The Times: EU needs ‘bold leadership and honest thinking’ on migration

Zac Frackelton; Photography; The_Times; Fashion; Portrait; Gap_Trousers

European leaders can’t keep pretending freedom of movement is not an issue. Whether, in the context of Brexit or the migration crisis, inaction is undermining people’s confidence in the EU, says Emma Tucker.

Emma Tucker is Editorial Director with The Times in London, after reporting for the Financial Times in Brussels and Berlin. Despite The Times’s line against populism and Brexit, which did not prevail in the UK, she believes media do not require public support and should rather be open to new revenues. Emma Tucker spoke with Christophe Leclercq, founder of EURACTIV, as part of the #Media4EU editorial series

Emma Tucker, you are Deputy Editor of The Times in London but you have worked before in Brussels and in Berlin. What did you learn there which is relevant to your current position?

Well pretty much every day I wake up and I’m grateful for the six years I spent in Brussels because it’s never been more important for British journalists to understand what goes on there.

Having lived and breathed really detailed areas of the European project for six years has definitely helped me understand what’s at stake, the extent to which Britain is part of  the European Union and what the challenges ahead are.

I was very junior back then, working for the Financial Times, but in some ways writing daily stories about the creation of the single market, about the absolutely nuts and bolts of how it worked, gave me a pretty comprehensive understanding of the functioning of the institutions.

Not everybody can afford to spend six years on the continent but there are programs about exchanging journalists and posting people for a short time to increase their understanding. Would you say that if the majority of UK journalists had some experience on the continent, the debate on the EU would be different?

That’s a good question. It is conceivable that the debate might have been a bit more nuanced, but I suspect not profoundly different overall.

UK newspapers took different stances in the Brexit debate. The Times, like the Financial Times, The Economist and The Guardian were in the Remain camp, while The Sun and others were more for Brexit. How did you come to this decision? Are you following your readers or are you trying to lead them?

I can’t speak for The Sun, but at the The Times we went into the referendum campaign with an open mind. This wasn’t a done deal, neither in our minds nor for the electorate.

So what people wanted was journalism that explained impartially what was at stake and that was in the front of our minds throughout the referendum. So our plan was to offer as balanced a view as possible, to explain both sides and then in the end come down with a decision about what we thought was right.

The majority of our readers – I think it was 60-40 split – were pro Remain, but if you look at the breakdown of how people voted and at who our readers are you would expect that. So that wasn’t why we concluded to back the Remain campaign. We always put our readers first so in the end it was a decision that the editor took about what he thought was best for the country and we kept an open mind right up until the end.

Was this decision taken only by one person or did he consult his colleagues?

It was the editor’s decision but obviously over the weeks of the campaign multiple people had a lot of input, like his lead writers and his senior journalists. You know newspapers are very hierarchical but the decision certainly was in keeping with most of our journalists’ and our readers’ view.

Let’s talk about European content on your pages. Can you guess how much content published in the UK press is related to foreign countries, international topics, or indeed EU policy matters?

Well it would have gone up recently, particularly because we now have a Brexit email which should count because it goes out to subscribers. It’s all about our relationship with Europe and the issues that are presenting themselves.

On average in November I would say that 35% was domestic news, 3% was about Brussels politics, 24% concerned pan-European topics and 37% was about news in another country. Obviously the results are slightly skewed towards US coverage, 18% of the total, due to the elections.

So the proportion of European content you will publish will increase given your coverage of Brexit and maybe other reasons as well?

Yes, partly because since the referendum we’ve set up a Brexit unit. It comprises a sort of Brexit editor, he’s actually our Whitehall correspondent [1] who covers all sorts of government policy but now he’s been assigned to be in charge of Brexit.

We also have all our correspondence from around Europe, plus some people in the business team. So their mission is to keep a steady stream of Brexit stories coming into the paper but also to put together once a week what we call the ‘Brexit Briefing’, an email that goes out to subscribers who want to receive it. We’ve had a very swift sign-up and a very high open rate which confirms what we thought all along which is there is an enormous hunger for impartial well-sourced information about what is going on.

Other media have made similar moves so if I can say it with a smile, perhaps in one or two years the British electorate will be very well-informed about the Union it has just left…

Yes, you’re absolutely right, there has been a lot of rapid re-education around international trade, what is a trade deal, what the WTO rules state, what’s actually in article 50 etc.

I don’t know how many people knew the difference between the Single Market and the Customs Union before the referendum but even if people educate themselves only now, it still may shape the outcome and that’s important too.

In two years when negotiations possibly come to an end, is there a possibility that public opinion would have changed and that Brexit would be somehow turned down?

I suspect not, because I think the politics around this topic are so powerful that now Brexit has become almost a cultural issue and the real hardcore Brexiters would honestly put leaving ahead of the economic strength of the country.

Having said that, most people in Britain are fairly pragmatic so the mood could change, particularly if the economy starts doing badly. I don’t know whether a mood change would ever be sufficient to reverse the decision but what it might do is temper or shape the final deal.

Would you like to express a note of caution?

I think European countries had two big signals now: Brexit and Trump, so there’s obviously something afoot. I think it’s time for some bold leadership and for some honest thinking in Europe.

If the European governments in power today want to shape the future, they have to take into consideration what’s going on elsewhere in the world. Europe has often been accused of being a bit inward-looking or self-satisfied, which is often very much a charge of the British media and not always entirely justified.

Nevertheless, there’s certainly no room for complacency now.

Could you point at a practical example of bold leadership and honest thinking?

Perhaps the issue of free movement should be put on the table for a proper discussion. It may or may not lead to changes, but you can’t keep pretending it’s not an issue.

Whether you consider Britain’s problems or the feeling that too many people are coming all at once and how this is undermining people’s confidence, or the issue around asylum seekers and refugees, you can’t deny that there is an issue around people immigration that requires some sort of broad thinking.

I don’t know what the prescription is, but you know, it was genuinely shocking when borders went back up in Europe, a lot of people thought Schengen was almost irreversible, we got used to it.

Are you saying that one should reconsider Schengen but keep labour movement [2]?

No, I’m not saying I would reconsider it. I still remember when Schengen was first introduced, it was an exciting moment! I remember writing a dispatch for the FT, flying to as many different European countries as possible to see how successful it was.

So all I’m saying is that Europe needs to take an earnest look at all of these areas, at what’s working and what isn’t, at why people are worried and dissatisfied. These issues are going to be different for different countries, for Britain it was more about labour migration, for Poland it might be about remittances or perhaps about losing some of their most qualified workers.

But you can’t just pretend that the status quo is fine and carry on.

Let’s turn to revenue models in the media. The Times has had long-term partnerships with clients such as Santander Bank and also with series like The Times Luxx, which covers the fashion and luxury market. Would you say that this trend is promising in order to compensate decreasing revenue from classical ads and subscriptions?

what is far more important to us is to counter the drop in advertising revenues is our subscription model. We now have three streams of income: from newsstand sales, from advertising, and I would include the Santander deal under that, and we have our subscribers. This puts us in a stronger position than some of our rivals because the income we get from subscriptions is increasingly important.

We also understand that the old-fashion model of displaying advertising is changing, so like most newspapers, we have set up a unit that works with partners looking for longer term relationships, who want to use some of our expertise to help get their message over.

It’s completely separate from the newspaper but we want to deliver material that’s of a quality that we would demand of ourselves. For me, native advertising is just a fancy word for advertorial or sponsorship. In the end, the only thing that matters to us is that when a reader is viewing a piece, they can quickly recognise whether it was produced by a Times journalists in an editorial capacity or if it was sponsored by an advertiser.

That’s why labelling matters a lot to us, but to my mind it’s not too complicated.

The focus of the #media4EU project, which I am leading, is to explore ways of developing cross-border exchanges. The Times is not exchanging very much content with other media companies apart from sometimes publishing agency news, is that correct?

I think that is correct, we don’t have any formal partnerships. We’re aware of the fact there have been collaborations between European newspapers and The Guardian, the Panama papers was a good example of that.

We’re very open to cooperation project such as joint investigations, but what we have found so far is that sometimes people are deterred from working with us because they don’t like the idea of the hard paywall. This is a shame, because it is precisely the paywall that helps us invest in the very same type of journalism we need more of these days.

I suspect that as things evolve in Europe more big media brands will start to introduce this revenue model too.

So investigative journalism may or may not lend itself to new revenue models. But if I understand correctly, you could envisage long-term cooperation on broad topics, including social and public interest issues. Is it something you would consider based on your experience with Santander and others?

Yes, definitely. In that case, it is important to us that the content is properly labelled in association with our ethics and that we think it is actually useful. For example, the Vodafone deal or the Santander deal were partnerships we entered wholeheartedly because the series had to do with small businesses which is an area that we’re interested in.

EU institutions have stayed away from regulating the media sector, seeing it mainly as an outlet for its own communications. Now the media sector is in crisis, it has to evolve faster than ever before. Do you think this provides sufficient ground to develop a European strategy for the media sector?

I honestly don’t. Our Head of Digital often goes to seminars on the continent to talk about our model to other European media organisations and to listen to what others say to him.

For example we have actually learned a lot from what Springer newspapers are doing, they often have quite innovative ideas, and we’ve shared our paywall model with others. Now, that sort of information-sharing is enormously helpful so I think it’s much better that any strategy for the media sector develops from the successes of media outlets themselves.

Obviously it’s in our interest to have a stronger newspaper industry in Britain and in Europe, but I think the answer shouldn’t come from the European institutions because people would get annoyed and wonder ‘why are you meddling in here?’.

This is an industry issue and it should be treated as such.

We are witnessing a fast rise of populism in a number of countries, both in the US and on the continent. Can the media sector help counter this trend? And does this provide grounds for public or perhaps non-profit intervention?

This is obviously a hugely important issue. Right now we just had Mark Zuckerberg making a very defensive statement about the impact of the circulation of fake news on Facebook, so there’s never been a more important time for trusted media to counter the echo chambers of social media.

We’re all facing the challenge generated by the fact that so much advertising has migrated from ordinary media brands to Facebook, Google, Amazon etc. Our corporate strategy has been all along to try to set up a sustainable model that allows us to invest in journalism that is properly funded, balanced and with news separated from comment so that people can get the full picture.

Quality newspapers in the UK and the US have lost the argument in recent public debates over Brexit and the American election. But in both cases you seem to be very reluctant about public intervention. On the continent, there is a risk of the same happening, but people are more open to public intervention. Shouldn’t one learn from each other?

There has been a lot of talk about libel laws and other forms of press regulation that traditional media brands are subject to. We operate by a code which doesn’t apply to social media and nobody’s quite sure how to tackle this problem. We can be very careful and abide by rulings by, for example, not naming underage victims but then anyone can go on Google or Facebook or whatever and probably instantly find that name.

The European Commission has started regulating Google to avoid the risk that it abuses its dominant position. Should regulators also consider ethical criteria, so that fact-checking can have a bigger influence on algorithms?

I honestly haven’t actually thought about that. I know that Robert Thomson [3] has written a letter to the Commission’s DG Competition to explain our media group’s reservations in relation to Google and Facebook’s positions.  

[1] Ed. Domestic political correspondent from Whitehall Street in Westminster, London, where many government offices are located

[2] The right to the free movement of workers is a fundamental principle of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (2007). It differs from Schengen in that it specifically protects EU nationals who reside in another EU country for professional reasons.

[3] Chief Executive of News Corp

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