Professor Timothy Garton Ash

Professor of European Studies
Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St Antony’s College
Oxford University

Opening Adress: Timothy Garton Ash

From the very beginnings of democracy, democracy has been inseparable from free speech. The citizens of ancient Athens got together on the Pnyx. The reporters of that time gave them the facts from the ground. The columnists of that time gave them the arguments for different policies – as well as the politicians – and then they had a great debate. And that’s how they decided to fight the invading Persians at sea (not on land), won the battle of Salamis, and saved the world’s first democracy.

Two-thousand and five hundred years later, it’s exactly the same — except that we can’t all get together in one place, although maybe Zoom will make that possible one day. So, we have media, and those media need to be uncensored, diverse and trustworthy – Uncensored, diverse, trustworthy — those are the three adjectives I chose for the principles on journalism in my book. Free speech, and I think they are very carefully chosen.

So, for example, if we look at the very real threat to democracy in Poland at the moment, I would say the single most important deciding factor for Polish democracy in the next five years is whether Jarosław Kaczyński succeeds in taking over the independent plural media à la Viktor Orbán, or if he fails.

Your subject is “the post-Covid media order”. I have to say, I think there’s a real question, whether Covid, for all its scale, is actually a structural game-changer for media or simply a catalyst of developments that were already there in the digital world, in a globalized world full of people revolting against globalization. I am inclined to think it’s the latter, but maybe Anna Sauerbrey will convince us otherwise.

Now, the classic threats to free speech – censorship and the most extreme form of censorship, namely murder, are still very much with us. We just had the trial of the perpetrators of Charlie Hebdo. The attempted murder of Alexei Navalny by the Putin regime is a classic example of what I have called the assassin’s veto. Navalny, after all, is also a journalist – a very brave investigative journalist, and we have had cases also in Slovakia and Malta. But for most of us, most of the time, we don’t face those most extreme challenges. If you look at what’s happening in somewhere like Hungary or Poland, but also in established western democracies, the challenge is not ‘control by censorship’. The challenge is ‘control by ownership’. And that is a challenge I want to concentrate on in the few minutes I’ve been given.

The other day, I came across a really interesting sentence in Milovan Djilas’ book The unperfect society. Djilas writes: “The essential communist form of ownership is power.” And it occurred to me that the reverse could also be said. The essential capitalist form of power is ownership. And it seems to me, one can get quite a long way in thinking about our media systems, by just looking at the questions around ownership. Let me quickly mention four:

Number One, it’s becoming increasingly clear that a fundamental challenge of the connected world – is monopoly. If Facebook had absolutely perfect privacy and data protection policies, if its algorithms only promoted the most authentic and high-quality content, if its content moderation policies removed all hate speech while having an impeccable appeals process compatible with international humanitarian law, if all of that were true, there would still be a huge problem – which is simply monopoly. Monopoly is in and of itself a fundamental challenge to free speech. What is a totalitarian state, after all? The One that has an absolute monopoly of public speech. Amazon is another obvious example. We importunate book authors used to say: “You can find my books in all good bookshops”. We now say, you can find my books on all good Amazons. But there’s only one Amazon, so if Amazon doesn’t run your book, your book does not exist. For me this requires – I hope with a Biden administration in the US – actually the combined force of EU competition policy and a revived and newly defined American anti-trust to get at these vast monopolies, these private superpowers.

Second point: We have to get away from the neoliberal discourse of the last 30 years, in which it was only free markets and only private ownership. A mature democratic media order absolutely requires a mixed economy, with a mixture of private, public, cooperative and foundation ownership. So if you have good public service media, like the BBC or the German public service media or those in many other countries, hang on to them for dear life, triple the budget and ring-fence their independence even more. I see you have a section on foundations, not-for-profits. I think that’s going to be an essential part of the media ecosystem going forward. Certain very expensive areas of journalism, like good foreign reporting or in-depth investigative reporting, are not going to be sustainable even when there’s a business model for media owners unless we also have foundation funding.

Third point: The ethos of media ownership is as important as many other elements of media ownership. Adam Smith wrote two books. The second one The Theory of Moral Sentiments was about the ethos and values. This may sound naïve, but all of us who work in media know that there good proprietors and there are bad proprietors. When I was foreign editor for the Spectator, we had two very good proprietors. One was Fairfax – the Fairfax group in Australia. The other was Conrad Black, a man of very strong political views. But his intervention, when Christopher Hitchens wrote in his magazine a column saying the precise opposite of everything he believed in, was to write a long readers letter protesting. That’s the kind of proprietor you want. So the fact that we have proprietors who are not in it just for shareholder value – and/or all political influence – continues to be very important. This brings me to a final point on ownership – which I hope you’ll get a chance to discuss, because it seems to be crucial. Foreign ownership of media. Most of you I think will have seen the fantastic BBC documentary “The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty”. If you haven’t, forget about “Succession”, go and watch the original. It demonstrates the extraordinary power that Rupert Murdoch had as a media proprietor, being in effect the second most powerful person in British politics.

I know this from my interactions with Tony Blair. Tony Blair simply would never dare to take on the Eurosceptic press led by the Sun and the Times and then across the Daily Telegraph. There was something profoundly wrong in that situation. I would argue, or at least I would ask the question, whether Britain would today be making the disastrous experiment of Brexit, had it not been for Rupert Murdoch. So there’s a very strong case against foreign ownership. And you could make a normative case against foreign ownership. But then I look at Poland. The fact is, in Poland today, the continued existence of independent, critical, rigorous, nation-wide media absolutely depend on foreign ownership. If the Discovery Channel were persuaded to sell TVN24, the big independent news channel, if Ringier Axel Springer were persuaded to sell, the most important independent website, and if the foreign shareholders were leveraged out of the Agora group, which owns Gazeta Wyborcza and a number of radio stations, the independent national media would have ceased to exist in Poland. And I question very much whether in five years’ time Poland would still be a democracy. As much as that is at stake. So I hope you can talk about this difficult conundrum of foreign ownership where in normative theory we have a lot of problems with it and as we do in British experience, but in practice, in much of East-central Europe it’s actually what’s standing up for independent media.

One last observation: I looked at your agenda – very interesting but there’s one thing that’s not on there, and I want to ask you to put it on there. This is a point on the demand side, not the supply side. It seems to me that we have moved from an extreme cyber-utopian optimism, 20 years ago to an extreme and massive cyber-fatalism today. Twenty years ago, the internet was going to set everyone free; today, the internet is going to enslave everyone in a hell of fake news, disinformation, and hate speech.

Not so, not so! The fact is that through the internet, through the media developing online – I love Twitter, I adore Nuzzel. I have access today to a range of uncensored diverse trustworthy sources and information that I couldn’t have dreamed of 40 years ago. It’s much, much better than it was 40 years ago. Because I know how to look and where to look, and as important: how not to look and where not to look. And this is the point, although it’s a kind of bien pensant commonplace to say this, we need education in media and digital literacy. It is absolutely fundamental. I would like everyone involved in media – owners, journalists, academics, NGOs, all of us – to be pressing our governments to introduce mandatory education in digital and media literacy from an early age, because democracy needs an informed citizenry. But an informed citizenry means not just – there is the information available to that citizenry, but also, that we have citizens who know how to look and where to look, how not to look, and where not to look.