I probably wouldn’t be standing here before you today if it wasn’t for the magnificent flagship of European Public Broadcasting, the Eurovision Song Contest. As most of you know I was in the winning team way back in 1974. Which, incidentally, means it took you all of 44 years to invite me to speak at this event. But, what a launching pad that was. The Eurovision Song Contest is a big deal. Some people want to make it less of a big deal. They frown and look down on it and the say it’s shallow and devoid of deeper meaning and thus, they say, it doesn’t belong on Public Service Media.
I’m sure it won’t come as a surprise to you when I say I disagree. It would, of course, be monumentally stupid to start this speech in front of this audience by criticizing the Eurovision Song Contest, but that apart, I honestly disagree because I think the ESC is exactly what Public Service Media can and must be - among a host of other things, which I will come to. It’s entertaining, broad and inclusive. And no commercial network could ever do it as well as the EBU. I would say, in all its glory, those bright hours of fun somehow give us a sense of Europeanness, if there is such a word. If there isn’t there should be.
I am unashamedly grateful for having been born in this part of the world, this Europe, where, despite all the setbacks with wars and other atrocities, the Greek and Roman philosophers, the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment and much, much more has paved the way for the liberal, secular democracies we live in today. I won’t say that I’m proud of it because I had very little to do with how this European history developed, but I will say that I count myself lucky to be able to enjoy the benefits.
I have to admit that I wasn’t always a fan of Public Service.
I know I look very young, but I grew up before television. There was only one radio channel. One public service radio channel and they played one or two pop songs a week in ONE show on Saturdays. I was starved. Then a pirate radio station popped up, Radio Nord, and they played pop all day long, interspersed with commercials.
I loved Radio Nord, even the commercials, so when the Swedish Parliament shut it down I consequently hated Public Service Media. I was only seventeen. But even though I felt that way about PSM back then, there was never a shadow of a doubt in my mind that every word uttered in those Swedish Radio programs was true. The people of Sweden trusted this wonderful institution one hundred percent.
Sadly, that trust seems to be slipping. A fresh survey by SIFO shows that trust in Swedish public service media, especially television is going down and has slowly been going down since 2010. It may be different in some of your countries – and you all know what you are up against in your own countries, I’m just using Sweden as an example to make a point
I find this very disturbing and worrying. And why is it, as it seems to be, that trust is on a slippery slope? Well, there are of course many reasons, but I think one could be that fierce competition with commercial broadcasters sometimes may lead to, shall we say, a different journalistic ambition. An ambition to make every program, whatever the content, broad and entertaining.
Recently I had an experience that terrified me. I was the target myself and what I saw from inside was SVT - Swedish Television - acting like a tabloid. A show called “Mission Scrutiny”. They interviewed me, so I knew for sure they had all the relevant facts available in this particular matter, but they chose to select only those that fitted their preferred angle. And they painted a false picture, in which I was a decidedly shady character. Clearly to maximize ratings and clicks.
I was hurt. Of course, I was. But believe me, that’s not why I’m telling you this. It’s because it scares me as a citizen. I’ve been an inside witness to something, which I think is the absolute opposite of what public service media should be. Short term sensationalism is bound to erode long term trust. There are fundamental values at stake here and if they’re lost they’ll be very, very hard to regain.
The former, sacked CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, said: Things don’t necessarily need to be true as long as they’re believed. I say, we need sources we can trust more than ever. We need you.
You’ve no doubt noticed that Mr. Xi of China has come to the conclusion that elections are cumbersome and unnecessary when you know who’s best suited for the job anyway. May I hazard a guess that Mr. Putin, Mr. Orbán and Mr. Erdoghan are feeling inspired by his example. Will they follow in his footsteps? Mr. Trump recently joked: “Maybe we’ll give that a shot.” I’m not so sure it was a joke. But American democracy is robust. Thanks to those enlightened men, who wrote the American constitution. If there is a god, may he bless them.
They must have thought long and hard about how to pass their values down the generations. George Washington said it beautifully: “What could be more important than to pass civic values down to the future guardians of the liberties of the country?”
It seems a lot of young people nowadays take democracy for granted, and what else can you expect when it has been around all their lives. It’s like an old arm chair to them. They’re also disappointed by it. So, it’s not surprising that some of them should be attracted by the old ideologies close to fascism and communism. But, these young people have no idea of what it would be like to live in such a political system.
I was born in the 1940s and when I was about five or six I got hold of a book I wasn’t supposed to see. The pictures are still engraved in me. The death camps, emaciated human beings. My parents talked a lot about the war. I hate fascism with every fiber in my body.
Growing up with the Soviet Union looming large and ominous close to Swedish borders, I learned to hate communism too. It was a real and tangible threat. I used to think to myself: What would I do if the Soviets invaded us? I came to the conclusion that I would rather die than live under the communist yoke.
But how do we convey this to younger generations who seem ready to experiment again? To try the same useless ideologies once more. We need you.
Civic education in public broadcasting has always been at the core of the European democratic project. Certainly, when I grew up. I might have found it boring sometimes, but it was always there. And I know it still is, but now there are so many other things competing with it today.
Nevertheless, it is crucially important that public broadcasting never ceases to point out and to show again and again that ideological alternatives to liberal democracy, from fascism to communism and from autocracy to theocracy, are as abominable today as they were in the past.
I have stood on many a taped white cross on studio floors in TV studios all around Europe, miming to the latest ABBA single. Those were the days. You only had to appear once in the biggest local show and the next day everybody would have heard your song. My colleagues today have to work much harder.
Well, it seems I will visit your TV channels again. In digital form this time. We have a new project together. Well, at least some of you are already involved. I’m talking about a big ABBA tribute show this autumn with artists from all parts of the world.
Frida, Agnetha, Benny and I had visitors from Silicon Valley last June. Techno artists, they call themselves. They photographed us from all possible angles, they made us grimace in front of cameras, they painted dots on our faces, they measured our heads. Apparently, a cranium doesn’t change with age the way the rest of your body falls apart. The measurements together with old videos and photos makes it possible for these IT wizards to create perfect copies of ABBA 1979. We thought we looked good that year.
It’s still work in progress, but they’ve come a long way and what I’ve seen so far is simply mind-boggling. These ABBAtars will sing one of Benny’s and my songs. You’ll hear the voices of ABBA coming out of the mouths of the ABBAtars. Lip synch. And you won’t be able to see that they’re not human beings. It’ll be spooky, I assure you. But great fun and no one has done it before. There is an existential dimension to explore as well. What would it be like to be young again. The wisdom that we hopefully possess now in combination with the youth of the ABBAtars.
NBC in America in partnership with the BBC have both global reach and experience of managing projects on a huge scale and they’re distributing the show. The plan is to make it a global television moment and they are now reaching out to top national and regional broadcasters like yourselves, who can be part of making it a shared experience all around the world - with simulcast transmission wherever possible. I can’t help thinking – it would be a bit like the Eurovision Song Contest. It sounds incredible, but they say it’s absolutely doable.
And what will the ABBAtars sing? I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to say, but let me give you something to talk about, a clue. The title could have been the heading for this speech. You’ll understand when you hear it.
I’d like to end this speech with a plea. Trust is hard currency in this era of fake news. You have more trust than most other institutions. People believe that you’re telling the truth to the best of your abilities. Please don’t devalue that, please continue to be an institution that we can hang on to in this age of confusion
Only public service media can guarantee fair and trusted content because of the unique way it is mandated and funded. True public service media needs to be independent from commercial and governmental influences.
Continue to develop and produce broad, entertaining shows like the Eurovision Song Contest and the ABBA show I just mentioned, but never forget to educate, give insight and try to explain complex matters in an honest and scientific way. I know it’s not easy, but you guys, you - in this room. You’re the ones who can do it. You decide. We need you more than ever. Democracy itself, whatever future form it takes, needs you to promote and to defend it.