Noel Curran, EBU Director General, welcomes delegates to News Xchange 2023 in Dublin:
Hello everybody. It’s a privilege to welcome you all today and open this incredibly important conference for our industry - and a crucial event for the EBU. I want to thank everyone who has been involved in organizing it, particularly our partners at C21.
They have created a programme that features a varied and fantastic array of speakers - people who create the news in every sense of the word – and focuses on the critical issues that need to be front of all our minds.
I’m particularly delighted to be here because I’m on home ground.
I was born just a few miles from the Northern Irish border at the height of the troubles. Devouring the news was a daily ritual for my family – news from RTÉ, from BBC, from ITN. We turned every day to national and international news organizations to get a wider perspective on something that was just happening up the road.
We had a relationship with those outlets because we felt they were speaking directly to us – and that we could trust them.
That’s the impact of news done well. News funded properly. News that has a values system that underpins its professionalism.
That experience has never left me. It’s one of the reasons I became a journalist and my younger brother after me. I started out in commercial media and subsequently worked at RTÉ as a reporter, news editor, TV producer, then Editor of Current Affairs and, later, Director General.
I’ve now been Director General at the EBU for six years. My experience in both public service and commercial media means I’ve seen the highs and lows of both – and the common battle grounds we all face. That’s what I want to talk about today.
What is common for all of us, is that challenges facing news are growing and the road ahead for all of us is bumpy.
The business model shift from print to digital has been successful for some but for most is still a work in progress.
Digital has given us greater choice – absolutely and it's to be welcomed and cherished– but it is also giving us a growing dependency on algorithmic editorial selection that could reduce the choices we actually get to see and make.
Greater need for immediacy has led to less time for thoroughness.
A more polarized world has led to a more polarized journalism, more direct government interference, more threats to our journalism and awful personal abuse of our journalists.
And the giant social platforms have become our very own Venus flytrap, tempting us in with access to wider audiences, dangling younger audiences before us, becoming more essential to us and yet always likely to close shut on our own business model development as soon as theirs takes a different path. The Facebook experience.
Last week’s Reuters Institute Digital News report has generated some controversy, which is a whole separate debate, but I do think that those of us who care deeply about news cannot but be worried by the demographic trends we see ourselves and which the report has highlighted.
I have two daughters, thirteen and eleven. The eldest has a keen interest in writing, in literature and in what’s happening in the world. A campaigning interest like so many of that wonderful generation rather than an observational interest but a keen interest nonetheless. I hope they are years away from even considering what they will do with the rest of their lives - but I do wonder would I encourage her if she showed an interest in being a journalist. I would support her completely obviously but would I actually encourage her. I don’t know is the answer.
And that is coming from someone who consumes up to ten digital news sites a day, who still likes the feel of paper with a coffee in a quiet café and who has never had a single second’s regret about working as a journalist.
And yet, and a big yet, all this uncertainty and challenge I have just listed comes on the back of a three-year period of Covid and war when the importance of news, its relevance, its connection with audiences and its downright brilliance were clearer to see than it has been in quite a while.
That’s why this conference is important. We need to nurture, develop and transform this thing we all love. We need to be happy to see the next generation take it on and change it and make it better.
And of relevance to everyone here today, we need to share our experiences, share knowledge and insights and learn from each other. We need to cooperate and find common ground.
The theme of this conference – Frontlines of News – couldn’t be more timely, not just because of war in Europe but also because we’re all operating on so many fronts, ethical, technological, editorial, commercial.
During the next two days, we’ll be taking a deep dive into these challenges.
But in concrete terms, what can we really do together to counter them. Sometimes our first defence, should be to attack, to call out. Take the pressure on our independence and on our journalism. We need to and we can speak publicly together to spotlight those cases where there has been government interference, when there have been attempts to shut down or stifle news reporting, and also – chillingly - when journalists are verbally and physically threatened.
Most recently, EBU joined worldwide calls from public and commercial organizations for Russia to reverse their unlawful detention of Wall St Journal reporter, Evan Gershkovich. Evan continues to be held in a Moscow prison with no date set for either his trial or his release. This is unacceptable and we cannot forget Evan or the countless other journalists like him.
These are the extreme cases. There is also the day to day bullying of newsrooms around Europe directly by governments or sometimes even by their government- appointed management proxies. We see it amongst our own membership, particularly but not exclusively in Eastern Europe and it is rising. Today public media, tomorrow private. It is a common threat because once a government learns to flex those authoritarian muscles, it becomes addictive and no one is really safe. That’s why I would like all of us to speak together on these issues with one powerful voice.
But even more important than our words are our actions. As a news community, we also need to continue to take risks. As someone who was privileged enough to work in this area, I know that one of the most difficult, impactful, rewarding but also risky types of journalism is investigative reporting. In recent years there has been a big shift in investigative reporting practice: from an “old model” of a highly competitive, single newsroom environment to a “new model” of multiple newsrooms (and countries) sharing information to expose the big stories that have global resonance.
EBU wants to be part of this shift. That’s why we launched the EBU Investigative Journalism Network. It supports major investigative journalism initiatives by sharing sources, resources and intelligence; and includes talented journalists from across Europe – many from your media organizations.
A few months ago, they collaborated on a hugely ambitious, in-depth investigation into the forced transfer of hundreds of children from occupied Ukraine to Russia. The story has been shared not just by our Members but by media outlets all over the world. The International Criminal Court has since issued an arrest warrant for President Putin for war crimes. This showed the real power of collaboration.
But we also know that our individual member organizations are also working with commercial broadcasters and newspaper groups, producing important investigations distributed around the world. Recent technological developments have opened a whole new range of investigative possibilities for our journalism and we need to seize that moment now. Such co-operation is something EBU is happy to encourage and invest in.
Another topic for discussion at the conference is inevitably AI. We are increasingly and rapidly becoming aware of the threats it poses to our industry and indeed our world. But I passionately believe that we still need to embrace it – it's not new, it's here, it will become a bigger and more seamless part of our lives whatever we think of it.
So as a community we need to give it a big, warm, but regulated hug. A hug where we all feel the technological change and improvement but also the transparency, the accountability, the ethical standards.
This is one of the most important areas where I feel we can work together in the months and years ahead. Regulatory approaches are only really being formulated now, with the AI Act in Brussels and with regulators around the world grappling with the rapid progression of this technology. We need to shape that legislation as an industry.
But even those initiatives are only scratching the surface of what I believe will eventually be enacted. That’s an opportunity for us. It’s also an opportunity where I believe public and private have so much we can do together.
As an industry we also need to continue to innovate and share our innovation. News is at the cutting edge of technological and editorial innovation but we all know that requires constant development, investment and, yes, collaboration.
At the EBU we’ve developed two powerful tools with the support of so many of you in this room. A European Perspective which enables audiences to access stories from across the continent, in their own language, and NewsDeck which gives journalists the option to search and consume stories from more than 30 sources, again in their preferred language. We are committed to continuing this technological journey with you.
But change is about more than technology. It has to be also about how we tell our stories, how we reach our audience. We all know firsthand the trends highlighted by the Reuters Institute. We are losing younger demographics.
That will require a fundamental rethink of how we approach news for that generation – and not just in distribution. In choice of stories, in presentation, in narrative and fundamentally in who we recruit as journalists now and in the future. We are blessed in Europe with fantastically experienced and professional journalists who care deeply about what they do.
But I visit newsrooms all around the continent every month and there is a sameness to what I see – in terms of background, race and age profile. As there is at the EBU to be honest. We all need to look at ourselves and ask do we have the right mix of staff to ensure we nourish our experience but also appeal to a generation who are growing up with very little knowledge of what we actually do.
People matter. Chat GPT and its next iteration will become a part of all our lives – but our journalism will still require journalists. Most of all we need to value, protect and invest in them. Their analytical skills, their stubbornness in getting the story; their willingness to put, in many cases, their personal safety aside; their ability to connect with the people at the centre of a breaking news story. These qualities can’t be replicated by amateurs, algorithms or artificial intelligence. We see it every day in the reporting from the frontlines in Ukraine.
And the quality and impact of that coverage has to give us hope for the future. I like to kid myself that, despite the rapidly greying locks, I am not that old. But I started journalism on a typewriter – the last year of the typewriter in our office but still a typewriter.
Look how far we’ve come. I have been hearing for over a decade about the imminent demise of news – death by digital, death by algorithm, death by indifference. The list goes on. But yet here we are. How many hundreds, yes hundreds, of millions of people will have accessed news output yesterday from one of the organizations represented in this room or at this event. How many tens of thousands of people will have worked to provide that news. We still have a huge relevance. A challenged relevance that we need to re-define but a relevance nonetheless. We are still a significant force.
At the EBU, we are defined by our alliances. As well as having 112 public service media members across 56 countries, our Eurovision News Exchange, led by our fantastic Head of News Liz Corbin, brings together public service newsrooms from more than 50 countries. Non-EBU participants in this event have your own alliances, your own worldwide operations.
We want to open our community more to yours on areas where we have a clear ability and need to co-operate and collaborate. We want to find common ground with everyone who believes in news and wants its importance to our society to grow not diminish. At the EBU we want to form alliances – because we can tackle the Frontlines of News if – and only IF - we stand together.
News Xchange is an opportunity to get the ball rolling, to network and share, as well as take a step back and consider the broader challenges of what we do and how we do it. We’re all here because we believe in news journalism – we’ve committed our careers to it - so let’s make it count. We have much to talk about.
Thank you very much.