons for that is the crisis that is overwhelming the traditional media industry.

Over the last few years we've seen the convergence through digitalization, the convergence of broadcast media, audio, 'vidéothèque' and the introduction of online services. And the impact of this has been to really hit hard at the capacity of news media, particularly newspapers, to remain profitable.

We've seen across much of Europe and North America in particular a very severe reduction in the number of newspapers. There have been hundreds if not thousands of titles that have closed in Europe and in North America over the past five years.

At the same time newspaper companies have introduced very strong cuts in investment in editorial work. This has meant that tens of thousands of journalists have lost their jobs and been moved out from good employment into very precarious employment, because of the introduction of much more freelance and casual labour.

There has been much less investment in training and investigative journalism. As a result of that, there is a very severe crisis of the sort of journalism that is necessary to provide good and reliable information and to make democracy strong.

It's the 'quality' press that suffers.

It's not just the 'quality' press. In fact if anything the major press that have suffered has been the local and regional press. This is where the very strong impact of the crisis has been felt. Of course newspaper circulations are in very steady decline and have been so for many years. So we are in a moment of transition, there's no doubt about that.

But the crisis is not just falling circulation. Advertising is migrating from newspapers to the Internet. As a result of that there's a real question mark over whether or not the private sector can any longer deliver pluralism of information and reliable information that is useful for democracy.

That raises a very serious question because if the private sector can't deliver it and democracy needs it, then the question is: Who is going to deliver it and who is going to pay for it? We have a really profound crisis: more freedom of expression but less reliable journalism. And that is very bad for democracy.

There is a very serious state of affairs and in all of this the quality of journalism has declined. We have less ethical journalism, more sensationalist journalism, journalism that is tending not to explain context and difficult issues, but that is much more superficial reporting of what is going on.

All of this is causing a major headache for people that believe that journalism is at the heart of democracy and people need access to good and reliable journalism.

There is also the fact that part of the media is there to entertain, while another part is there to inform…

Well, that's always been the case. Media provide all sorts of different qualities. They've been educational, informative, entertaining. All of this has always been part of the mix. But in recent years the capacity to inform people has diminished and is still going down. And that's what's really worrying.

Is the press a service to society, which society needs to find ways to encourage? In terms of, I don't know, tax policy or direct aid? I know France pays direct aid to some newspapers, because they are traditional newspapers and that they would simply disappear without such aid.

There's a lot of debate now about whether or not there should be more public funding for media. One way or another there's always been systems of public subsidy for media, even in countries like the United States where they like to think the private sector reigns supreme.

The reality of it has been traditional media have received public subsidies. They very often take the form of tax breaks. They take the form of lower service tax. They take the form of direct subsidies. In the United States, for example, about $1 billion will be given in subsidies to media this year.

So every country does it. In Europe there are many countries which allow media to have a zero rate of VAT or service tax. There are subsidies on paper and distribution costs. In many countries there are direct payments to subsidise niche media and local media, in the Scandinavian countries for example. In many other countries they are looking for innovative ways to support media in the current crisis. As you say in France there is some direct support to media. In the Netherlands and other countries they are also subsidising media jobs.

Now the question is: how can this be done in an open and democratic manner? But also how can it be done without compromising the essential independence that media needs to have?

There are some good examples. Euronews is subsidised by the European Union, which doesn't mean they're biased or they pay lip service to Brussels.

It's true. It's very interesting in some areas we see operations like Euronews that are able to operate even though they are subsidised by the public purse. But that's unusual. Journalists and media are very resistant to the perception that they are being paid from the public purse even though we have a long tradition in Europe of public service broadcasting.

My view is that this attitude of resistance within media and journalism needs to change. We need to recognise that journalism is an essential public good. Being a public good there's nothing wrong with it having public money.

What we need, and we don't have this at the moment, is to create structures that will guarantee the continued editorial independence of media. That will ensure there are open and transparent structures for the distribution of public money to media.

You have been involved in the International Federation of Journalists for many years, since 1987.

For 24 years.

That's a very long time. I would like to ask you what your future plans are.

My future plans are actually to work on these particular issues: the future of journalism, the question of maintaining and reinvigorating ethical standards in journalism. I am intending to advise media and to advise journalistic groups to support programs and projects which will strengthen ethical journalism. And promote the debate about the future of media. Particularly about the need for more public funding of media and how this should be organised.

Do you also target some countries where the media situation appears to be perhaps worse than in others? In the European Union there have been several countries singled out…

Clearly there are many problems within the European Union but particularly I think there are problems in Southeastern and Eastern Europe. Here we still have countries in the process of political transition. There was a big controversy because of changes taking place in Hungary at the beginning of the year.

I think what that controversy revealed is that it's not just a Hungarian problem. I think there are many countries in Eastern Europe and in the Balkans where the relationship between politics and media is not clear enough, and where there are serious problems for journalism that need to be corrected.

There's another development which I think is extremely worrying. In many countries of Europe, and not just Eastern Europe but in Northern and Western Europe as well, there is the rise of a new and intolerant form of politics where more extremist parties exercise influence over power.

There is the promotion of anti-migrant sentiment. Racism and xenophobia are on the rise. Unfortunately media have sometimes been manipulated by unscrupulous politicians in this way.

So there is a real need for media to stand aside and protect itself from undue influence by this sort of politics. It's a major problem in this period. I see a challenge to journalists who avoid sensationalism, who avoid being part of the new wave of racism and xenophobia, which is being generated in Europe.

To try to maintain independence in the 21st Century is very difficult but this is important work and needs to be done.

I am intending to focus on what I can do in terms of using my experience in raising campaigns to improve journalistic quality, to try to help journalists to keep their professional heads above water at this really difficult time.

If there is such a surge of nationalism lately, is it also because the press is weak?

No, I don't think it's because the press is weak. I think the press's weakness has an impact. I think there is a rise of this unacceptable politics because the political structures are weak. Traditional political parties have lost their centre of gravity, their capacity for maintaining values in difficult times, in times of crisis.

I think we are seeing more and more anti-migrant racist and xenophobic politics and ideas creeping into mainstream policies. I think this is what is at the root of the crisis. This isn't a media crisis, it's a political crisis. It seems to me that media have to identify this trend to keep themselves apart from it but do everything they can to ensure that people have access to reliable and useful information. Particularly at this time.

If you look at the Brussels press, which I know you are familiar with, what would you like to improve there?

One of the things about the Brussels is that it is so overwhelmingly dominated by the elephant in the room which are the institutions of the European Union. We've seen a decline in recent years in the numbers of foreign correspondents in Brussels.

That's in line with the diagnosis of crisis which I've outlined. Media are investing less in foreign correspondents and that means less people in Brussels who provide plurality of opinions and views.

So it's very important that the Brussels media do what they can to maintain their independence. The European Union is such an important and accepted information service that it really overwhelms the capacity for independent journalism. I think that is really quite worrying.

There is a role that has to be played by the Brussels-based media, which is to try to create distance between themselves and the European Union.

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