SPEECH published on 16 Jun 2021

Journalism Under Threat – How Can It Survive the Crossfire

EBU Director General Noel Curran delivers the BBC Lecture at the Prix Italia - 16 June 2021

I’d like to consider today the challenges to the survival of professional journalism. But rather than adopt a fatalistic approach, I’d also like to talk a little about what actions I believe can be taken for it to not just survive but also thrive. 

I’ve always been passionate about journalism. Not naïve but passionate. Even as a young investigative reporter in Dublin years ago I was aware of the responsibility journalists carry. The implications of mistakes. The destruction of people’s lives and reputations if we get careless or worse irresponsible.

But my experiences also introduced me to the enormous public good that journalism can achieve. The imparting of knowledge and perspective. The holding to account of those who abuse their positions of power. The transformative impact on people’s lives.

Many events in my career brought this home to me but there are two, in particular, I would like to share with you. The first concerned an investigation I did when I worked in print journalism. We wrote a series of stories about fraud at an Irish company orchestrated by the then chief executive of that company. 

Despite his legal threats it was a very clear case, we published it and it received widespread follow up in other media. 

After the dust has settled, I moved on to the next story. But ten years later, by chance, I met the son of the chief executive at a social event. He was in mid-teens when the story was published, mid-twenties by the time we met. It was an awkward exchange at first when we realized our connection but his rage was aimed mainly at his father, not the journalism. 

As we began to speak, he opened up about the impact the revelations had on his family. He told me that when the story broke he felt totally ashamed and resisted going to school for months afterwards. He told me he suffered anxiety attacks for years, that his mother felt betrayed by her husband and that it has a profound impact on their family. I believe the rest of his family knew absolutely nothing about the fraud. They were completely innocent and they were not mentioned in the story. And yet their lives dramatically changed.

Yes their lives changed because of their father's actions. But it also brought home to me the realization that investigative journalism – even at its most precise, its most accurate and most targeted – can become a bullet in a canyon, bouncing around and having a collateral effect on other people’s lives. 

That absolutely doesn’t mean you don’t do it. Investigative journalism is too important. It didn’t stop me doing investigations but it did make me more aware of the responsibility I had in doing them – and made me a better journalist and editor I hope.

And yet, on the other side, one of the most moving letters I have ever received came from a member of the public after we at RTE broadcast an investigative documentary on practices at an Irish nursing home. Using secret camera footage, over a period of months, the investigation showed terrible scenes of abuse of the elderly, the most vulnerable residents tied in chairs, roughly treated or actually struck by staff. Others left alone for hours and hours day after day in a chair with nothing to do and no interaction.

I was Director General at the time and a woman wrote to me to say that her elderly mother was in that nursing home. She wrote about the impact the investigation had on her, the guilt she felt that she had put her mother in the home, the shock that she didn’t know any of this was happening and also the rage at what she saw on camera. The final lines of her letter were filled with one of the most emotional thank you’s I’ve ever read. A really heartfelt thank you to the journalists, the producers, the editors and the organization that invested in the investigation and then withstood the threats of injunctions and libel to broadcast it.

They are the dilemmas of journalism. 

The responsibilities. But also the impact of journalism.  

The ability to be a force for good.

That’s the motivation.

That’s what makes it all worth it.

I passionately believe in the power and importance of journalism today. We live in a world where everyone can be a journalist and broadcast to a global audience. But I still believe it is a world where, more than ever, professional journalism needs to continue to be supported and funded.

But that journalism is increasingly under threat. 

The threats I’d like to address today are: 

- The erosion of trust and truth by the 24/7 digital news cycle

- Intimidation and Silencing of journalists 

- Funding problems leading to what I call ‘short cut’ journalism

AND perhaps the biggest threat of all,

- Global players ever increasing control of delivery of all content.

Firstly, let’s consider the erosion of trust and truth by the 24/7 news cycle.

We’ve lived with the 24/7 news cycle for a long time now; in fact journalists entering the profession today can’t imagine it any other way. 

The explosion in digital consumption has added another layer to this cycle. Old universal deadlines are long gone. Stories are for filing now and the race to be first is a huge driver for newsrooms across the globe.

The pressure of delivering now, all the time, everywhere, and without time to think, favours rapid Google searches and shorter prep time relying mainly on familiar sources. Too often it leaves little time or even headspace for in-depth research, interviews with a range of experts and rigorous fact-checking. 

Every journalist and media organization is competing against a larger and larger number of stories, often written for nothing, and riding on a tide of popular opinion – click-bait that often has a questionable relationship with the truth. 

We are also competing against content creators focused on the platforms driving their personal income – the creators may be activists disguising their messages as fact or employed by who knows who to pursue a political agenda.

They are a powerful force who make it challenging for audiences to search and find the truth in fragmented media spaces. 

The spread of false information can also have tragic consequences. We see it every day but examples like the mob-related violence and killings of numerous people in India as a result of false accusations of child kidnapping bring home the reality.  

The COVID-19 pandemic was also a fertile breeding ground for baseless claims. Political figures and large media organizations helped spread them. Again, the internet was awash with stories and terrible incidents like the death of hundreds of people after drinking a so-called methanol cure for COVID in Iran did little to stem the tide.

These incidents shock us. But not enough. Imagine if they had happened in Europe. What would the political reaction have been? What would the media and regulator reaction have been? What would our own reaction have been? 

People tend to reserve their strongest reaction to events close to home. But technology has brought the whole world closer to home and we need to not ration our shock and outrage and our drive for change

You may ask that with all this going on, is it really possible for journalism to survive and thrive in this environment? 

Yes, I think so. But let's be honest. It’s an increasing struggle. But not impossible.

We all know that there is a lot of negativity about the press, about press standards and approach, about journalism and its negative impacts. We all know it and have heard it. But those of us who still believe in the positive power of journalism need also to remember that it had a massively positive role and impact in the last horrendous 12 months. Massively positive. 

Not all journalism. Not all journalists. But so much of our journalism – particularly journalism in public service media organizations – became vital to the public information campaigns, public health campaigns, vital to proper insight and analysis. It kept people informed but more importantly it kept people alive. 

This is not about being naïve, it’s not about refusing to be self-critical, it’s not about resting on laurels. But it is about not letting those who fundamentally dislike the media to take over the narrative. We need to have a stronger louder voice telling people what it is that is unique about what we offer. And we need to make that voice heard. 

And yes, we have earned that praise, but we also need to continue to earn it. We, as public service broadcasters, need to live up to the responsibilities that the receipt of public funding puts on us. We must continue to invest in professional journalism whatever the financial constraints and continue to set as one of our main goals that we will reinforce the trust audiences have in us.  

We hear a lot about trust in media. I believe a lot of what we hear is simply untrue. There are so many people who would have us believe that trust in media has universally collapsed across the board here in Europe. But that’s just not the case. Trust in radio and TV remains relatively strong. Our research shows in 21 EU countries trust of national media is still over 70%. 

That is not to say trust hasn’t fallen off a cliff for some media, in some countries. It has absolutely. But it is not a universal experience. 

Trust in public service media in Europe remains high, particularly after the COVID crisis. Trust in platforms has fallen with our figures showing only about 14% of people actually trust what they read there. But they still read it. What does that say?

But in terms of public service media, with increased trust has come increased audiences in the last year. Significant increases in both young and old, particularly for News.

So we can meet the challenges as we did last year. And audiences will respond.

So how do we keep this momentum?

Lots of ways.

As I’ve said, we in PSM need to continue to invest in our journalism.

We need to invest even more in digital newsrooms. The migration to digital needs to be accelerated even if that means taking the controversial decision to reduce the numbers of linear bulletins and teams and even if it means, in some cases, fully merging separate news teams within our organizations in order to shift resources to a central digital approach.  

We shouldn’t get complacent with rising linear broadcast figures last year. I firmly believe that linear still has a life. I’ve been saying that for years when others have written it off – but digital is where we need to be and nowhere more so than in news. And that is going to require some tough decisions on resource allocation and workflows in the years ahead.

We also need to invest in training our journalists and editors. The latest digital production techniques, sourcing and verifying social media material, data journalism, spotting and dealing with fake news and deep fakes. A whole host of new skills that lots of reporters have but frankly lots still don’t.  

We also as public service media need to invest in investigative journalism. It’s expensive, dangerous and time consuming where sometimes you dig the stories out of a granite rock. That’s why so many commercial media outlets have abandoned it already. That’s why Netflix and others, despite their huge resources, largely avoid it. But we in public service media haven’t and we shouldn’t. Not at national level and not at the EBU. That’s why we launched the investigative journalism network to unite the efforts of those across Europe doing this crucial work.

We also need to continue to invest in international news, which will not always attract the largest audiences. We are among the largest investors in international news in Europe and that makes us distinctive and better informs our audiences. While it may be easy, I believe it’s just too simplistic, insular and dangerous a decision for us to cut foreign news coverage when budgets get tight.

We also need to invest in verification techniques such as AI deep fake detection technology, data journalism and fact checking.  

We also need to be more transparent about how our news decisions are being made. France Télévisions and others are starting a really interesting policy of opening up some of the decision-making processes on news to the wider public which I applaud.

We need to fight hard to ensure that our organizations are properly funded to do all this, particularly as the squeeze on budgets can lead to a squeeze on investment, short cuts and a cutting of corners. This is key and a key role for the EBU too. But we also need to shift internal resources, recognise where the future lies.

We also need to collaborate more. Lets be honest, it’s not something that PSM organizations have always done well. But we are changing – resources are diminishing, our competitors are growing and we need to co-operate to survive.

All these actions will get results. 

I am not remotely a naïve person but we have to stay positive about the future of journalism and the future of public service media journalism in the digital age. Just yesterday we heard a senior figure in Google admit that their search data shows that the public are reaching out more and more for trusted sources of news and information. That’s us.

Increasingly our Members are seeing the benefits of using trusted news and trusted journalism and they are using this to further their connection with their audiences. Here’s a short example from our Member RTE of how they are doing this on screen.

Another challenge facing journalism is increased intimidation, threats of violence or actual violence against journalists and a growing move from the State in some countries to restrict independent journalism.

Threats and violence against journalists are nothing new. I still remember the day in 1996 when the Irish investigative journalist Veronica Guerin, who had encouraged and supported me enormously at the start of my career, was shot dead in her car on a motorway. She left behind a grieving husband and a devastated young son.

Jump ahead twenty years and the fearless reporter and writer Daphne Caruana Galizia suffered an equally abhorrent fate in Malta. I have met her son on several occasions since her death and his anger is only matched by his desire for justice and protection for journalists doing this important work. 

And journalists need it. In the twenty-year period between the murders of Veronica and Daphne, over 1000 other journalists are estimated to have been killed doing their jobs. That’s an extraordinary shocking figure. 

Of all the journalists killed in connection with their work in 2020, 84% were knowingly targeted and deliberately murdered. Some in India and Mexico were decapitated or burned alive to sow even more fear.

They are the extremes but our Members know attacks can happen anywhere. 

NOS in the Netherlands have been forced to remove all the branding from their satellite trucks as they were encountering threats and intimidation with people jumping onto the vehicles and cutting cables.

Our Swedish Member SVT’s security costs have increased fourfold in the last five years – much of which is for personal protection. 

On average the Swedish broadcaster is handling 35 security issues every day – including harassment, acts of violence and threats, both physical and online.

But intimidation comes in many forms and the explosion in online consumption has bred the phenomenon of online trolling, abuse and aggression. 

Women in particular are often targeted. In December 2020 a UNESCO study found that 73% of female journalists experience online hostility.  Furthermore, 20% of respondents said that they had been abused and attacked offline in connection with online violence targeting them.

A really excellent documentary called ‘A Dark Place’ by our partners at the OSCE gives an insight into some of what happens to female journalists in the online world. I would recommend you watch it - and it is available free for all our EBU Members to screen. Here’s a short clip.

I have two daughters, aged 9 and 12. The eldest has already expressed a strong interest in writing. I often wonder if she approached me in later years and said she wanted to be a journalist, what would I say. What advice would I give her? I’m not sure, to be totally honest. Which is not a dilemma I would have even thought about a few years ago.

But what I find particularly shocking about general online abuse of both female and male journalists is that it isn’t just cranks, weirdos or aggressors behind it all. 

According to the ICFJ and UNESCO reports, the perpetrators behind the online violence in as many as 37% of cases were politicians, employees of a political party, or government officials. 

And we’re not just talking about Donald Trump here. Our Members have experienced it. Most recently journalists and executives at Slovenia’s public broadcaster RTVSlo were the target of online smears and abuse, some from prominent politicians.

Sadly, individuals threatening and attacking journalists online are rarely held accountable for their attacks even when journalists file formal complaints. 

Silencing journalists, not listening when they report abuse, and ultimately taking away their voice, is a very real threat to journalism. 

So what can be done about this? How do journalists survive this sometimes literal crossfire?

Again, media organizations have a responsibility to their journalists.

A responsibility to have proper guidelines and procedures in place to deal with abuse.

A responsibility to train and aid journalists in how to deal with technical blocking and psychological blocking of abuse.

A responsibility to act when threats are received.

A responsibility to ensure that journalists report the abuse and don’t just try to live with it with some kind of ‘its part of the job’ syndrome.

The authorities, however, have even more responsibility in that regard. To take complaints seriously and to act accordingly. To prosecute those who cross the line.

The public also has a role to play. If politicians and other powerful figures can launch verbal attacks on journalists with impunity, without public criticism, this can fuel further online harassment and intimidation of journalists. We all need to vocally condemn such attacks on journalists when they occur. 

There have been some positive signs. In the Netherlands, the police and public offices give priority to incidents concerning journalists. Concrete guidelines and training have been offered to law-enforcement services to better respond to threats against the media. In addition, a hotline enabling journalists to report acts of aggression and violence has been set up. 

The UK and Sweden have also taken action to protect journalists from abuse and harassment.

We expect the rollout of the EU’s European Democracy Action Plan to directly address violence – physical and online – against journalists. We will fully support the EU as it seeks to protect democratic freedoms. 

I believe all of this can help. But this is not enough...

Social media companies must be made more accountable. Digital platforms need to take more responsibility for the illegal content on their platforms.

Ultimately, we need to legislate for online violence. Only with laws and institutional safeguards to prosecute, and deter online abuse against journalists, will we see a lasting improvement in the situation. 

While online threats are relatively new, political pressure on journalists, particularly public service media journalists is not new.

There are many places all over the world where press freedom has declined over the past year.  An increasing number of governments, including in Europe, are trying to silence opposition voices by restricting freedom of the press. 

Journalists in a range of European countries have complained in recent years. Just in the recent months, the independence of our Member Czech Television has been under threat. 

We’ve seen the increasing politicization of its governing body and a concerted effort to undermine management.

A more extreme case has been Belarus, particularly since the elections last August when we’ve seen an increasing number of domestic and international journalists imprisoned, their families also subjected to threats and the broadcast of ‘confession’ videos. This cuts at the heart of press freedom and democracy. 

The EBU has publicly supported journalists at our Belarus Member BTRC who have been protesting against government interference and their own management. Recently the EBU, in response to broadcasts made, took the exceptional step of suspending BTRC’s membership of the EBU pending a response period from them.

But the EBU does not carry sole responsibility to act here, even though we do seem to carry a lot of the activist and political attention. Other organizations, including the EU itself, have an obligation to take appropriate action where required to put increased pressure on governments in these places. 

There are signs that the EU is looking more closely at this and we welcome talk of an EU Media Freedom Act and the signals that powers within existing directives to ensure independence of regulatory bodies will be enforced. 

I support such actions and I believe in some countries they could have a positive impact - but I am under no illusions about the scale and depth of the problems. Suspending Members or countries will not change their or their government’s practices. 

But it does make a statement to others and sometimes, you do just have to draw a line. We have values as an organization. We expect certain standards. And when they are completely disregarded we will take appropriate action. It’s an approach other international organizations will also have to take in the years ahead.

Will quality journalism survive?

I certainly hope so, 

BUT only if we can overcome perhaps the biggest threat of all,

Global players controlling the delivery of content solely for commercial gain.

We must overcome the challenge of getting quality journalism past the gatekeepers that control and shape delivery of content. And of getting them to pay for the content they monetize.

It is a massive threat, and the solutions to overcome it, require time to implement.

We can have the best content, created by the most talented, bravest journalists in the world, but if it is blocked, or disrupted before it reaches the audience, it will have little impact. 

Prominence – or findability as it is often called – is a crucial principle to ensure citizens are sufficiently aware of public service content, and other content of particular value to society. What’s the use in having the best most trusted content in the world available if you can’t find it online?

The recently proposed EU Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act give us an opportunity to address some of these issues in the EU region at least.

But the devil will be in the detail. 

These pieces of legislation will have a heavily debated journey through the EU legislative process and coming up with effective rules will take time. I urge you all to actively participate in the debate. It’s an important time.

To conclude I would say that yes, the crossfire for journalism is increasing and becoming more and more dangerous.

Yes, the obstacles from political forces, criminal forces or even a jaded and skeptical public are not easy to overcome.

But what I’ve tried to do here today is to say there are solutions. There are concrete steps forward.

Although ‘journalist’ has not been in my job title for quite some time, I still passionately believe that we must continue to strive for the ideals and values that have driven journalism for decades, particularly in public service media.

We need to modernize our approach to our profession in the digital age.

We have to challenge the dominance of global platforms that can restrict consumers’ access to the very content they most trust, value and rely on. 

We have to be open to new partnerships and collaboration with both the public and the private sectors.

We need to protect, train and invest in our journalists and their journalism.

And we have to stand firm and strong and united against online and physical abuse and against political pressure. 

And we see the rewards. We saw them in the last year. For years we have told that public service media is a dinosaur. An out-of-date irrelevant concept. Yet when the biggest crisis since the second world war hit last year, where did audiences turn, when they were at their most vulnerable – to the dinosaurs. All audiences young and old. Linear and digital. They turned to the same organizations in many cases that the public turned to in the 1940’s.

We are still relevant. We are not doomed to just manage decline.

2020 was a great year for journalism. A great year for public service media and its journalism.

That gives me hope for the future.

Written by

Noel Curran
Director General

+41 22 717 2005