Today it is World Press Freedom Day, a day never before observed in Belgium. When in 1993 the United Nations declared May 3rd The International Day of Freedom of the Press they mainly had countries in mind where the state brutally oppressed the freedom of the press.
This year however PEN-Flanders has to sound the alarm: May 3rd, sadly, also has to be celebrated here because we, authors of Flanders, are deeply worried about the quality of journalism. Direct suppression by the state of the freedom of the press is here rather incidental. We are not in China here. Yet what doesn’t come from the outside, gnaws from the inside. To an increasing extend the media are eroding their own freedom of the press.
The reason is simple. Everywhere in the West the media face declining revenues – consumers turn to free news, advertisers pull out – and those losses have to be compensated by always more thrilling stories, more dramatic conflicts and always more intense reporting put together by smaller and cheaper editorial offices having to deliver under always growing time pressure.
Relevant in this respect is that Offshore-leaks, the biggest journalistic revelation in years, did not originate in the commercial media but in the non-profit-sector. Not one Flemish journalist was involved.
Almost all mass media in Flanders (newspapers, radio-stations, TV-stations) are commercial media: their primary logic is the logic of ratings, sales figures, listening ratings or unique registered users. By systematically elevating their own market share over the general interest, the freedom of the press finds itself more and more in a tight corner. The free market slowly is stifling free speech.
For what it is worth: In the Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders Belgium descended to the 21st place. Next to Poland. Ten years ago we still were 7th place.
A wave of media criticism, a couple of years ago, has not managed to turn the tide. The pertinent analysis by researchers as Geert Buelens, Frank Thevissen, Jan Blommaert and Luc Huyse had a resonance in the smaller channels like Apache, DeWereldMorgen, Rekto:Verso, Actua-TV, Doorbraak, Mo and Liberales yet in the mainstream media this only led to a few cosmetic alterations. It is a telling fact that the site mediakritiek.be, our most important forum for systematic analysis of journalism, stops existing this year.
Here is the paradox: the crisis of the last years makes a free quality press more necessary than ever, yet we also see more and more that the press is part and parcel of the crisis. It not only writes about the reckless casino capitalism, but participates in it. Much in the same way the banks have driven themselves down the brink by blindly following a market logic. The media are destroying themselves by letting figures talk louder than relevance. This is serious since banks and newspapers fulfill a role within society, and thus never can be mere commercial institutions. In the same way a healthy bank sector is essential for our economy, free media are crucial for our democracy.
This is precisely the reason we are so worried. In practice the media are no longer the fourth power, but the first. Politicians are made there and broken. Crimes are tried and judged there, the political agenda and public opinion are shaped there in large measure. Yet, what does it mean if power is mainly defined by the market?
Although things can be different. It pays off to wager on in depth journalism. TIME published in March a full 36 page file on the American health system. That became the highest selling issue in two years and brought 16 times more digital sales than usual. Nearer home the phenomenal success of De Correspondent – 17.000 people who wired 60 € for a serious medium – was an inspiring example. It proves that many people want to be taken seriously by the media. It betrays a longing for journalism which goes beyond the flavor of the day.
Since we writers daily work with texts we have suggestions. PEN Flanders advocates:
1. more investigative journalism, less flash journalism
2. more background information (maps, files, info-graphics, backgrounds), less opinion pieces (columns, tweets, polls)
3. more foreign and European news, less tunnel vision focused on ‘The Wetstraat’: power has shifted
4. more self-regulation (fact checking, ombudsman), less aversion of external criticism
5. more insight in real conflicts, less fluffing up of futile conflicts