From Pipedream to Reality – Democracy and the European Public Sphere
Tuesday, 17 September 2019, Orangery Palace, Park Sanssouci, Potsdam
Author: Sophia Wellek
Session I: Between Amnesia and Hysteria – the State of the European public sphere
„Between Amnesia and Hysteria – the state of the European public sphere” was the title of Session I which alludes to the often-mentioned fact that Europeans tend to forget about the raison d’être and founding motifs of the EU. At the same time, there are times when the political climate – nationally as well as transnationally – seems to border on hysteria (as it is the case with Brexit). So while in general, it can be acknowledged that Europe is more strongly represented in the news today than ever before, public discourse in and about Europe still lags behind the realities of European integration. It is for this very important reason that the session discussed the state of the European public sphere and the role of the media in how we perceive Europe.
To kick off the discussion, Kalypso Nicolaidis, Professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford, proposed three dilemmas that characterize the current state of the European public sphere.
The first dilemma is the transformation of democracy due to technology and the transnationalization. Prof Nicolaidis calls media to do advocacy with pedagogy: The role of the media is to explain the new transformations as well as the different stories of the various national public spheres to promote mutual recognition and understanding across boundaries.
The second dilemma that Prof Nicolaidis observes is a general ambivalence that prevails between cooperation and control. Nicola Sturgeon serves as a current example, as she is seeks cooperation with the European Union while at the same time aiming to take back control from London. Prof Nicolaidis therefore calls media to magnify its moderating intuition.
The third dilemma presents the short-term nature of democracy, characterized by its lengthy discussions with various conflicting interests. Hence, Prof Nicolaidis points to Europe’s competitive advantage, as Europe provides a window of opportunity as the guardian for the long-term orientation. She calls upon the media’s responsibility to do its role justice in helping to transform Europe into a democracy with foresight by explaining different perspectives.
Journalists, in her view, are the foot soldiers that take on these three dilemmas. They are responsible for shaping the European public sphere.
Following Prof Nicolaidis’ input, Prof Claes de Vreese, Professor of Political Communication at the University of Amsterdam, provided scientific data about the quality as well as development of the communication space in Europe with reference to the European parliamentary elections.
In his research Prof de Vreese found that there is no singular European public sphere as coverage about the EU affairs varies greatly in each country. Differences in the patterns of discussions about European affairs among the member states are enormous. Yet, although the European communication space is still very national in character, an emergence of a Europeanized national public sphere can be observed.
In his further remarks Prof de Vreese suggested that political conflict and contestation is relevant for media coverage and public debates about European Parliament elections. Data shows that Eurosceptic parties or populists help in raising awareness and inciting debates about EU affairs in their respective countries. Therefore, media plays a pivotal role in covering and promoting such conflict in order for European affairs to be discussed in the national public spheres as well.
Following, the chief diplomatic correspondent of Der Tagesspiegel, Dr Christoph von Marschall, added a further dimension that he considers relevant when discussing the European public sphere. In addition to amnesia and hysteria, he emphasized the role of arrogance amongst journalists. Von Marschall fears that too often journalists, who by and large represent an urbanized group with a ‘big city perspective’, provide a one-sided, limited perspective only. He therefore called for a bigger effort in revealing other perspectives as well.
The editor-in-chief of Slovakian SME, Beata Balogova, advocates red lines and clear definitions of European values and democracy in the European discourse. Despite all of the different national discourses, journalists should not tolerate deviations from such European demarcations. “By not doing so, we allow Orban to inspire other politicians with autocratic tendencies in the region”, she said.
Christiane Hoffmann, Diplomatic Correspondent of Der Spiegel, argued that our own debate can only be as good as the political debate is. As politicians are afraid of talking about Europe as a long-term project, as a vision, and political parties are not clear about their goals for Europe, journalists cannot make the reality better than it is. Moreover, she agreed that conflict promotes the common political sphere. Accordingly, Brexit has helped to raise awareness of the broader public about Brexit and the British democracy in general.
The columnist of The Guardian, Natalie Nougayrède, made a remark on a confusion about the notion of a common European public sphere. Talking about a common communication space should not neglect those who do not support the European project (the European Union). Especially Eurosceptics are very active in connecting and creating a parallel public sphere that should be paid attention to as well. Moreover, Nougayrède claimed that nation-based media fail to foster a common European conversation, as traditional media is facing a crisis of survival and is too national in character. As a result, she argued that the European media space will be rather a connection of local perceptions, local explorations of news, local curiosities. Yet, she called for alternative solutions about how to find a common ground for better understanding each other in Europe and pointed to existing small initiatives that lack resources and therefore require more visibility. Finally, she pleaded to think about Europe more as a continent instead of ignoring non-EU countries.
Alexandra Borchardt, Senior Research Associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, referred to the statement by Christiane Hoffmann that our media debate can only be as good as the political debate is. She revealed some of her research outcome indicating that the role of the media is very much underestimated, as traditional media are still setting the agenda. She claimed that traditional media still contributes a lot by amplifying social media content and what populists say. She also pointed to a study of the Reuters Institute on Brexit coverage, indicating that it is rather characterized by reflecting on people, particularly politicians, than by substantial reporting about the EU itself. In contrast, she claimed that it is the role of the media to reflect more about people’s thoughts and on EU issues.
The Head of News of Deutsche Welle Richard Walker also referred to the language barrier we face in Europe as a reason for the absence of a European demos. Above all, it is the elite that does speak English and media therefore has to find a solution for how to reach the non-English speakers.
Niklas Nuspliger, Brussels Correspondent at Neue Zürcher Zeitung, countered that linguistic fragmentation might not be the end of the European public sphere, as technology could help us in overcoming such challenges and connect people of different public spheres even though they are not physically in the same room. He also pointed to Switzerland as a multilingual country where nobody would question Suisse democracy although there is no pan-Suisse media.
Moreover, Nuspliger argued that a European public sphere cannot be created artificially by media. There are many signs that a public sphere and European demos is growing naturally if you think of the EU crisis, migration or Brexit that made people want to learn about what happens in their neighbor countries. He therefore called to abandon the idea of shaping a European public sphere top-down as it is actually already growing naturally.
European Affairs Editor of France 24, Catherine Nicholson, added that journalists need to be partners and not just listeners: “Making the audience and ourselves part of the same mix is actually probably part of the future, not only of journalism but keeping up really important of a function of democracy”.
Lukasz Lipinksi, deputy editor-in-chief of Polityka weekly in Poland referred to the input of Prof Claes de Vreese that claimed that conflict is necessary. From a Polish perspective he argued that we should find a balanced solution, as polarized Poland shows that too much conflict could also destroy democracy.
The Bureau Chief in Brussels of Bloomberg News, Nikos Chrysoloras, called media to take a stronger role in explaining EU complexities and decision-making process. This will be a necessary service of mainstream to the liberal order and the strengthening of the European project.
The Head of the ECFR Berlin, Almut Möller, provided a perspective from a think tank that deals with the question of what people in Europe think and how cohesion among European societies could be created. She called for more analysis of the European elections, as media might not always ask the relevant questions or use the necessary instruments.
The Director of the European Cultural Foundation, André Wilkens, pleaded for more EU investment in a European public sphere in order to make the EU competitive in the future. He particularly emphasized the relevance of creating a comprehensive European public media.
The data scientist Dominique Roch suggested that we should make Europe local and should bring the EU to the local people instead of bringing normal people to the European level. Simultaneously, media has to adapt to the new circumstances, as the younger generation has turned to bloggers and influencers. She insists that media is not charity, hence, we should also talk about the architecture of the internet when we talk about the public sphere.
Sven Afhüppe, editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt, called for more attention to European politics: “Having one or two reporters in Brussels is not enough”. He claims that it is the media’s responsibility to write more about Europe. Moreover, her addressed, again, the language barrier and the need for a common administrative language such as English.
Prof Claes de Vreese concluded the session. Between amnesia and hysteria refers precisely to state of the European public sphere as it does not yet exist yet we currently find a ‘middle space’. Obviously, a European public sphere should not be equated with public support for the EU. But a visible, vibrant and multi-perspective debate about Europe and its identity is very much needed. Conflict is vital in driving public debate and for increasing that level of attention. Moreover, he pointed again to the prevalent ambivalence also shown in the data. The right or left-wing populists should not be overestimated, as the vast majority does not represent their attitude towards the EU. Yet, the majority has legitimate concerns, that is citizens who feel ambivalent about a project that is very complicated. This should be a guideline for the media when covering the EU and the continent.
Prof Kalypso Nicolaidis also added three silver linings to the conclusion. First, she referred to statements made by Christoph von Marschall and Catherine Nicholson who addressed media arrogance, stating that all citizens would have problems with conspiracy between national elites and supranational elites. It is the role of the media to counter a monopolized power and empower other people instead. Moreover, she called media to stop covering Brexit as a crazy mess but how it is demonstrating something amazing for Europe. Finally, she pleaded for a differentiation between destructive existential and transformative Euroscepticism that aims for changing the EU.
Session II: Press Freedom Under Pressure – the Future of the European Media Ecosystem
Freedom of the press and media in Europe is in danger – as never before since the end of the Cold War. The Council of Europe recorded 140 serious attacks on journalists in 32 of its 47 member countries in 2018. The precarious economic situation of the media chips away at their independence. Session II discussed the state of press freedom in Europe as well as the remedies to strengthen press freedom.
Dr Julie Posetti, Senior Research Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, introduced the topic addressing a view of infringements, censorship, laws and action that undermine press freedom, as well as with regard to the de facto independence and pluralism of the media as a press. She addressed four key challenges for European journalism as well as four responses.
The first threat to press freedom is the demonization of journalists. From a rhetorical and digital environment where they are framed as enemies of the state, the demonization of journalists crosses over to a physical environment which fuels the rise in attacks on journalists. Remedies presented by Dr Julie Posetti include the need for more debates on quality journalism, explanatory reporting on media freedom challenges as well as civil society collaborations on press freedom in order for journalism to be humanized and society could relate more to it.
Second, viral disinformation campaigns coupled with viral misinformation risk swamping credible journalism and eroding democracy. Required action is the warning through anti-disinformation or anti-fake news. In contrast, legislation could be very risky, as it helps criminalizing legitimate speech and press freedom and models bad behavior for despots and fragile states, if it is weaponized to curtail journalism.
Third, online violence particularly targeting women presents a further challenge for European journalism and includes harassment, threats of violence and sexual insult but also causes greater physical risk or withdrawal from practice or engagement with audiences. Hence, Dr Julie Posetti calls for a stronger legislation through reporting and normative frameworks in collaboration with civil society organisations.
The fourth danger to press freedom is the increasing risks to digital security and confidential source protection to the journalists’ work with whistleblowers. The ability to keep the identity of the journlists’ sources or whistleblowers confidential and protect them from exposure is relevant to ensure they continue to be brave enough to deliver relevant information. Yet, against the backdrop of the rise of the platforms and the erosion of privacy, this ecosystem is arguably broken. Hence, journalists need to address the subject critically, as well as the legislation and the ways in which the judiciary and law enforcement are operating in respect of these issues.
Finally, Dr Julie Posetti concludes that media freedom is not just about ensuring the rights of journalists to practice safely and the news media to operate without censorship it is also about citizens’ rights to know. As a result, media freedom is about the rights of all of us and we have to be able to ensure that the audience participates in the construction of journalism – we need them to be communities of action to defend freedom of expression in the media freedom context.
Following, the remedies to protect freedom of the press were discussed. Jean-Paul Marthoz is the Europe Advisory Committee of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ, New York) and the author of its October 2015 report on the EU and Press Freedom Balancing Act. In response to Posetti’s input, he pointed to a survey by the European Federation of Journalists about journalists’ worries in the EU: “60 percent said defamation cases, misuse of laws and legal action in Europe and more than a half of European member states still have clear defamation in their books”. As many media do not have the economic means to confront defamation, politicians therefore have to change the law. Yet, the low level of trust in journalism or the lack in readiness to be associated with the profession causes inefficient political actions. Alternative solutions on the ground are therefore required. Jean-Paul Marthoz presented initiatives by journalists like “Express” which links lawyers and journalists to try to build enough legal and economic power to confront defamation.
The editor-in-chief of Slovakian SME and vice chair of the executive board of the International Press Institute (IPI), Beata Balogova, also pointed to the tendency how journalism is denied its watchdog role of politics in many countries like Hungary, Slovakia or Czech Republic. Yet, the investigative and watchdog role of journalism is relevant especially in a world where tweeting and the short cuts of journalism seem to strive. Under such circumstances private media such as SME has to fulfil the public service role which is causing an ambivalence because it has to produce quality content but also create income. Hence, Beata Balogova called organisations of broadcasters to put more pressure on their members who are no longer fulfilling journalism’s role and betraying the public service role.
The Director of the German Section of Reporters Without Borders, Christian Mihr, advocated journalistic action on the ground, because after all he does not believe on the only reliance on national states or even the European Union. Due to strong threats in the digital sphere he called for more advocacy and assistance in digital literacy and source protection. According to an RSF study 50 percent of RSF cases have come into situations of threat because of digital survey. According to Mihr the digital responsibility of journalists is often very naïve, which is why he called for more digital source protection is fundamental to the protection of journalists.
Lisbeth Kirk, founder of EUObserver, emphasized the relevance of self-reflection and transparency in journalism. Media as businesses and the 4th pillar in democracy are very much challenged by a loss in trust and the many competitors that are able to call themselves media despite conscious manipulation and disinformation campaigns. Kirk’s proposal for traditional media is therefore to become much more transparent about media’s identity and generation of sources.
Zeynep Sentek, Managing Editor of Blacksea.eu, an online medium in Romania, which stands out for its critical journalism about the Black Sea region for a global audience, using deep reportage, tough fact-checking and a balanced perspective. She pointed to Kirk’s argument of self-reflection and transparency, assessing the role of media in the rise of populism and right-wing parties. As a result, she called to focus more on ways to improve journalism and counter such tendencies.
Julia Ebner, Research Fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), addressed new threats like doxing, leaking of private details on the internet and what that could cause in terms of real world attacks. Hence, she suggested several areas of responsibilities that both journalists but also policy makers could take to confront them. Journalists should raise more awareness about cyber security and possible ways of protection against hackers. In contrast to targeted harassment campaigns against journalists, the protection and support of the victims is not coordinated on a pan-European scale. This is why awareness about measures on the individual level but also on an organizational and European level need to be addressed more often. It is the policy makers’ responsibility to develop a legal framework dealing with the new threats that the digital space has unfortunately given rise to.
The Head of Board at Thomson Media, Christoph Lanz, argued that public service media need to be strengthened, as in theory, it would be more independent and could speak out easier than private businesses facing economic pressure. Moreover, Lanz warned against the underestimation of an increasing pressure against media freedom in Western European countries like Estonia. Therefore, he encouraged all journalists to speak out more loudly and raise awareness about the threats to media freedom.
The media consultant Lauri Hussar, former editor-in-chief of the leading Estonian newspaper Postimees, agreed and provided insights into the Estonian media landscape. He addressed the impact of economic pressure on the media. As the media business model is not sustainable and advertising money Is mainly paid to the platforms, he called for a digital tax.
Agron Bairami, editor-in-chief at Koha Ditore in Kosovo, claimed that there is a lack of attention to the risks to press freedom outside the national spheres. He called to pay attention to European countries outside the EU as well. Moreover, he stressed the relevance of media literacy in teaching the distinction between professional journalism based on professional standards versus politically affiliated and controlled media.
Florian Eder, Managing Director of Politico’s “Brussel’s Playbook”, called the idea that public media would be more independent and trustworthy rather romantic. He claimed that illiberal governments would usually first take control over public media. Only afterwards private media are taken control of as well because this requires high financial means as well as legislation. As a result, the credibility of public services in all over Europe is undermined because of the techniques to delegitimize media and particularly public broadcasters. Eder therefore suggested the publicly financing of a whole business media. Yet, he stressed that media is a relevant pillar of democracy and should therefore not become an industry like agriculture.
The European Affairs Editor of France24, Catherine Nicholson, suggested several ideas for solution. She called for more European media collaboration. Addressing the example of Slovakia where she talked to protesters in the Jan Kuchiak case, she said that they would have asked for more attention to increase pressure to the Slovakian government to start investigations of the case. Nicholson said we still need a framework for such collaboration but it is relevant for journalists to build up a broad network, so they could benefit from their local expertise on respective topics.
As the former Chief Digital Officer Directive in charge of websites and all marketing at Euractiv, the data analyst Dominique Roch was shocked about the limited knowledge of journalists about the actual functioning of a website and how articles are suggested to people and their ranking. She therefore considers media literacy key to earning money online. Instead of handing over responsibility to the legislators, journalists themselves should start to better understand algorithms and how to use them to their own benefit.
The M100YEJ participant from Armenia, Viktoriya Muradyan addressed the inequality in terms of media reaction.to violations against freedom of the press, Media should also pay attention to what happens outside Europe to understand what happens inside within the borders.
The deputy editor-in-chief of stern Digital, Tolgay Azman, called for more transparency in media houses as well. Interaction with the audience could build trust and raise awareness about threats to freedom of the press, as it presents the only way to show the work of journalism and enforce solidarity. Stern, for instance, provided open doors for readers and users about the work during its 70th anniversary in order to explain their work and received positive resonance.
The columnist at the Guardian, Nathalie Nougayrède, referred to Viktoriya Muradyan’s comment on the covering area and added that journalists need to disentangle what journalists can do about media freedom in Europe. Global threats various, just as the problems inside Europe. Accordingly, it would be relevant to identify the specific European needs, issues and measures that might not necessarily applicable outside Europedue to the changing legal and political context. Moreover, she called media independence to be discussed in journalism schools across Europe.
Finally, Dr Julie Posetti concluded that it is the journalists’ job to create awareness about freedom of the press and especially to include the audience in such process. When examining on those capacities, collaboration and participation is needed. She agreed that the cases of threatened media freedom outside Europe that could possibly be applicable inside Europe should be paid more attention to. European journalism could learn a lot about the practice of independent critical journalism and combatting disformation from interesting examples outside Europe.
Session III: The Path Ahead: Unlocking Journalistic Innovation
By some standards, today’s journalism is better and more successful than ever. Yet, limitless distribution does not equal sustainable business models. Journalists and media, both established organizations and startups, are striving to find new ways to fulfill journalism’s role in society. They are developing new business models to overcome their dependence on tech platforms. And they are concentrating intensively on developing new methods in order to meet the new, digital and networked realities in the service of their audience. Session III “The Path Ahead: Unlocking Journalistic Innovation” discussed media innovation as well as conditions necessary to foster innovation and the future viability of the media.
The editor-in-chief of piqd and managing board member of Germany’s leading media innovation think tank Vocer, Frederik Fischer, held a first input with an overview about journalistic innovation as well as a suggestion for a possible framework for media innovation.
Whereas recently journalistic innovation was rather experimental, nowadays it seems much more pragmatic and particularly aiming for a sustainable business. Fischer also observed that quality journalism is increasingly retreating from the public sphere due to paywalls, distracting sensational content on social media platforms and the disconnection from the younger generation. In his opinion, the various challenges to journalism are often linked to the current media infrastructure that neglects the needs of an informed public. Fischer therefore called publishers and broadcasters to focus more on building new infrastructures for journalistic innovation. Concrete suggestions included a European media library or initiatives beyond platforms. Fischer concluded that all the pragmatism in media innovation is just not enough and we have to think beyond the own organisations.
Brigitte Alfter is the Director of the non-profit organisation Arena for Journalism in Europe to support crossborder collaborative journalism in Europe and the author of a handbook on crossborder journalism. She claimed that although the target group for pan-European media is small, journalists would have traditionally turned to think of pan-European media to ensure the functioning of communication in European societies. Moreover, she reflected on her education in journalism where competition was key to success and continued to be an integrative part of working in media. Against this backdrop, Alfter pleaded for a different path for journalists where they collaborate in European networks with close relationships to the audience as well as all kind of media. Yet, this still requires an emerging networking infrastructure for journalists and a changing mindset to promote more collaboration according to Alfter.
In addition to more collaboration, Brigitte Alfter called for more engagement and investment in the research and development of journalism with countless experiments to develop new methods that traditional media could later integrate as well and scale them. An example is the experiments with data journalism in the 90s that 20 years later became a relevant method in traditional media as well. Today we need to focus on further experimental methods to promote journalistic innovation.
Zeynep Sentek is the Managing Director of The Black Sea which is part of the pan-European network European investigative collaboration bringing to together the big players and micro initiatives in journalism. The Black Sea is a small initiative that aims to break mainstream media habits by focusing more on collaboration instead of competition. In addition to the need for more funding Sentek emphasized the relevance of expanding small scale initiatives and collaboration all over Europe for investigative journalism.
Following, Fischer elaborated on the suggested new media structures. Even though the social media platform facebook can be compared to a country with a set of laws due to its impact and power, it is not working for the public sphere, not for an informed public or for journalism. Yet, because facebook is just a technology and its infrastructure is neutral, he called for the concrete definition of laws and rules of such networks. Fischer suggested in a first step to offer all information for free in a newly established European platform in order to attract a lot of interest and reach a critical mass. The second step would be then to open it to all commercial contributors but only to those who adhere to the journalistic code of conduct that was defined previously.
The deputy editor-in-chief of stern Digital, Tolgay Azman, added that journalists have to think of journalism more from a product perspective. While media increasingly expects to monetize from advertisement or from paid subscriptions, he is missing the publishers’ emphasis on the brand, a vision to make readers identify with the product. If media do not work on their products, he does not understand why the readers would continue to buy their content.
André Wilkens, Director of the European Cultural Foundation, recommended to start looking at innovation from the regulator’s perspective instead of the media perspective because media do not necessarily follow the goal of the public good. Hence, Wilkens called for setting the parameters, for instance, for the European public sphere at the first place to state the goals, values, preferred infrastructure or languages. Only afterwards we should start putting innovation into practice in order to safeguard the basis of such ground values.
The Senior Research Associate at Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Dr Julie Posetti, revealed the findings of her Journalism Innovation Project. She emphasized the need to retreat from the short-term trends of “shiny bright technology-driven innovation” that for the past decade media was seduced by. Instead, media need to focus more on building a long-term strategy in media innovation.
Dr Alexandra Borchardt, Senior Research Associate at Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, called for media innovation with regard to the content, the diversity in newsrooms as well as the recruitment practices. She claimed that media reporting is mainly characterized by negativity, which is not very attractive to the audience of the younger generation. She called for more diversity in newsrooms that currently fail to fully represent the society and serve diverse audiences that are supposed to trust media and buy the product. As a result, she advocated innovation in media recruitment with an employment of journalists with different gender, social backgrounds, from the global cities as well as the countryside.
The deputy editor-in-chief of stern Digital, Tolgay Azman, agreed that diversity needs to be fostered in media. Due to the long process of changing the recruitment policy in newsrooms, however, he suggested to benefit from the expertise of a diversity consultancy that could help diversify the coverage even if employment in media is not diverse yet. Azman explained that in that way different communities relevant for an article could be reached and asked for opinion, feedback and advice on the respective topic. In his view, this presents a “coverage with empathy” with a high potential of meeting the requirements of society in a better way.
Annalisa Piras who is the CEO of The Wake Up Foundation which currently runs the Wake Up Europe! Campaign which is an innovative transnational concept, the first documentary film festival to awaken an European civic conscience and to stimulate a pan-european debate by using documentary films as an information and engagement medium. Coming from the film industry, she pointed to documentaries as a new form of journalism. In her perspective, journalism is not confined to the traditional conception of print but film could fulfil the main goal of journalism of informing and creating awareness as well.
Brigitte Alfter concluded with a plea to allow more creativity in media innovation. Especially the interactivity that new technologies give rise to has a high potential to create media literacy. Involving the readers in creating journalism by having, for instance, an editorial approach of crowdsourcing makes people contribute to journalism and feel they are involved.
The Director of the Institute for Media and Communication Policy, Dr Leonard Novy, concluded that there is one clear lesson from the M100 roundtable discussions that quality journalism as well as an independent, pluralist media landscape is often taken for granted. For the first time the M100 board published a M100 Declaration which touches upon many points that have been made during the day. Novy called for a much broader political and public discussion about where we are headed, emphasizing the relevance of the topic which decides on the future of democracy and its foundations.