Journalists don't see their own prejudices

Independence and journalism cannot be taken for granted

by Helmut Hartung on September 16, 2020 in Current Topics, Archives, Digital Media, Social Policy, Journalism, Ancillary Copyright Law, Media Economy, Platforms and Aggregators, Publishers

Dr. Mathias Döpfner, President of the Federal Association of Digital Publishers and Newspaper Publishers e.V. (BDZV), CEO of Axel Springer SE

Publishers should be supported with “permanently lower or no VAT”

16.09.2020. From Dr. Mathias Döpfner, President of the Federal Association of Digital Publishers and Newspaper Publishers e.V. (BDZV), CEO of Axel Springer SE

We live in confusing and unpredictable times. The world order seems to be dissolving. Europe and America are alienated. China is reaching for global supremacy. Russia is becoming more and more nefarious. Islamists storm the open society. Populists are on the rise from London to Budapest. Artificial intelligence could turn people into servants of the algorithms. A virus puts the world in a state of emergency and at times in a standstill. And the fires of California darken the sky over Berlin.Thoroughly researched, truthful information is becoming increasingly important in confusing and unpredictable times - this is a historic opportunity for journalism. But in the meantime, our business model is changing from an analogue to a digital one. A transformation that also poses existential questions for many publishers.

I would therefore like to speak only on one subject related to the solution to all of the above questions. About the future of independent journalism. To be precise: about "independence" and about "journalism".

We often use these two words routinely and naturally. After all, anyone with us can write what he or she wants within the framework of the law. But that doesn't mean that it will happen. The influence and pressure we face can be subtle. What constitutes independence from journalism? From my point of view, there are few, but essential conditions.

First: the willingness to take on the powerful. In the past few decades, many people have risked their careers, their freedom and, last but not least, their lives in search of the truth and the courage to name social grievances.

We, in particular, who report from the comfort of a constitutional state, must work to ensure that journalists can report freely and without threatening their health or life. 63 journalists were killed in 2018. In 2019 there were 38. The commitment to this goal is worthwhile. But 38 is 38 too many! And unfortunately I am not sure whether the situation of journalists will develop more positively in the future.

Second, true independence requires financial independence. Private funding, an intact business model, is an essential feature of independent journalism. This is the only way to guarantee diversity. Diversity and competition can only arise if financial incentives encourage as many entrepreneurs as possible to invest in journalism.

Conceptually, the dual system has proven itself in Germany. ARD and ZDF make an important contribution to financing costly productions and correspondent networks. However, this system is only good as long as it is really dual. When private publishers gradually become dependent on the state, the dual system ends.

Journalism is a constant calibration between proximity and distance to the centers of power. Journalists have to be close to politics and what is happening to see things clearly. They also have to be able to detach themselves from it in order to look at things from a distance. Both perspectives are important. But when it comes to financing private media, we cannot be far enough from state institutions.

“Mistakes happen again and again. But we publishers and journalists take responsibility for these mistakes and correct them. "

That is why we, the German newspapers, have to be particularly careful and critical when it comes to accepting subsidies from the state or from digital platforms. I also take a critical view of the foundation models that are repeatedly discussed for press funding. However, I am even more concerned about the transformation funding that the German Bundestag has decided to promote.

No sooner had the Bundestag decided on a press subsidy amounting to 220 million euros at the beginning of July, when Martin Rabanus demanded a “Spotify for newspapers” ‘. HORIZONT met with the media policy spokesman for the SPD parliamentary group to find out how the future of newspapers can be saved with this idea. The answers give an idea of ​​how politicians think about the publishing industry. To be very clear: The BDZV has not asked for the funding of the digital transformation now proposed by politicians. On the contrary: The measure originally suggested and requested by us was formulated as a pure “infrastructure support”.

Delivery of the structurally declining newspapers is not only of the highest public interest, because many older people in particular cannot and do not want to consume news digitally yet. Above all, it is also the best digital transformation aid for publishers. We are innovative ourselves. But digitization costs time and money. Over the next few weeks, we will be following closely how the planned funding will develop in detail. Logistics and technology funding is conceivable. There is no direct publisher subsidy at a flat rate and without clear criteria and limits. For me personally, a red line is crossed when the state subsidizes editorial services directly or indirectly. A suitable form of help, and perhaps the cleanest one at all, would be permanently lower or no VAT at all.

Third, true independence requires diversity. This diversity fulfills two functions: First of all, the journalistic competition for the best story, but also the polyphonic choir of different perspectives and commentaries is essential for clarifying facts. The competition between different media is the only effective recipe against fake news, propaganda and manipulation.

In addition, media diversity protects the freedom of the press as a whole: politicians may take action against individual media in the event of unpleasant publication. But you can't silence an entire industry. This means: the more vital journalistic offers there are, the less the state can influence each and every one of us.

For the independence and diversity of our newspapers, we need fair competitive conditions. This is especially true in relation to the large platforms. It must not happen that two or three global platforms replace the infrastructure of thousands of publishers and decide what billions of customers get to read, what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad.

"When it comes to financing private media, we cannot be far enough from state institutions."

The role of large platforms is being discussed more and more frequently and critically in political circles these days. The tone changes. The question of whether these dominant companies should be smashed is not being discussed more and more often. But when and how. From my point of view, this should be the last resort. Above all, however, the publishers should not become a sad cause for a break-up. We don't want to be tragic helpers. But healthy, successful actors in a fair and intact media eco-system.

That is why we need better, more modern, more agile regulation that meets the challenges of digitization. Literal implementation of the EU copyright reform is just as important as effective platform regulation.

The Australian model strengthens the publishers and has some convincing advantages: If the platforms have not agreed on a deal with the publishers after three months of negotiation, an arbitrator can set a binding price. In addition, any form of discrimination based on the ranking is prohibited. We should remain open and look closely at the encouraging developments in Australia and examine which of the positive experiences we had there we could also adopt in Europe. But first we have to consistently implement the EU copyright reform. That is the minimum.

Journalism must remain the search for the truth based on critically and independently researched facts. What does that mean in concrete terms? We media have to be chroniclers, contemporary witnesses of reality. And not missionaries of a certain worldview. Discrimination is the topic of the hour: in society, in the media, in advertising. Behind this there is also a generation conflict in which identity plays a special role. How do the demands of the younger debates change the understanding for and among one another? Horizont spoke about this with Andreas Wolfers, former head of the Nannen School.

According to a new study by the Reuters Institute, 80 percent of Germans want journalism that reports neutrally and doesn't take sides. And thus also challenges one's own prejudices. Only 15 percent want the media to write articles based on their opinion. As confirmation of your own perspective.

The Reuters study could be compared to a 2017 study by the University of Munich. Two-thirds of the German journalists surveyed stated that they see the promotion of “tolerance and cultural diversity” as their task. That sounds nice. But perhaps it is precisely such intentions and ideas that mean that journalists do not report critically and objectively enough at crucial moments. Because when in doubt, they put ideals above the search for truth, perhaps even without being fully aware of it.

The repeated experience of receiving a reality from the media that partially or completely contradicts one's own empirical perception leads to skepticism towards our journalistic work. The best recipe against lying press allegations remains Rudolf Augstein's sentence: “Write what is!” But if journalists and activists can no longer be distinguished, then we can wrap up. Then we don't need us anymore.

“We media have to be chroniclers, contemporary witnesses of reality. And not missionaries of a certain worldview. "

Editor James Bennett was forced to quit the New York Times in June after accepting responsibility for a comment from Republican Senator Tom Cotton. By calling for a massive military response to demonstrations against police violence and racism, Cotton had sparked a storm of indignation among the New York Times readership. A few months earlier, the deputy leader of an Islamist terrorist group published a comment in the same newspaper. It was called: "What We, the Taliban, Want". This was accepted without any personal consequences. But Bennet became a risk to the business model. More and more of the 5.7 million subscribers are likely to be paying customers of the brand because it stands for an attitude: Anti Trump. If this attitude is not followed in a comment, readers react irritably. And publishers are accordingly nervous.

The “Audiatur et altera pars” principle is not out of date. It is and will remain the basis of our credibility. If we strive for diversity and pluralism every day - in news and research as objectively as possible, in comment and column freely and subjectively - then we are most likely to live up to our claim. And defend our credibility. Trust is and will remain our most important capital. When we enjoy trust, we win readers. When we lose trust, we lose our readers.

Mistakes happen again and again. But we publishers and journalists take responsibility for these mistakes and correct them. And if necessary, they also bear the legal consequences. Competition and diversity in the industry ensure that the press always deals critically with itself and checks each other. Solingen - and the case of the five killed children - is an example for me. We made mistakes: Bild published one-to-one WhatsApp messages from a child who survived. We disregarded the protection of minors in this case. Other media have rightly criticized this crossing of boundaries. Some, although they themselves had quoted from the boy's private messages. Bild quickly withdrew the relevant article. And other media also adapted their reports. Since then, we have discussed this process a lot and very critically. We want to and must do better in the future. Perhaps this case can give rise to a broad debate about standards and values ​​in the area of ​​tension between freedom of the press and the protection of personal rights.

I am firmly convinced that if critical journalism continues to play a formative role in our society, if journalism remains economically sound and remote from the state, if the media can continue to work independently, then the problems from the great geopolitics to the apparent omnipotence of artificial intelligence will be solvable. Then the open society based on the rule of law and human rights, the greatest achievement of modernity, will triumph. Journalism, independent and critical research is more important than ever. As President of the German newspaper and digital publishers, I would like to work with you for this independence for another four years. I have to say that I was very motivated by the vote in yesterday's election.

The last four years have been good years. The cooperation in the committees and with the members was fun. To be honest, more fun than originally thought. I experienced a lot of openness and a desire for innovation. And one thing is clear to everyone: the greater the external challenges, the more important it is to have an association that pools and represents our interests. That appears powerful and closed. Together we are stronger. With this in mind, let's shape the future of our wonderful profession. I look forward to it. Let's do it.

Speech by BDZV President Dr. Mathias Döpfner on the occasion of BDZV. The 2020 Congress, September 15, 2020

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