Good media, bad media

Otfried Jarren , professor of journalism and Felix E. Müller, editor-in-chief of NZZ am Sonntag © Valérie Chételat

The media are in a state of crisis. How should the State help them? Otfried Jarren believes that what works for academia will also help the media. He recommends creating a “National Foundation” for quality journalism. Felix E. Müller, however, warns that this would be a national blunder.

Academia, like the media, needs freedom. That is why academic freedom and freedom of the press are firm components of modern constitutions in democratic countries. Universities and research institutions are dependent to a large degree on state funding. Research in Switzerland is in essence financed by the state. The SNSF is a foundation and has a complex system of governance so that the funds provided to it by the state are distributed in a manner that embodies impartiality, promotes excellence, and avoids any direct political influence. That is right and proper. And it works. Active scholars are responsible for allocating this money – which means peers make decisions on applications submitted by peers. Of course, this system has repeatedly been a matter of discussion, for example when support is too high for disciplinary research and too low for interdisciplinary projects. But at the SNSF an internal discourse is complemented by external evaluations. All this helps to maintain the quality of the award practice.

In the media, too, peers are active – in the form of journalists. As professionals with a specific role, they work according to professional standards, selecting items according to newsworthiness. Quality standards may vary, but there are regulations that apply to the media as a whole and to specific branches of it. Ombudsmen, press councils and the independent appeals body for radio and TV (UBI) engage in discussions and issue reprimands when mistakes are made.

Peer evaluation and peer controls are not as established or as institutionalised in the media sector as they are in research. The reasons for this are also to be found in media freedom – and that is perfectly justified. The media, unlike scholarship, are not state-financed. However, public authorities have created numerous possibilities for funding: fees for public services, reduced VAT rates, reduced postal rates for daily newspapers, and financing corporate publications. In a democratic state, there should be no direct promotion of the media. Indirect measures, however, have been up and running for a long time. Direct support would be problematic if it were linked to decisions by the authorities that could have an impact on media content.

Every democratic state has its own media regulations and designs them in order to ensure that democratic objectives are met. In Switzerland, with its several national languages, its direct democracy and its referenda, the mass media have a special intermediary function. There is a concentration of the press, there are media monopolies on a local and cantonal level, there is a shortfall in providing media and there is increasing competition on the print and TV scene at home and abroad. And all these have consequences. It is obvious to everyone that the non-local daily newspapers are in a state of financial crisis. The Federal Media Commission (FMC) has carried out a scholarly analysis of the situation and suggested a series of measures. Essentially, these constitute a change in policy: instead of a state-dominated media policy, they suggest peer participation, i.e., media governance. The representatives of the sector should participate in deciding on possible support measures. A foundation independent of the state should be created as a central funding instance. The FMC regards the SNSF as a possible role model in the creation of a "Swiss Media Foundation".

Since 2012, Otfried Jarren has chaired the Federal Media Commission set up by the Federal Council. He is a professor of journalism at the Institute of Mass Communication and Media Research IPMZ at the University of Zurich and is Vice-President for Arts and Social Sciences and a member of the Executive Board of the University.

The Federal Media Commission (FMC) appointed by the Federal Council has recently published proposals on possible ways of assisting the crisis-ridden media sector. In principle this is a laudable exercise, not least because the sector is now undergoing a fundamental structural crisis. At the same time, however, a direct democracy such as Switzerland is dependent on a media system that offers a reliable information service in the interests of voters. The Commission’s proposed solution is to use state funding to help the media. The Commission therefore suggests giving financial support to the news agency SDA – an approach that is only in part fit for purpose because it would be the free-of-charge media that would profit most. Furthermore, they say a new foundation for supporting quality journalism should be created with federal funds.

These proposals confirm the old adage about roads paved with good intentions, because there is no scientifically proven way of determining when an article is ‘good’ and when it is ‘bad’. To be sure, there are minimal standards of workmanship to which journalists must adhere. But political convictions and emotions also play a role. These all elude any attempt at scholarly objectification to such a considerable degree that no serious basis can be provided that would justify allocating subsidies.

From my own experience I know that readers tend to find an article good when it supports their own opinions, whereas they are quick to form accusations of "tabloid journalism" when it does not. A commission appointed by politicians will hardly be able to avoid such reactions. It will find itself faced with the question as to whether the Weltwoche – to name one extreme – in fact demonstrates "quality journalism". The Federal Councillor Ueli Maurer believes it does, but others would disagree. Conversely, there will not be many in his party, the SVP, who would be in favour of giving state monies to the left-wing weekly WOZ. Even in a supposedly non-partisan commission, it will be impossible to eradicate such ideological preferences.

All this would soon turn into a very Swiss solution: there would be a distribution quota based on political or regional considerations. The result would lock the structure of the media sector in its current configuration. That makes no sense. An enlightened state, one that is founded on the basis of a separation of powers, should never dabble
in the media business and choose winners and losers. It’s not just fundamental reasons of state that speak against it. It would also hinder the structural changes that are taking place at the moment – changes, admittedly, that are currently a journey with an uncertain destination.

Felix E. Müller has been the editor-in-chief of NZZ am Sonntag since 2001. He first studied chemistry, then took his degree in German, musicology and maths.
(From "Horizons" no. 103, December 2014)