Which is more important for media in society? Security snoopers or Wikileaks? Or is it the collapse of traditional business models with the rise of social media? Swiss journalists came together at the Fourth Journalistic Assizes on 27 October at the Swiss Press Club in Geneva. Contributing editor Peter Hulm reports.
Europe’s private print and public broadcast media are battling each other for supremacy online. But they are aiming at the wrong targets, says Mogans Blicher Bjerregard, Danish President of the Federation of European Journalists (FEJ). “No single [pound or euro] will move [to private media] from the public sector,” he declared in Geneva on Wednesday. “It will move to Google and Facebook. Advertising is going over the Atlantic, through Ireland.”
Speaking at the Swiss Press Club in a panel on future business models for media, the FEJ President insisted that he is not against Google or Facebook. He just wants them to pay journalists for the content these Internet giants use.
Why should we bother? Bjerregard declared: “It is important to have a pluralistic media market, especially in small countries. Democracy will suffer, especially if you don’t have it — public support for media.”
What works, what doesn’t
Denmark and Scandinavian countries have given direct subventions to newspapers or support for distribution. But newspapers are still dwindling in circulation or shutting down, reducing the amounts governments have to provide. So that is not the answer. Denmark’s journalists persuaded Parliament in 2014 to support content production, giving aid on the basis of the number of journalists employed. and by supporting an innovation fund.
This has helped online startups, and kept newspapers going even when their companies merged with rivals. Since journalist employment was a prerequisite of support, they maintain two newsrooms. The cost: about 60 million euros.
News to make a Swiss editor envious
For Christiane Pasteur, co-editor-in-chief of the Geneva leftist newspaper Le Courrier, such measures only arouse envy, as she admitted. Le Courrier’s production team have agreed to take one week’s unpaid holiday to pay for CHF 120,000 more in mailing costs as a result of higher charges imposed by the Swiss post office. The newspaper recently reduced its production from six to five days a week (with an expansion of pages), and only survives by appealing to readers for CHF 300,000 each year to make up its budget shortfall.
But its formula is different from Switzerland’s commercial press. Advertising accounts for only 15 percent of its revenues. It has no big subsidizer or political party behind it (it was the Geneva Catholic newspaper until 20 years ago — hardly a large audience in this Calvinist and left-wing city).
The price of taking ads
Subscriptions account for 72 percent of revenues. But in an attempt to increase earnings, it agreed to run an ad from the right-wing UDC/SVP before the current Parliamentary elections. Several readers have cancelled their subscriptions, she admitted. “We got a lot of negative reactions,” she told a reporter. Less controversially, Le Courrier is also running/sharing articles with La Liberté from Catholic Fribourg and from the non-denominational Le Monde diplomatique to expand its national and international coverage.
This panel discussion took place during the 4th Journalistic Assizes organized by a group of reporting associations and Amnesty International. The overall theme was Investigative Journalism in the era of Wikileaks. But with a Zurich University study just published that showed 15-29 year-olds (the Selfie generation) aren’t interested in news, or content, even digitally (surprise!), the final plenary on business models came to the forefront.
Gaël Hurlimann, editor-in-chief of Le Temps and L’Hebdo online, cautioned against over-generalization. The most seen item on Le Temps site is a video about the Armenian genocide of 1916, explaining how it took place. This video — a new project for the online service — has scored 350,000 hits, compared to 330,000 viewers for Switzerland’s main French-language news broadcast on television.
But not all were Swiss-French visitors, and the top comments about the video asked why there wasn’t a German or English version.
Google’s Digital Initiative
In fact, on 22 October Google launched a Digital News Initiative for Europe, promising up to 150 million euros over the next three years “to support high quality journalism and encourage a more sustainable news ecosystem through technology and innovation”. The august Neue Zuercher Zeitung has signed up for the Initiative but many at the conference were suspicious, noting that Google is notorious for having avoided European taxes on its activities.
One veteran journalist said freelancers like himself thought the Web offered them a communistic Shining Future free of control of information by publishers and broadcasting executives. Instead, he joked, they discovered “Google is Stalin.”
Bjerregard argued for journalists to be given extended licensing rights to their work. In the opening session, the Wikileaks spokesperson Christian Christensen came online by video from London. François Pilet from L’Hebdo, with his own redoubtable investigative history — notably for the HSBC Geneva tax-evasion scandal, pointed out that Wikileaks has changed journalism: media organizations that built their reputations on closely-guarded personal scoops had to collaborate with each other.
Christiansen described the process as being sometimes “like herding cats”. But Pilet praised the formula: journalists agreed to share information with each other and no money changed hands.
New Swiss law approved
Part of the reason for the conference, attended by 150 journalists, was to raise the alarm about a new Swiss law just voted by the Lower House of Parliament that would extend the security service’s powers to tap phones and cable connections (i.e. listening in on Skype conversations and monitoring emails).
Amnesty lawyer Alain Bovard said he expects the proposed law to be forced into a referendum under Switzerland’s citizen powers to challenge Parliamentary decisions. But he also expressed skepticism about the Defence Minister Ueli Maurer (UDC)’s assertions that it would only involve 10-12 cases a year. Over the three months’ of secret surveillance, that could mean thousands on thousands of communications. And which judge would refuse the prosecutor’s demand to monitor someone as a security risk? he asked.
You can ask but we can’t tell
Security specialist Stéphane Koch added that even under the current law, when he tried to discover whether he was in the security service’s files, the federal authorities told him they did not have the right to give him that information. Apart from the panel sessions, the meeting offered workshops on transparency and corruption in the sport business as well as the challenges of new technologies.
Investigative journalists themselves are not very good at playing the transparency game. As the afternoon came to an end, it was announced that the French and German investigative journalists’ associations would be merging, as investigativ.ch. Why? We weren’t given any explanation.
And when Sylvia Gardel, deputy editor-in-chief of the long-form pay-to-view Swiss website sept.info, was asked how much money its investor was putting into the business to keep it going for a promised three years, she had to admit she did not know.
As moderator for the session, Edgar Bloch, pointed out, the investor had a private company and did not have to reveal his finances. Different kinds of leakers Myret Zaki, editor-in-chief of the bi-monthly magazine Bilan was also at pains to distinguish between Wikileakers and other whistle-blowers who have been making the headlines lately.
While Wikileakers such as Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange have paid with serious loss of liberty for following their idea of justice, the financial fraud whistle-blowers such as Hervé Falciani (HSBC) and Bradley Birkenfeld (UBS) have made money from their acts. Birkenfeld was even given $104 millions. Angelo Mincuzzi, the Italian journalist who helped Falciani write a book on his experience, observed that Birkenfeld’s reward was less than 4 percent of what U.S. authorities recovered as a result of his revelations ($780 millions).
But Zaki recalled that, in fact, French authorities passed on the Falciani information to U.S. authorities. “You don’t need protection for the French government,” as distinct from the other whistle-blowers, she pointed out. In fact, she added, there was suspicion that this was all part of a battle between rival financial centres.
“London is in war against Switzerland,” an Indian investigative journalist in the audience declared, to murmurs of agreement, recounting problems to get English-speaking media interested in a Swedish arms bribe scandal involving India.
For those who want their blood chilled by new technology’s spying powers, five minutes with Stéphane Koch will leave you deep-frozen. WolframAlpha, a highly regarded search program, can produce an online map of your Facebook contacts if you ask it. Think what it means for your security when there were 81 blind hacking attacks against sites by penetration programs every minute in 2014.
Amnesty offers the DETEKT program to detect traces of commercial spyware, but even that can be phished by copycat sites (unless you go through GITHUB with a software signature that guarantees authenticity). Koch also recommended the TAILS operating system, designed to preserve privacy and anonymity.
But governments are not necessarily interested in exactly what you are saying. In the first instance, they’d rather know which people you are communicating with, he observed.
Use two-step encryption
Nevertheless, he recommends a two-step process for encrypting data, maybe even creating 20 encrypted folders on your computer and leaving 10 them empty, just to slow down spying services (whether private or governmental cyber-mercenaries). And he himself puts his second step password on a thumb-drive that he has to insert into his computer. “This may sound complicated but you will eventually have to use something like this,” he told journalists. “Single passwords are just not safe enough.”
Peter Hulm is a journalist, communications consultant and academic based in Switzerland and Grand Bahama. Contact email: [email protected]