Ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you very much for your invitation.
I am very pleased to be attending, and not simply because I live in Potsdam and love the Orangery Castle. I also look forward to the award ceremony, and the topic you’re discussing this evening is quite exciting: “What kind of media landscape do we want to shape our democratic societies in the future – and what can we do today to help bring it about?”
John Rawls wrote: “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.”
Rawls draws this parallel in a context intended to make clear that the state cannot simply allow things to play out as they might result from nature and the randomness of life. To this I would add: As they would result from unregulated markets and employment relations, from the man-made destruction of our natural resources, and also from social media and the internet, which have nothing to do with nature and randomness. Rules are needed.
The thought can be found at the very beginning of Rawls’ book “A Theory of Justice.” His thesis is that rules are necessary to ensure equality and solidarity.
But we can also interpret his statement more broadly – for instance, by saying that we must not underestimate the task of standing up for the truth, or leave this solely to the free interplay of market forces. I think Rawls would have agreed.
[Facts are not a private matter]
Truth is based initially on facts. This has once again been made very clear to some of us, particularly in recent months. The COVID-19 pandemic has produced deep disruptions not only for the economy and society, but also for the media. Long-held certainties have crumbled, and things long disregarded have gained newfound respect. One crucial aspect of the public debate, however, has been a new quality in the handling of information. In March, scientific knowledge relating to the SARS-CoV-2 virus was still in its infancy. The scientific community’s recommendations were unavoidably contradictory, and even decisions by the regulatory authorities were – and sometimes still are – different across the country.
As is so often the case, the task of distinguishing between facts, certainties and rumors was not a trivial one. Nor is it easy to distinguish between serious and unreliable sources.
It is therefore important to state that in politics, and in the public sphere of a democratic community, it must remain possible to refer to a shared perception of the facts, and – as historian Timothy Snyder says – to believe in truth. Ensuring this is the task of democratic institutions as well as of civil society and journalists.
Good journalists are indispensable if facts are to exert their rightful force within the public sphere. Accordingly, you must be able to do your work independently at all times, and this work must always be protected by the law.
[Threat to press freedom]
Yet autocrats great and small can be found everywhere around the world. They strike at journalists who refuse to tell them what they want to hear, with arrests, with threats against family members, even under some regimes with murder.
Trends within the media landscape serve as a very sensitive indicator of the stability and quality of a democratic order. It is therefore always important to support and honor those who courageously report on what is happening, even in the face of resistance and threats – those who risk everything, and do not allow themselves to be intimidated, as we see perhaps especially in Belarus today. This is a message that should go out from here, from Potsdam, from the M100 Sanssouci Colloquium, all over the world.
Democracy needs a public sphere: public debates, transparent procedures and accessible facts. One part of the uncodified responsibilities of the fourth estate is to stimulate and organize public reflection – like a professional form of democratic dialogue. This includes questioning and close scrutiny, research and the compilation of information, judgment and commentary. And let us not forget: we must not lose sight of a society’s ability to achieve consensus. Like the legal principle of “Audiatur et altera pars” [Latin for “let the other side be heard as well”], the journalistic ethic demands that everything relevant be shown and that all be allowed to speak, so as to enable citizens to weigh the facts and make their own decisions.
The key concept in this regard is that of the “public sphere,” because it is in the public sphere that the general is constituted – not through algorithms based on selection and personalization. The general is that which everyone must know in order to be able to live fruitfully and democratically together. This general becomes visible particularly through journalistic work. We must ask ourselves today how this can be preserved in an era of digitalization.
If we look back for a moment, we see that the traditional daily and weekly newspapers embodied this journalistic ideal perhaps better than anything else. But even if it sometimes seems otherwise, this is not a question of the medium itself. Rather, the key point here is the successful coupling of a financing model and an orientation toward the public interest. For a long time, the effective juxtaposition of advertisers and a large number of subscribers was able to tie the public interest together with economic goals. Ideally, high-quality journalism is the idea of enlightenment as a business model.
Now, however, the general is continually changing, is contested and contentious. And not everyone has always been heard to an equal degree. Nor has it been only the tabloids’ reporting that has given cause for criticism. Indeed, the traditional newspapers have long been accompanied by some level of criticism, as well as the idea of an alternative media (although this word, for example in the context in which the “taz” alternative daily newspaper was founded at the end of the 1970s, once had a distinctly democratic orientation). But this too – the open and critical examination of every kind of reporting – is fundamental for a democracy.
[Structural change through digitalization – starting points for regulation]
That was 50 years ago. Many newspapers from that time no longer exist, and the internet has since then dramatically changed the journalistic environment. Digital media are creating previously unimagined informational and communication opportunities. We are experiencing a major, technologically driven structural change in the public sphere. This presents us with new possibilities that in turn offer gigantic opportunities. We must learn to utilize this potential, both from a societal and economic perspective. This is something we have not yet managed to do. Therefore, we must look very closely at what is happening, and draw the right conclusions. In this regard, I would like to suggest a few starting points.
First: Securing the business models of creative workers.
Search engines, social networks, microblogging services, and platforms for videos and images are indispensable for the dissemination of news and information on the internet. They structure media offerings, and thus public and private communication as well. These intermediaries provide functionally high-quality and essential services. How good and useful this is can be seen in their millions of daily uses, and in a degree of economic success that is without historical parallel.
The consequences for the traditional newspapers are well-known. Advertisers are migrating online, intermediaries are capturing a majority of the advertising revenues, and the editorial staffs that do the research, thinking and writing are being forced to make massive cuts.
But one thing is clear: This crisis in the newspaper business is not a crisis of relevance. Rather, it is above all a funding crisis. And this too is a point where we can intervene: We must ensure the existence of business models that can support intelligent journalism.
Second: The future of journalism lies with quality, and not – or not solely – in the speed with which information is disseminated. Even an online publication must offer well-researched information rather than simply passing on opinions without comment, as these are freely available on social media in any case. Moreover, the democratic public sphere must enable and protect the development and distribution of creative and journalistic products. In this regard, we cannot rely only on the few newspapers with functional digital payment models.
We must think about how we can support the production of journalistic content while continuing to keep the state at a necessary distance. That’s why it was so important to me to harmonize the tax rates for print and online media products. In Germany, the reduced tax rate has been applicable to online publications since 18 December 2019. I am pleased that we were able to make this possible at the European level. You have to be able to make money with journalism, both on and offline.
Third: Not only the production, but also the distribution of journalistic content must be strengthened. At the moment, television is the medium carrying the greatest weight with regard to shaping public opinion. With its parallel public and private media sectors, Germany has established a prudent duality in this regard. This has saved us from some media upheavals. However, it is primarily the elderly who prefer television.
By contrast, the comparative weight of the online media rises with every year. Among young people (14-29), the importance of the internet with respect to shaping public opinion is today twice as high (59.5 percent) as among the overall population. Already, several internet portals are among the top 10 media destinations within the 14- to 29-year-old age group.
So we know that intermediaries are the information selectors of the future. And we want to ensure that journalistic content will be found there too. That is why we must ask what this means in terms of regulation.
One thing is clear: Securing our fundamental rights, the freedom of information and democracy remains a regulatory task. The free play of market forces on the internet is not enough. The greater the market power of individual entities, the more important it is to create regulatory frameworks that guarantee diversity. This applies, for example, to transparency regarding the selection criteria used by algorithms. Citizens must be able to find out, without great effort, whether what is being shown to them is a commonly shared reality or only a tiny piece of it – a filter bubble.
Fourth: Algorithms can also be different. The internet is the home of particularities – the virtual and to some extent even intensified “society of singularities” (Andreas Reckwitz). Algorithms command the attention of the user. They produce a personalized set of recommendations that tend always to depict the same slivers of reality. This is without question quite different from a traditional subscription-based newspaper, in which the content is selected and compiled (curated) by the editorial staff with an eye to depicting the general. But with intelligently designed algorithms, the general can be made accessible even in a world of individualized communication.
Fifth: We need to increase penalties for abuse, and be resolute in targeting disinformation campaigns and online hate speech. The internet and social media are not lawless spaces – and must not allowed to be so. Intentional manipulation must be prevented. This is all the more true if such activity is intended to influence free elections. Their special importance means they must be protected.
Over time, we will inevitably have to adjust the instruments used for this purpose. This remains a perpetual task for media regulators. It is a solvable problem, though it is perhaps not quite so simple as it was with the newspapers. With the law on combating right-wing extremism and hate crime, which will prove its worth in practice after its passage in the Bundestag and Bundesrat, we have created a first solution.
[State Media Treaty]
Another answer is the State Media Treaty currently before us. With this measure, 16 Länder have together achieved a qualitatively new level of regulation (as of 17 September, 14 federal-state parliaments were expected to have signed).
For the first time, intermediaries, media platforms and user interfaces have been included within the regulatory purview. Transparency obligations and prohibitions against discrimination are intended to enhance the diversity of opinion and the communicative equality of opportunity. The visibility of serious information will be improved, thus making journalistic and regional content easier to find. And finally, the journalistic accountability of the net community is strengthened through increased quality and due-diligence requirements.
The State Media Treaty is a great achievement with regard to ensuring the diversity of opinion and reliable information. Also worth mentioning is the comprehensive participatory process employed in its creation. Broadcasters, cable network operators, publishers, associations for the disabled, representatives of the film industry, new-media entities, gamers, youth-protection institutions, sport and journalistic associations, health-care institutions, and especially many, many individual citizens all took part in this process.
Another trend has accelerated over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic: The internet and the digital intermediaries are among the financial winners. And even while new providers such as Zoom or Jitsi Meet have emerged, some local city magazines have nearly been forced to close their doors. In many places, the federal and state governments have stepped in; for instance, with the “New Start” program, we have supported people working in the cultural industries as well as private-sector radio broadcasters. With thousands of articles, television segments and podcasts, journalists have provided encouragement, informed us and shown a tenacious perseverance.
We don’t know today how these trends will play out. But one divergence has already become evident, and requires our close attention: Most of the platforms that wield the greatest influence – Google, Amazon, Facebook, YouTube and Netflix – come from outside Europe. The 20 most widely used social-media services worldwide come from the United States or China (Russia, with Telegram, is the only exception among this group). This must be of interest to us as Europeans. We must ask ourselves what this means, particularly for our technical and political sovereignty.
In the field of digitalization, Europe has the potential to go its own way. It can offer an alternative to China’s state-centered model, and to the unbridled market-based approach in the United States. This is thanks to the political and economic weight of our market, as well as to our technical capabilities. We must therefore ensure that we as Europeans are at the least able to maintain our sovereignty through the digital transformation. This applies to hardware (microchips, supercomputers, the internet backbone), to software (cloud services, artificial intelligence) and to the development of norms and standards as well.
It is my hope that the digital media offerings from Europe ultimately become as strong and diverse as our cultural heritage.
To conclude: An open society needs media that it can trust. It needs a culture in which the truth, truthfulness, the orientation toward facts, and the diversity of opinion within the critical discourse all count.
There is much at stake: a media order that does not repudiate its origins, but nonetheless has an entirely new technological orientation. At stake is no less than democracy in the digital age.
Let us not forget a lesson from history that applies in equal measure to the digital media world in particular, and to democratic societies in general: Freedom is not only majority rule; it is also the rights that protect minorities and diversity.
The Corona crisis and its effects have increased sensitivity to the general in many places. It has increased awareness that it is not enough for everyone to think only of themselves. Rather, there must also be the strength and the will to ensure cohesion, respect and a strong democratic order. In this regard, a free, high-quality and fact-driven journalism is without question a key element in our essential critical infrastructure.