Cilla Benkö, Director General, Swedish Radio PHOTO: Björn Dalin/SR

Cilla Benkö: Weakened local journalism is a threat to democracy

Press subsidy proposals today. The significance of both a strong Swedish Radio and a strong local press for Swedish democracy cannot be overestimated. Together, they provide a diversity of perspective that risks being weakened if politicians do not realize the gravity of the situation and find a system that guarantees quality journalism, writes Cilla Benkö, Director General of the Swedish Radio.

In a few months the “super election year” of 2014 will be ushered in. How knowledgeable and informed will voters be, compared with the last time it came to pass in 2010? There is reason for concern about this, in the light of the crisis that large parts of the media industry find themselves in.
   Interviews and press conferences broadcast on web TV are not enough to give the Swedish people a sufficient base to stand on in order to make important democratic decisions. Continual, extensive scrutiny is also required both locally and on the national level in many fields.

In total, the entire media market today has fewer resources for this kind of journalism than in 2010, after drastic staff reductions at many companies. This now means that fewer journalists will cover politics, the economy, and other important societal issues. At the same time, the opinion machines and purchased information services – PR companies, lobbying companies and information consultants – are more widespread and have more resources than ever. The risk is great that entirely too few towns and areas will remain covered. There simply aren’t enough resources.
   Politicians are not lacking in opportunities to impact what this picture looks like. As regards media policy, there are a number of processes under way that have great significance for the opportunities of media companies to perform their tasks in the future.

Today, the press subsidy committee is putting out its report. It concludes with a smaller change that committee chair Hans-Gunnar Axberger and the independent experts consider to be so short-sighted that they have chosen to make a reservation against the committee’s proposal.
   At the time press subsidies were instituted, the problem description was clear: the major newspapers were on the way towards wiping out the minor newspapers. Monopolies for one daily paper and one daily paper owner were springing up in more and more local markets. Today the reality is otherwise. Now even the major newspapers’ positions are under threat, as advertising revenues disappear and the digital adaptations are difficult to manage.

Later this fall, the Swedish Parliament will decide on the conditions for Swedish Radio, Swedish Television and the Swedish Educational Broadcasting Corporation through 2019, based on the Government’s proposition from June. What is distressing in this connection is that the fundamental formulation of the problem about public service has been turned upside down. The question has been put on the agenda, in the spring debate and the summer proposition on whether public service encroaches on the business opportunities for commercial media companies: if we are “competitive”. If the Government proposal becomes reality, it will now be analysed through a special commission for the Swedish Broadcasting Authority.

In all likelihood, the analysis should come to the conclusion that public service impacts the market. To be sure, that was one of the purposes for which public service was created and is a fundamental intent of the operation. We will be the independent alternative for everyone. But that is spoken of very little; instead words like “distortive” are used as a weapon in the debate. And this without anyone so far being able to substantiate that there is a problem.
   I am really surprised that media policy can be analysed this way without allowing the issue of democracy to be fundamental. Public service and the general circulation newspaper are by and large as old as Swedish democracy.

It is naturally no coincidence that since the 1920s, Sweden has been one of the world’s best-functioning democracies, and that during that same time Sweden has been one of the world’s most “media-heavy” societies.
   The changes to the media industry we see today are thoroughgoing, both within the newspaper industry and in public service. There are not only fewer journalists; at the same time they are being given larger and larger tasks. How many media bosses dare to, and in this situation can, invest in resource-intensive investigative journalism?

The situation outside Stockholm is the most distressing. Swedish Radio currently has 25 local channels. In principle, we broadcast locally-produced content 10 hours a day every weekday. We do that well, but for all that we do it with a limited scope. At the average local channel, a handful of reporters are available for the ongoing news work on a normal day. The scrutinizing element of our journalism risks being pushed into the background as the surge increases, the demand for live reporting becomes more intense and more and more entities seek media attention. Local newspapers are now encountering a situation that more and more resembles our own. Even strong local newspapers in large municipalities can be dependent on individual reporters for their local scrutiny – and there are places where, in principle, there is no coverage at all.

We at Swedish Radio do not wish to, and never will be able to, replace a viable local press. The significance of the “dual system” for Swedish democracy, where there is both a strong Swedish Radio outside of Stockholm and a strong local press, cannot be overestimated. Side by side, we have provided voters with a joint picture of a diversified reality. Together, we have been able to present a diversity of perspectives and voices. We have been able to guarantee scrutiny and analysis.

The new public service broadcasting licence, with a wide mission across all platforms, is an important part of the infrastructure of this democracy. At least equally as important is real political effort being put into how the economic situation of the newspapers could be facilitated – and that as soon as possible.
   There is no shortage of concrete proposals. It’s a matter, for example, of implementing the abolition of the unfair advertising tax as decided by Parliament, and of the VAT rate for digital journalism not being higher than that for paper journalism. This requires action, not continued endless discussion. Finally, after all is said and done, it’s a matter of money. We need reporters across the country with the resources and the time to gather knowledge and the opportunity to scrutinize those in power.

The important thing is that the obstacles that exist for the survival of all quality journalism are seriously discussed, so that the shadow over the media does not spread out. This is the responsibility of all of us, especially for our popularly elected politicians. This is more important for democracy and thereby Swedish society than getting stuck in discussions about market analyses.

Cilla Benkö
Director General, Swedish Radio

Grunden i vår journalistik är trovärdighet och opartiskhet. Sveriges Radio är oberoende i förhållande till politiska, religiösa, ekonomiska, offentliga och privata särintressen.
Du hittar dina sparade avsnitt i menyn under "Min lista".