Meta-Academic Reflections from Inside the Swedish Public Service Broadcasting Commission

I am currently writing an article for the upcoming Ripe@2016-conference, Public Service Media In a Networked Society? set in Antwerp in a couple of weeks. The article needs to be finished before the conference, and my take is a kind of meta-academic reflections from the inside of the Swedish Public Service Broadcasting Commission, that I worked with during last year. In short, the article will describe the work we did in the Broadcasting Commission, as well as debates surrounding it. Yet, I will also argue that academics as lobbyists cannot be avoided when it comes to issues regarding the role that public service should play in a digitized and globally networked media landscape. The topic is timely – and in fact the start of my article uses the “open letter” to Alice Bah Kunhke (Swedish Minister of Culture and Democracy), that the board chair of Mittmedia, Jan Friedman, published in Dagens Nyheter print edition today (which was available online already yesterday). Thus, my article starts in the following way:

During August 2016, the major news story dominating all Swedish media—about other Swedish media—was inside information from a recent board meeting of the media group Mittmedia at Arlanda airport in Stockholm. Following rumours, Mittmedia, one of Sweden largest media group with almost 30 local newspapers in the midst of the country, would in a year to come conceivably cut 75 percent of editorial services—and as a consequence leave almost 500 local journalists unemployed. In a small country as Sweden, the news was outrageous, potentially affecting almost a million local readers. The scoop was published by the leading daily newspaper, Dagens Nyheter; instantly appalled and critical comments filled social media as well as as other news outlets (Delin 2017). As was to be expected, the Swedish Minister of Culture and Democracy, Alice Bah Kuhnke (from the Green Party), was interviewed. Ultimately, she does bear the utmost responsibility for national media politics. The Minister stated that Swedish media, and especially local newspapers, seemed to be moving towards “the edge of a cliff”. I did “not sleep well at all”, she asserted when the reporter talked to her the day after the Mittmedia-news broke. In fact, she was utterly concerned, arguing that these dreadful revelations did not “only mean something for individual journalists or media in general. It meant something unheard of for Swedish democracy” (Jones 2016). Due to the effects of digitisation and globally networked media, the present (and mostly grim) media situation in Sweden naturally resembles similar ones in Western European countries. Yet, what made the news of Mittmedia’s downfall so dismay to many, was that this particular media enterprise had been a digital pioneer among (at least) local media groups in Sweden. Then again, money were being lost at a fast rate, and the quite bleak scenario hence put forward by the board—all in order to try to steer Mittmedia’s strategies (and finances) away from a fruitless digital business model.

Leading the board of Mittmedia is Jan Friedman, a businessman and a professional chairman in a number of Swedish business boards. After reading about the Swedish sleepless Minister of Culture and Democracy, and her concern about Mittmedia he decided to send her an “open letter”. It was published a few days later in Dagens Nyheter as well. “Dear Alice”, Friedman began—within the private media sector most curves have been pointing in the wrong direction for years. “Subscribers are diminishing and aging, while advertisers prefer other channels [than local newspapers], especially foreign owned ones as Google and Facebook. Overall, most local media companies display diminished margins”, he lamented. Nevertheless, he contiued by explicitly addressing the Minister: you could “help us in different ways by forging an imprint that makes it easier for us and others to succeed.” You are the Minister responsible for our national media after all, and you “own yourself a toolbox”. In it, Friedman stated, are “four tools that would really make a difference.” He then divided his letter into four sections—each one for each tool—where the last three of these basically had to do with press subsidies and taxes. Friedman, for example, urged the Minister to reconstruct the contemporary Swedish press subsidy system, and sincerely hoped this would be the case when the on-going Swedish Media Inquiry—initiated by the government in May 2015—would present their long awaited proposal later in November 2016. Friedman furthermore argued for the abolishment of the so called Swedish advertisement tax (a truly peculiar tax on only print media advertising revenues), as well as the strikingly similar printing VAT, both causing a lot of financial troubles for local newspapers.

The point I want to make with this introduction, however, is that Friedman’s major concern was Swedish Public Service—and particularly so at the regional and local level. It was, in fact, the number one tool for the Minister to reconsider. Traditionally, both Swedish Television (SVT) and Swedish Television (SR)—which are linked entities, but remain two separate institutions—have been present across Sweden at various regional locations. Local public service, Friedman hence told the Minister, sometimes triggered stimulating competition, but more often it has proven “counterproductive”. Above all, Friedman stated, it is indeed “commercially challenging to meet part of SVT’s and SR’s free online services, while trying to make editorial investments and create tempting conditions for reader paid news activities in a digital world.” If even local news are free on or—why should users in the middle of Sweden pay Mittmedia money for the same news? Naturally, Friedman told the Minister, he was aware that the present Media Inquiry investigated this hotly debated question. Yet, he urged the Minister to really pay attention to the matter, and not let go of the issue of “public service increased negative market impact.” One concrete way, he suggested, to deal with the issue at the local level “could be to increase collaboration between private and public service companies … and even consider to privately outsource the kind of local media production that regional and local public service companies carry out today” (Friedman 2016).

Jan Friedman’s open letter—both friendly and sarcastic in tone—to Minister Alice Bah Kuhnke, is but the latest news item in a seemingly neverending media discussion around Swedish public service. The issue has naturally and historically been debated before. But during the last decade the discussion has become way more intensified, as testified by an a rapidly increasing number of articles in the Swedish Media Retriever Database. In 2005 a serch for “public service” generated 1,100 articles, ten years later the amount was 2,700 (Media Retriever 2016).