Check against delivery.
I am delighted to be here today to open News Xchange 2017. I’m pleased that the EBU can bring such a diversity of executives, journalists, presenters, and technologists together.
I am particularly delighted to be here given my own background. I grew up a few miles from the border with Northern Ireland at the height of the conflict in Ireland. I still remember the important daily ritual of sitting down with my father and younger brother to watch RTE, BBC or ITN news broadcasts to get different perspectives and insights into what was happening just up the road.
That experience I think inspired me to become a journalist, as it did my brother. Since then I’ve worked as a reporter, news editor, tv producer and Editor of Current Affairs. I have also worked in the commercial and public sectors of media and I know first hand the challenges and quality of both.
Like everyone here I care about the news and journalism, where it’s going, and how the best of it can be sustained, improved, and made more relevant. I have never claimed that public service media has a monopoly on quality when it comes to News but we do have particular, sometimes legal responsibilities for News provision. I have always welcomed those responsibilities and I still feel passionate about the impact News allows public service organisations to have with our audiences.
Given the hectic pace of News, events like News Xchange are particularly important. They should allow us to stand back a little, reflect and consider the broader challenges and consequences of what we do and why we do it. The digital revolution has massively expanded the reach of news, democratised comment, allowed new voices to be heard and driven innovation in our industry. The last few years have also taught us some pretty fundamental truths. We also know that revolution has made it is easy to find information of all kinds, but much harder to know what you can trust and rely on. We know it’s easy to find people, perspectives and media outlets that you agree with, and just as easy to avoid and ignore those that you don’t. We know it’s easy to find small communities of interest, but much harder to bring big diverse audiences together for anything worthwhile. We know it is now easy to publish, aggregate and comment, but much harder to find the financial support for tough investigative journalism, beat reporting and international reporting. However, public and private, commercial and licence fee funded - all of us who care about News and its importance in society must try to find the common ground between us and try to affect change.
The EBU, representing 73 broadcasters in 56 countries, is willing to open a discussion and form new alliances on important issues that affect all of us in media. We are willing to take a leadership role with others in trying to identify this common ground with those outside of public service media and push for change. And there is a lot of common ground for discussion. I think we’ve all reached our threshold of hearing references to the term ‘fake news’, whatever that actually means now. But that shouldn’t blind us to the fact that significant issues are at stake in the digital world. We may now be entering a phase where a political and regulatory reaction is coming. The recent congressional hearings in Washington about social media and the US elections have increased debate and attention on this issue worldwide. How and at what speed authorities will react we don’t know. But those of us involved in news production, both public and commercial, need to be heard in this debate. News media organizations are now spending a lot of money, at a difficult time, fact-checking information on platforms that dwarf them in scale, income and resources. Do the platforms late conversion to third party fact- checking tools and alerts go far enough given the extraordinary incomes they generate? We need a voice or many voices, in this debate. We need to express our views with the regulators who are considering change and with the companies themselves who are trying to pre-empt the regulatory reaction. We are not external to any of this. It affects all of us.
In parallel to the increased questioning of the role of social media and its role in the news, there has also been an increasingly relentless attack on the impartiality of what is often termed the ‘main stream media’. Impartial news reporting has now become a target of both the left and the right in many countries. As the EBU’s Bill Dunlop, in his excellent EBU report ‘Perfect Storm’ describes, in Germany, the derogatory term “lugenpresse”, or lying press, has re-emerged, bringing with it ugly memories of a past era. In Finland YLE has been forced to call in the police because of mail and social media intimidation campaign. There are so many other examples. Also in the political world, the notion of impartiality is itself now being routinely attacked as a key part of political strategy everywhere. A few weeks ago I was reading a lecture by broadcaster Nick Robinson and was struck by his reference to Paul Mason - formerly a distinguished colleague of his at the BBC and Channel 4 – who is now a campaigner for British Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn. Robinson quotes Mason as saying: "we see the media as the enemy navy. We need our own navy." This is from a former senior BBC journalist! Similarly when President Trump says he wants to use social media to go ‘around’ the news media does it not really mean he wants to use social media to go through them ?
Impartial news media is now a key target and social media and video sharing platforms are part of a new toolkit for undermining it. How news media organisations react to these changing dynamics is critically important. Here again there is much common ground, room for dialogue and discussion. Do we actually discuss these issues together at a senior level outside of media conferences like this one? I’m not sure we do but I am sure we should do. There is also common ground on the elephant or elephants in the room. Those huge giants that we all find ourselves talking about but have yet to take any sort of common approach to. Is it pure fantasy to think that news organisations, private and public, might take a more coordinated approach to our discussions with the social media and tech giants? It is increasingly clear to all of us that we need to see the development of a totally new relationship between Google, Facebook and the other significant social media and video sharing platforms and the news media. (And I welcome delegates from those organisations here today.)
Both sides have a compelling reason to re-imagine this new relationship. Social media giants need content and, increasingly in the face of criticism and regulatory threat, they need more credibility and trust. The news media needs much stronger revenues and investment, and the brilliant technological expertise and innovation these companies bring. Time is certainly ticking away for this dialogue. This year Facebook and Google will likely take over 50% of all digital and mobile net ad revenue worldwide, over $US 190 bn between them. Their dominance seems to be increasing, with some estimating that over
90% of all global digital ad growth last year was shared between them. That’s an extraordinary figure. We now have a situation where huge conglomerates generate extraordinary incomes without content investment, partly because they are a source of news, that people increasingly distrust. Meanwhile we have news organisations, public and private, that invest in strong reporting and news programming that retains relatively high levels of public trust are financially struggling, particularly in the digital world. In television in particular there has long been a value attribution across the chain from programme maker, to broadcaster to distributor. It is far from perfect but there at least is an appreciation by each party of the critical co-dependencies. For example, a broadcaster assigns and airs a report, and the journalist and production team are paid for their work. Any semblance of fair recognition of mutual value is hard to find in the relationship between social media and video sharing platforms and quality news organisations. Yes some of those companies have begun to bend a little, particularly Facebook. Yes there are now some content supply deals with some publishers. Yes, you will see more publisher logos on some content. Yes Facebook has a journalism initiative and has signed up ten publishers for a mobile app trial that pushes users to a paywall after ten free clicks. Yes there are other examples of this that will be quoted. But given the scale of income that they are generating, given their unprecedented reach of billions of citizens, it is hard not to feel that this is all a very late drop in the ocean.
What about data sharing, real concessions on prominence, structured ad revenue agreements based on usage. The list goes on. The imbalance is undermining news organisations - organisations that are key components of the democratic process. Surely it is more than time for meaningful mutually beneficial discussions between us? Both sides have so much to offer, just imagine what we could do together. But news organisations, public and private, must also work together as part of that discussion. A US organisation involving 2000 media outlets, The News Media Alliance, is seeking changes in anti-trust legislation that will allow them to negotiate as a group with tech and social media companies. Surely, if the cut-throat competitive US market can reach that point of co-operation, we media organisations public and private in Europe can at least have conversations ! The EBU, representing public service media across Europe, are open to those conversations. In the meantime news organisations also have our own responsibilities and we cannot lose focus, particularly in public service media. The greatest protection we have is our content and our connection with our audiences.
The best journalists, presenters, programs and news organisations have always met the challenge of willful misinformation head on, on air and in print. And the sheer stubbornness, persistence, skepticism and relentlessness of great journalists cannot be replicated by amateurs or algorithms. Nowhere is the value of journalism more vivid than in specialist investigative reporting. The recent Paradise Papers investigation, the Olympic doping scandal revealed by ARD, the NOS investigation into the MH 17 crash as well as numerous other examples from organisations in this room show the dogged persistence of our profession. Investigative reporting is one of the key contributions of news media to society and is a core value for public service media. I’ve been involved in investigative journalism as a reporter, producer, editor and manager at various times since I left university. If I’ve learned anything during those 25 years, it’s that delivering quality investigative programming is incredibly difficult, risky, contentious and costly. There is very little low hanging fruit. But we all need to continue to invest in it, despite the financial situations we face. Society needs this reporting, now perhaps more than ever. But that journalism needs to be properly funded. It also needs appropriate regulation to protect that funding and that regulation needs to be argued for loudly. The content generators, the people who actually invest in content and invest in News need to find more common ground if this truly is to be the golden age of journalism we wish for.
I wish you all a fruitful News Xchange. Thank you.
Author / Speaker
Noel Curran, EBU Director General
Source / Event
News Xchange 2017, Amsterdam