Written by Noel Curran, this opinion piece originally appeared on Euractive on 6 December 2017.
We have all had our fill of references to ‘fake news’ – to the point that we are no longer sure what it means. However, that should not blind us to the fact that significant issues are at stake in the digital world.
Regulators, media organisations, politicians, journalists and the public have allowed the digital revolution, with all its opportunities, to turn into ‘digital dominance’ by a handful of large internet players. This has allowed for a space where fake news can freely flourish.
News media organisations are now spending a lot of money, at a difficult time, fact-checking information on platforms that dwarf them in scale, income and resources. Does the belated conversion of these platforms into third party fact- checking tools go far enough given the extraordinary incomes they generate?
This 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 all of us in the industry and those outside the industry who understand what is at stake?
The EBU, representing 73 public service media organisations across 56 countries, welcomes the European Commission’s engagement on fake news and is keen to have an open exchange of views with all stakeholders in the debate. The creation of an EU Commission High-Level Group on Fake News is a good step in this direction.
We need a voice, many voices, in this debate. This requires sitting down with policy-makers, internet companies, journalists, broadcasters, and all those who have something to say. We are not external to any of this. It affects all of us.
In parallel to the questions of trust and social media, there has also been an increasingly relentless attack on the impartiality of what is often termed the ‘mainstream media’. Impartial news reporting has become a target of both the left and the right on the political spectrum in many countries.
In Germany, the derogatory term “Lugenpresse”, or lying press, has re-emerged, bringing with it ugly memories of a past era. In Finland, broadcaster YLE has been forced to call in the police because of a mail and social media intimidation campaign. There are so many other examples.
The notion of impartiality itself is now routinely attacked through political strategies across the board, with social media as the main weapon. 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?
The media landscape is changing against the backdrop of the emerging power of social media and tech giants. It is increasingly clear to all of us that we need to re-assess the relationships between news media and giants like Google, Facebook and other significant platforms. Both sides have a compelling reason to re-imagine this new relationship.
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, an extraordinary figure.
We now have a situation where huge conglomerates making minimal investment in content generate extraordinary incomes, at least in part because they are a source of news. And it is news that people increasingly distrust. Meanwhile, we have news organisations, public and private, that invest in strong reporting and news programming that retain relatively high levels of public trust but are struggling financially, particularly in the digital world.
The greatest protection mechanism of news organisations is the high-quality content they produce, and the connection they foster with their audiences. Nowhere is the value of journalism more vivid than in specialist investigative reporting, a key contribution of news media to society.
But delivering quality investigative programming is incredibly difficult, risky, contentious and costly. There is very little low hanging fruit. This journalism needs to be properly funded. It also needs appropriate regulation to protect that funding, public and commercial, and that regulation needs to be argued for loudly, if this is truly to be a ‘Golden Age’ for journalism we wish for.
Noel Curran is the director general of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). He is the former director general of RTÉ in Ireland, an award-winning investigative journalist and producer. Noel attended Trinity College, Dublin, and graduated from Dublin City University in both European Studies and Communications, specialising in national and international broadcasting policy. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Journalism at Dublin City University.