Democracy needs journalism – but who pays the piper?

The European Parliament Hearing “Paying the Price for Journalism and Democracy” on 02 February 2010 saw MEPs and journalists, campaigners and European officials come together to discuss media freedom and the future for the industry.

Tanja Fajon MEP began by describing an industry in crisis, quoting a recent survey of 195 countries that had concluded just 72 of them had a media that could be considered free. Yet, she reminded her audience, good journalism remains fundamental to a healthy democracy. Five different groups with the Parliament had come together to launch this new European Parliament Media Intergroup, she said, in order to examine how to maintain a healthy media industry.

Traditional papers no longer watchdogs
Moderator Aidan White (EFJ) stressed that traditional newspapers are no longer able [for financial reasons] to provide the watchdog role that was expected of them in the past. Using the example of Fox News, apparently rated as the most trusted media in the US, he asked if perhaps partisan journalism is the way forward as a successful media model.

However, bearing in mind the negative consequences of such an approach on objective provision of information, he believed that there is only one way forward for journalism organisations concerned with standards, and that is to maintain the focus on ethical journalism.

Journalists should warm up democracy
Writer Jean-Paul Marthoz (Enjeux Internationaux) saw a problem of journalists losing their credibility; he pointed to a La Croix survey that found just one quarter of its respondents had confidence in journalists’ ability to deliver objective information.

Quoting Walter Cronkite as saying that the media provides public information channels that are essential to democracy, he said that maybe we need to prove that good journalism is still relevant in today’s world. He saw present-day society as set in “a winter of democracy”, and that journalists need to move it into warmer climes.

In another quotation (Walter Lippman), he saw the present crisis in western democracy as a crisis of journalism, and warned that “panic and disruption will descend upon any people denied access to the facts”.

Politicians failing the media
Jeremy Dear for the NUJ replied that journalists themselves acknowledge that media are failing democracy but, he said, it’s also true that the politicians are failing the media. Saying that a lack of regulation [in some countries] had given rise to unbridled market speculation, he pointed to the case of the Long Eaton Advertiser, a thriving news operation that had been closed because it was “not profitable enough”.

In the UK the media industry is in free fall, he said, with some 101 newspapers closed, 8,000 jobs lost in broadcasting, papers moving from daily to weekly, specialist correspondents axed and more.

As a result the work of government and local councils is not properly scrutinised, and a majority of those in the legal profession believe that media do not supply sufficient coverage. Everywhere, corporate business models are being used to cut journalism. “We are in the eye of the perfect storm,” he said.

Profit no guarantor of media freedom
But what can we do about it, he asked. We need to recognise that profit is not the best guarantor of media freedom, he maintained. There is simply not sufficient commercial value in news to underpin quality journalism. The answer, he said, is regulation in the public interest. Public service and public interest need to be at the heart of media policy. It’s up to politicians, he said, to lay down the boundaries that enable good journalism to survive and thrive.

Chris Elliott, Managing Editor Guardian News & Media, admitted that the Guardian Media Group (GMG) is the fortunate beneficiary of a Trust Model set up originally by the Scott family in the 1930s. To expect a 30-35% profit level from local media has crucified the regional press, he believed.

However, he pointed out, the UK press has had problems for many years, due to long-term cultural change. “There is no diminution in people’s appetite for news”, he said, “the issue is how they access it.”

GMG had seen print runs fall from 400,000 copies to 300,000 copies in the last few years, he said. On the other hand, the group had 37 million unique users last year and earned around £25 million online. However this is still not enough to cover costs, he said, so the group is trying to build partnerships and trying out novel ways of boosting online earnings.

Traditional and new media can work together
He pointed to two recent Guardian stories as examples of the way traditional investigative journalism and new media can work together to break important news. The Trafigura story broken by the paper’s investigative journalism team had been stopped by a “super injunction” from the company, however the sheer weight of the resulting traffic on Twitter, from people attempting to dig out the story from other sources online, had made the injunction redundant.

The other case was the Ian Tomlinson story, in which a US visitor to London during the G20 protests had found out, via Twitter, that he was the only one with video coverage of the attack on Tomlinson. The resulting publication with video made pressure for a police investigation irresistible.

Christian Unteanu for Realitatea TV (RO) informed participants that the financial crisis in Romania had caused all Romanian government Ministries to suspend all spending on advertising for six months. Four national newspapers had closed as a result, he said, and 1,500 jobs lost. He believed media operations would benefit from a simplified tax regime, and also suggested a reduced VAT regime (e.g. 9%) for print media.

TBC ….