Liz Corbin, Deputy Media Director and Head of News, EBU
I run Eurovision News – a service which brings together the newsgathering resources of more than 70 public service newsrooms across the world. The Eurovision News Exchange has been sharing video content with its Members every day since 1962.
1962 was a golden age for television: the year of the first live transatlantic broadcast on satellite, Walter Cronkite became the anchor of CBS evening news, and Indonesia began its first TV broadcast. What it must have been like to be working at that time. The possibilities must have seemed endless. Every day a new technological innovation.
Fast forward to 2020: It’s not one new platform, but many – audiences are scattering, making them harder to reach. And technology is again transforming all our lives. It’s easier than ever before to deliver AND access information. The privilege of providing “the news” is no longer just for professional journalists but for anyone.
One thing which hasn’t changed since 1962 are the values of public service journalism. But the pace of change is why we need to speak up for our values now more than ever, but also to start LISTENING. Broadcasting is no longer a one-way communication and THAT is what I, personally, find so exciting about the next decade.
The internet and the platforms which have come with it have changed our lives. Transformed how we access information, how we communicate. And the platforms are no longer start-ups they are among the most valuable companies in the world. I argue the power they have surpasses any other human construct we know. More than governments, more than the creative industries, perhaps more even than education, they have the power to influence us at the most direct and personal level.
Now, media organizations also hold hugely influential positions. And those who are publicly funded have an even greater responsibility. Accordingly, they are rightly held to account, regulated and required to take responsibility for the privilege they have. That cannot be said for the platforms and yet each one now heavily influences the knowledge and emotions of billions of people. The EU along with many others is of course looking at how to respond to this. We at the EBU are contributing to that conversation.
But action needs to be taken faster. Recently we have seen in Australia what happens when you act in favour of media freedom. A proposed law to make Facebook and Google pay for news content they host. Facebook’s response? They threaten they’ll prevent Australians from sharing any news content at all on their platform if the law is brought in. The platforms speak very loudly about their contribution to society, they say how much money they spend on supporting quality news, but when push comes to shove it’s all on their terms, and we see where their priorities lie.
In a world where anyone can share anything, truth can become diluted, hidden. And outright lies can be spread by people both deliberately and innocently. The current pandemic has the accelerator for this.
While public service broadcasters have been defeating extraordinary obstacles to bring trustworthy news to enormous audiences. The hunger for information is insatiable and every conspiracy theory and scare story imaginable has filled the gap.
During this unprecedented crisis, the platforms have been queuing up to tell us about what they’ve done to remove posts and accounts which are violating their standards and spreading dangerous content. And the numbers they quote are BIG, they sound impressive. And it would be churlish of me to suggest that their efforts have not had some impact. But we don’t really know what that impact is. Without access to their data, it is impossible to independently verify how successful their initiatives are. Requests for this data are refused – again, when push comes to shove, we see where their priorities lie. In future, we would like to see more transparency from the platforms so they can be held to account properly. And not just after the event. In order to tackle fake news, journalists need information in real time from the platforms to know what’s happening and the scale of it. We can’t tackle what we can’t measure. We need more collaboration.
Back in 2014 the BBC set up a hugely successful Ebola information service on a relatively new chat app called WhatsApp. In 2020 they asked to do the same thing to help combat misinformation spread in closed groups on WhatsApp. The app, now owned by Facebook, refused.
It would be wrong of me not to tell you where I think the platforms have something we should aspire to as journalists.It’s what has made all the platforms so successful. When you open Facebook or Twitter, YouTube or Instagram you see people like you. People who look like you, think like you, have similar life experiences to you. You feel comfortable, these are your people, people you can trust. And despite some laudable progress in this area, our diverse world is not fully reflected in the content produced by our public service media. This is well-recognized but we must move faster. The public mandate is shrinking with every day media fails to represent all the audience. To survive they need to be trusted. To be trusted they must be authentic. And they can only be authentic if they really live and represent the experiences of the public they serve.
I said at the start that the privilege of providing the news is no longer just for journalists. The cost of distribution has reached practically zero. So, it costs next to nothing to spread fake news, but a small fortune to counter it. I’ve run a fact-checking team. One tweet can take a day to unpack, one video several days to verify. And it takes expertise. Expertise costs money.
And money is in short supply. Commercially funded journalism is in crisis. Advertising revenues have gone through the floor. Journalists are losing their jobs everywhere you look. Just look at America and the carnage in local journalism: whole areas of the country where local government and communities have no journalists covering them, no officials are being held to account. No publication or broadcaster, no journalists. But also, no shortage of content to fill the void.
And that wasn’t caused by this pandemic. The business model of commercial journalism has been massively disrupted by digital advertising. The percentage of global ad revenue going to the major platforms is eye-watering, leaving news organisations of all sizes little more than crumbs.
And on the other side, newsrooms funded by public money are not immune.
The people in power – generally the most vocal people against fake news. The people who should be championing trusted public service journalism, are not. Instead they’re at the front of the queue throwing insults and abuse at public service journalists. And when you throw enough mud, eventually it sticks. Ironically, in this pandemic, many of these leaders have depended heavily on public service media to deliver crucial, fact-based public health information. But when this crisis period ends, will they remember why they should protect public service media or go back to throwing mud again?
Public service media and journalism are only as good as their funding. The investigations, the explainer videos, the fact-checks, the breaking news alerts, they all need reliable funding with no political or vested interests attached.
Public service newsrooms, however they are funded, must not just survive this period, they must thrive. So, as decisions are taken by governments and regulators we must remember what we value: the independence, fairness and quality of public service journalism. Created for, and accessible to, everyone.