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09/05/2007

The press and Europe's public sphere

Swedish newspaperman Arne Ruth explains the importance of cross-border journalism in creating a European public space



Arne Ruth


Nowadays, few people recall the fact that the fall of Hitler changed the press structure of large parts of Europe at a stroke. In Germany, not a single paper published today was in existence before the war. In many occupied countries, there are still newspapers which were originally founded as part of the resistance movement.

The toughest retribution against the structures of occupation was in France. A total of 649 newspapers were confiscated. The Resistance's own underground papers took over premises and machinery. Le Monde first made its official appearance on Liberation Day. It moved into a building occupied until then by one of the worst collaborationist newspapers.

It was de Gaulle who settled the matter. He was anything but a socialist, but he had no sympathy whatsoever for newspaper proprietors' rights. Anyone who had played the game of the Germans would have to pay the price - their shares became worthless. Albert Camus, himself a member of the Resistance, graphically described the situation: "Journalism is the only sphere in which the purge has been complete, as we have managed to get the legal settlement to include a complete change of personnel. (. ..) France now has a press liberated from money. This is something we have not seen for a hundred years."

In hindsight, Camus' perspective was a beautiful Utopia. Le Monde is now fighting in a newspaper-weary market, forced to change its original ownership concept where the staff were sole proprietors. Liberation, another left-leaning political project, is even worse off.

This reflects the core of capitalism, where companies must grow or fall by the wayside. Those that try to attain a balanced state risk stagnating in the market. And part of that process is the growth of increasingly complicated organizations in which growth itself becomes the principal objective. The editorial concept on which a newspaper was originally based becomes a secondary consideration.

I have had reason to reflect on this in relation to my own professional position. For sixteen years, I was editor in chief at the liberal Dagens Nyheter, Sweden's largest quality daily with a circulation of around 380,000. Nine years ago, I quit my job. The immediate cause was the fact that the holding company of my paper, itself part of the largest media conglomerate in Northern Europe, the Bonnier Group, was on the verge of buying the only competing nationally distributed quality daily in Sweden, the conservative Svenska Dagbladet. The deal was negotiated in secret for several weeks.

As a member of the board of my newspaper, I was restricted by Swedish company law from discussing the attempted take-over publicly while negotiations were in progress. I fought it from the inside. Once it had leaked into the public, I attacked it as a clear-cut case of monopolisation and told my readers why I had chosen to resign. The deal collapsed within three days. Looking back on it now, it might seem like an idealist attempt to fight the inevitable. But I take some comfort from an observation - slightly ironic, yet flattering - made by the legendary Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski: "In major press enterprise the idealistic journalists, those gentle dreamers in pursuit of truth who once ran our newspapers, are now often replaced by businessmen."

Control of the market means playing it safe. The managerial business attitude affects journalism by trying to limit risk-taking. Competition increasingly means everyone doing more of the same. In Kapuscinski's words: "The world of the media has exploded to such an extent that it has become like a self-sufficient entity, living for itself... Teams of special correspondents sweep the world. They move as a pack, in which each journalist keeps a close eye on what others are doing."

News, which is now the main sales oriented journalistic field, is based on a particular set of categories, emanating from a value system where commercial, social, political, cultural and professional attitudes are in constant interaction. The foundation of any news operation is a set routine for the coverage of political, social and economic institutions. The choice of perspective starts with a definition of a sales-oriented territorial basis which tends to be either local, regional or national but hardly ever international.

In commercial terms, human interest is a crucial aspect of news journalism. A classic definition was made in 1860 by a legendary American journalist, Horace Greeley, in a letter of advice to local editors: "Begin with a clear conception that the subject of deepest interest to an average human being is himself; next to that, he is most concerned about his neighbour. Asia and the Tonga Islands stand a long way after these in his regard... Do not let a new church be organized, or new members be added to one already existing, a farm be sold, a new house raised, a mill set in motion, a store opened, nor anything of interest to a dozen families occur, without having the fact duly, though briefly, chronicled in your columns. If a farmer cuts a big tree, or grows a mammoth beet, or harvests a bounteous yield of wheat or corn, set forth the fact as concisely and unexceptionally as possible."

Television has made Greeley's concept relevant on higher levels than local journalism. National celebrities are the counterparts of Greeley's village personalities. The mechanism is similar: by naming names, journalism defines the symbolic characters of both national and local belonging.

The logic of this mechanism makes foreign affairs reporting unattractive. And Greeley's concept is still prevalent in United States, where, with the exception of New York, Washington, Los Angeles and a few more cities, there is still very little coverage not only of the Tonga Islands but of Asia in general. This fact no doubt increased the horror element in the September 11 mass killings on American territory.

But, in contrast to large parts of Europe, American journalism has an element which to some extent counteracts provincial attitudes. Greeley's emphasis on human interest can be applied to today's minorities. The fact that American media in general have covered Northern Ireland extensively has a material basis: the large number of Irish Americans.

Swedish are still largely stuck in a tradition of homogeneity. The fact that more than a hundred thousand Swedes have an ex-Yugoslav background and seventy thousand emanate from Iran has very little influence on the definition of foreign coverage. A still valid analysis of the epistemology of news journalism was made by the legendary American political commentator Walter Lippman in 1922. Anyone who has been working in a news medium will recognise his description of the mode of operation. All news gathering is based on a daily coverage of central institutions and personalities involved in their activities.

A concept of social rules is a core element in determining news values. Crime of all sorts is a prime category, where the status and celebrity of those accused are central elements. Political power holders accused of breaking rules are solid front page news. Lippman compares the premises with the journalistic conventions used in covering a baseball game. The journalist takes for granted that his or her readers will know the essential rules.

But, asks Lippman, what if the rules are suddenly and drastically changed? Until the new conditions have become common knowledge, any journalist who wants to convey the facts of the game will have to refer to the new conditions as an integral part of the story. Lippman draws the following conclusion of his metaphor:

"The more you try to imagine the logic of so absurd a predicament, the more clear it becomes that, for the purposes of news gathering, it is impossible to do much without an apparatus and rules for naming, scoring, recording. (...) Whenever there is a good machinery of record, the modern news service works with great precision. (...) The events which are not scored are reported either as personal or conventional opinion, or they are not news."

In Lippman's perspective neglected aspects of journalistic coverage will only come to the fore when, in his words, "somebody protests, or somebody investigates, or somebody publicly, in the epistemological meaning of the word, makes an issue out of them."

His metaphor of the changed rules for the baseball game can be applied to the process of European integration. Rules have changed, and so has social behaviour. But with the exception of media for business and intellectual elites - most of them American-onwed - and sports and entertainment television, major structures in European publishing and broadcasting are still largely framed by languages and national borders. The basic journalistic division between domestic and foreign news serves to consolidate psychological distances. Hence, the political discourse on common problems in Europe is still enacted primarily at national level.

To the extent that opinions are influenced by the media, they take shape largely within that framework. Without cross-border interaction, stances taken at the national level tend to remain limited in perspective, thereby reinforcing Euro-scepticism.

From the perspective of European integration, the problem seems to be that national media are both reflecting and strengthening particularities, with journalists rarely acknowledging insular tendencies in the value system on which they base their coverage.

I'll give an example from Scandinavia. Denmark and Sweden, sometimes regarded as twins in terms of values, have opposite tendencies not only in relation to alcohol, but also in two other symbolic fields: sexual services and immigrant rights.

Malmö and Copenhagen are linked by a bridge across the Öresund. On the Swedish side, using the services of a prostitute or earning money as a pimp is a criminal act. In contrast, the largest Copenhagen tabloid, Extrabladet, every day brings several pages offering sexual services. In this field, Denmark is liberal. But it's more legally restrictive than Sweden in relation to immigrants. Danish citizens who want to marry a non-Dane under the age of 24 increasingly leave for Sweden, where the age limit is set at 18 regardless of nationality. The national differences in attitude rarely confront each other.

Hence, a general aspect of European values is true of Scandinavia as well: what is a firebrand issue in one country is a minor matter in another. Political discussions rarely take place across national borders. National movers in debate and polemics are little known even in neighbouring countries. And languages shared across borders do not substantially break this tendency. Germany, Austria and German-speaking Switzerland are separate realms, as are England and Ireland, France and Walloon Belgium, and Sweden and Swedish-speakers in Finland.

Political commentators who are read and discussed all over Europe tend to be American, such as Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama. Hence, European integration is blocked when it comes to effective cross-border communication. But in terms of influence on people's lives, it is certainly institutional and ideological as well as economic.

Member-states are now enmeshed in a politico-administrative system where ministers are also European decision-makers, national bureaucrats executers of EU decisions, and interest groups actors in a lobby system centred on Brussels. Both public and private actors are already partners in a multi-level European governance system where a fluid system of networking is a crucial element.

The result: EU institutions have enhanced their influence in relation to national government, including new, direct links from Brussels to sub-national authorities and a reduction in parliamentary power. Nation-states are still very much present. But they are increasingly becoming nodes in a network of national, regional, local and international political institutions. Externalities increasingly govern national politics, while politicians rarely acknowledge this openly, except by blaming unpopular decisions on Brussels. They tend to call for national solutions when such are no longer possible, and on other occasions demand European solutions to problems they are unwilling to face at home. It's no wonder that such a system breeds populist tendencies of all sorts. Present-day Europe does have a number of dynamic new networks: among them the Committee of Regions, an advisory body to the EU Commission. Growing Pan-European bodies exist among business and labour organisations, artists' associations and, last but not least, foundations.

Dutch sociologist Abram de Swaan has summarized the paradoxes in the European realm in these words: "In the absence of a single European public space, there are myriads of European niches, each providing a distinct meeting place to participants from all member-nations who have shared interests... The more circumscribed the agenda, the more smoothly the all-European exchange proceeds: experts, technicians, specialists have no trouble finding each other, nor do entrepreneurs from the same branch, believers from the same church, athletes from he same sport or scientists from the same discipline find it hard to congregate and communicate. But these multifarious niches, neatly separated as they are, do not add up to a European space. On the contrary, as the agenda widens and comes to encompass broader cultural, social and political issues, communication becomes that more difficult. There are literally hundreds of specialized journals that carry the epithet European or an equivalent in their title. But when it comes to general cultural and political reviews, there may be no more than a dozen that achieve a genuine European distribution, and almost all of these are in English."

An effective mechanism of making issues out of important subjects which are neglected at the national level is to have them prominently covered by media in other countries, a process which affects national pride.

I have a personal experience of this. In 1997, my newspaper made an investigation based on academic research which, until then, had attracted very little attention. The story had a strong element of human interest. It dealt with the consequences of a policy of forced sterilization which had affected some 60,000 Swedes, most of them impoverished, between the mid-thirties and the mid-seventies, when the practice was ended by a parliamentary decision. It took a week after our journalistic coverage had started until it became a real issue in Sweden, eventually turning into a top-level political controversy where the government was forced to institute a system of compensation for people who had been sterilized. The week-long delay was the time needed for media around the world to discover the story and send crowds of reporters to Stockholm to cover it. The enormous international interest forced the issue into prominence at home base. In the annual report of the Swedish Foreign Office on foreign coverage of Sweden for that year, the sterilization controversy represented two thirds of everything published around the world.

A similar case where foreign attention makes an issue out of a neglected subject occurred in Norway in the mid-nineties. Fifty years after the end of the German occupation, Norwegian journalists once more varied the theme of resistance and national liberation. One of them, Björn Westlie at the business daily Dagens Näringsliv, published a very different tale. Based on extensive research in Norwegian archives, he told the story of what happened to the small minority of Norwegian Jews, most of whom were arrested by Norwegian police and deported to Auschwitz in 1942. Their belongings were confiscated by a newly instituted official authority and sold at public auctions, where buyers were in full knowledge of the origin of the items. The small number of survivors were given only nominal compensation after liberation. Most of the officials involved in confiscation were never punished.

Very little attention was paid to Westlie's articles. But seven months later, a report written by Westlie for the World Jewish Congress in New York was published and immediately covered by Reuters news agency. And then all hell broke out for the Norwegian government. Within weeks, it was forced to set up an official investigatory commission. Eventually, the Norwegian parliament decided to pay generous compensation to Jewish survivors and the Jewish Congregation.

In both these cases, cross-border journalism helped democracy at the national level. And in general terms, if major decisions are taken at a European level, without political debate taking place across borders and on a European scale, democracy has very little chance of working. In Abram de Swaans words: "A European public space will in the end turn out to be a necessary condition for the survival of national democracies. This requires European journals and newspapers, European cultural meeting points and intellectual networks."

It is a fair assumption that democracy will face increasing problems in individual member countries without public debate taking place at all levels of the European community. A cross-border policy should embrace all these varieties and aim at increasing the level of interaction.

Continued support for the European project requires adaptation of national institutions to the European governance system and an open discourse where issues related to change are confronted and discussed both at the national level and in cross-border dialogue, before being implemented in Brussels. Broad-based discussion including critical stances are necessary in order to clarify the issues and modify positions of power elites.

There are some encouraging tendencies. Electronics enables journalists, writers, artists and musicians to reach an audience without intermediaries. As a field of communication, it can disrupt the power of the media giants to control distribution. The electronic revolution can be a liberating force. It can complete a process that began with the arrival of the printing press, giving each and everyone the right and means to present their ideas and obtain information.

Increasingly, websites with news, debates and opinions - either individually tailored or structured in relation to activist issues - successfully stage discussions across borders. They carry information in more than one language and present contributions from several countries.

Such cross-border ventures are eased by the fact that European students increasingly study abroad. The plurality of such efforts means fragmentation but also, potentially, creative interaction. This variety of opinion-building, however, is by definition a solicited one. For the older generation, as well as a vast group of people of all ages, the main source of information remains the traditional media.

A truly European discussion would still mean a multiplicity of views and arguments. Voices from all member states would agree to disagree, but also to interact on matters of common interest regardless of borders. A European public sphere should be conceived in terms of partially overlapping public spheres where local, regional and national loyalties and political tendencies are encouraged to establish positions in relation to allies and opponents in other parts of Europe. Civil society is a crucial aspect of this process. It seems to me that foundations, which are allowed to use their resources for other purposes than making profit, could play a crucial role in helping new journalistic initiatives in the building of such a sphere.

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Arne Ruth was born in 1943 in Gollnow. He is founding chairman of the Swedish Rushdie Committee. In 1977 he became cultural editor at the daily newspaper Expressen and was editor in chief and cultural editor of Dagens Nyheter, the leading liberal Swedish daily, from 1982 to 1998. Ruth has published works on Nazi aesthetics, European culture and politics, and international human rights. He has been a visiting professor in Sweden, Norway and the USA, and has won several European prizes for his journalistic work.
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