Should we help the media? Relive our debate with Manfred Bühler and Stéphane Estival

On February 13, 2020, the Swiss people will speak out on the “federal law on a package of measures in favor of the media”. For Parliament, this aid, valued at 151 million francs a year over seven years, would ensure the future of a diverse local press in Switzerland by supporting paid online media. On the opponents’ side, we see above all a real danger to the independence of the press and the media.

So what to do? To help you position yourself, the elaboration of the Climate invited you to follow and participate in an online debate with:

Manfred Buhler. At the head of the Berne SVP, he also chairs the Aktion Medienfreiheit (Action for Media Freedom), an association committed to a liberal media world. He opposes that law.

Stephane Estival. Director General of the ESH Médias group, he is also President of Médias Suisses, an association that aims to defend the interests of print media publishers in French-speaking Switzerland. He supports that law.

The discussion was moderated by Vincent Bourquinjournalist responsible for the Swiss section of Climate.

Why support this initiative?

Stephane Estival: I remind you that these measures are mainly aimed at strengthening and saving the regional media. This is in particular to allow them to continue to inform the local population. This is an extremely important set of measures for these media. It is a balanced package, it was voted on by a good majority in Parliament, almost 59%. The large majority will benefit small and medium-sized publishers who will receive 80% of the aid, contrary to what opponents may claim. It is an essential and crucial package, and if it does not go through this referendum, there will be no alternative for a long time.

Why not support this initiative?

Manfred Buhler: Several problems arise. We have a federal Constitution that defines the competences of the Confederation and we must rely precisely on it to know what the federal state does and what it does not do. In the field of social communication, there is a constitutional article that concerns radio and television, but there is no constitutional article that concerns the online media, much less the written press. From there, we put the cart a little before the horse, proposing a big Christmas package, with aid in sectors that are not covered by the Constitution. We should first have a substantive debate on whether it is the role of the federal state to support the media, in my opinion it is not. I can live with certain measures, in particular discussing radio and television license fee sharing or assistance around postal delivery.

Is the media pack too heavy?

Stephane Estival: Support for print media is not new. It has been a beneficiary of indirect support from the Post Office for 170 years. These measures are simply intended to adapt that aid to a change in the environment.

Manfred Buhler: Newspapers have difficulties, I’m well aware of that. The branch must accept this pressure and restructure itself intelligently.

So you recognize that many media outlets are suffering?

Manfred Buhler: Yes, I insist. I am aware that some newspapers are under pressure. Solutions can be found in Switzerland through investors. I observe that in local coverage, mainly in my region, the models work without state aid. I do not believe that the amounts allocated make it possible to avoid the restructuring that will have to be carried out in certain cases. Much larger amounts would be needed.

Has the press sector not evolved enough?

Stephane Estival: The disappearance of some newspapers will not occur on February 14th. However, the situation will continue to deteriorate and disappearances will continue to occur. Behind is the problem of hidden media deserts that exist abroad. Do we want this situation to happen in Switzerland? It is not the GAFAMs (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft) that will process the local information. They make money today with the audience they generate in our regions, they don’t pay taxes, they don’t invest in us and at the same time they transmit, sometimes, dubious information.

Don’t you focus a lot on the top 3 Swiss publishing houses, forgetting about the small publishing houses?

Manfred Buhler: If we were facing a lighter package, with large groups benefiting less from this help, with more direction, for example, in digital transformation to attract young people to consume local information, I would enter the discussion. But that is not the case today. There, we will give a sum of money to the editors, and they will do with it what they want…

Stephane Estival: The numbers from the Federal Communications Office are clear. It should be remembered that 80% of the aid provided will be allocated to small and medium-sized independent newspapers. It is a reality. Opponents are making up a false situation, suggesting that the biggest publishers will take it all.

Why exclude free media from this help?

Stephane Estival: This aid meets several criteria, in particular the advertising share on pagination. If free media is, by definition, free, paid media requires an act of purchase. This implies, therefore, that the information is necessary for the person who buys it. There are two different business models. Also, with a free paper, all distributed copies are not read, a part is destroyed. And in 2022, it is normal that this type of product does not have the same aid as what is purchased.

Manfred Buhler: I can hear you saying that a free newspaper is full of pages of advertisements, and it shouldn’t have any help. But I note that the giveaways also offer quality content, with local journalists. There is, therefore, a form of discrimination for people who work for these media.

After all, isn’t there too much media in Switzerland compared to its population?

Stephane Estival: No, given the richness of local life in Switzerland, its political structure. And it is, moreover, this Swiss specificity that is at stake today. In addition, the audience is there, the readers too, which proves the need for titles that still exist. The problem is linked to the sharp drop in advertising revenue, the money went to the United States, to GAFAM. It dropped from over 2 billion to almost 500 million for our branch.

Manfred Buhler: Yes it’s true. Capital flight is a problem, but it cannot be stopped. Twenty years ago, video stores rented VHS or DVDs, then streaming arrived. The branch did not ask for state help to maintain a model that was no longer adequate. A fundamental transformation has taken place, journalists have lost their jobs, I’m aware of that, but the industry needs to find niches to continue providing information.

Is the current press model out of date?

Manfred Buhler: The state is an actor in public life. When you create a new flow, with such a big dependency on state, you create dependency. It is a risk of indirect political control. Above all, we don’t want to play political games, it’s a danger I don’t want the media business to be in. We already have these discussions around the licensing fee, when there is no political control. So imagine if the initiative passes…

Stephane Estival: For a long time, we have implemented paywalls in our online content. Our readers today are used to this. We are experiencing significant growth in online subscriptions. The example of video clubs mentioned above is not comparable to our situation. For the customer, switching to Netflix hasn’t changed much. On the other hand, when he no longer finds qualitative information produced by local journalists, and for that he will have to go through Facebook, it will be totally different.

Does the media law challenge media independence?

Stephane Estival: The media already receive indirect help from La Poste. Independence is enshrined in law. Aid is granted on the basis of purely technical and administrative criteria, nothing more. All newspapers, if they respect these criteria, will be supported. Their editorial positioning will have nothing to do with it. In my opinion, it’s mostly the opposite: the current independence of the newsroom poses a problem for certain political parties…

The SVP, a party that criticizes the media for being too leftist?

Manfred Buhler: This is a reality when we look at media production as a whole. And journalists’ political leanings tend to be much more leftist. Name me some right-wing media. There are, but very few. The press gives the impression of defending the views of the left, or rather, the center-left. But this is not about punishing the press by rejecting these aids. The press should reflect the diversity of points of view well, so that more people are ready to subscribe to the media.

People who are dissatisfied with a particular article produced by a media probably won’t get revenge by voting no?

Stephane Estival: It’s a current trend. As soon as we write something that is not suitable, the screams increase. If there are media of opinion, most media do objective work, it is the basic job of the journalist. Readers follow us, the audience is there. The problem is the drop in advertising revenue. Continue and will continue.

The “fake news” marked the pandemic, is it not in this period that we should support the press?

Stephane Estival: To fight fake news, we need a press that verifies. If we don’t have all this anymore, it will be the disappearance of democracy, of the ability to live together and fall into the silo of the algorithms that govern social networks. This is why the press is necessary for our democracy.

Manfred Buhler: It is not up to the State to solve all problems. In the case you mention, it is quite necessary to go through training, namely compulsory schooling. I also have no doubt that 99% of Swiss are now able to differentiate between true and false information.

If the media is suffering, what are opponents offering to help them?

Manfred Buhler: There are a number of mechanisms that exist today that can be strengthened: assistance with postal delivery, royalty sharing with radio and television. We are open to discussing other targeted aids, but it will be necessary to produce a better package than planned today.

Finally, what will the people gain if they vote in favor of the initiative?

Stephane Estival: The people will gain the support of their press, the local press. This is the main point of this initiative.

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