Monday, October 22, 2012

The undesirable consequences of Norwegian press subsidies

What constitute a democracy and what specific requirements have to be present in order for a political system to be described as such? Numerous books and thesis have been written on the subject in an attempt to define the true meaning of the word. However when dissecting this question and analysing it methodically one soon realizes that the answer to this question is pretty much straight forward and there is no need to write lengthy books and elaborate on the issue in tedious and boring dissertations. The most important criteria that need to be present for a democracy to exist are a free and unrestricted exchange of opinions and ideas. That’s really all there’s to it. For a democracy to exist its citizens must be able to freely and without the fear of being persecuted express their views on issues such as politics, religion and society in general. Remove any one of these conditions from the equation and a society cannot in good faith be classified as a democracy as it invariably engages in some form of suppression of certain views and opinions. The correct way of describing the act of restricting political views is of course censorship, which has been an indispensable tool of every dictatorship that has ever existed on this planet, its main purpose being to silence views and opinions that it find undesirable and which could jeopardize its position.

In the end however the task of ensuring that a society is free and just fall upon the citizens themselves. But at the same time an extra responsibility falls upon the shoulders of the media as they are the only ones that can provide the framework for a system where the exchange of ideas and opinions can occur on a large scale. The media is the sum of everything that takes place in a society and thus it is the purveyor of essential information that the citizens of a free society need to make sound decisions. The information which is presented to the citizens will ultimately determine which political party ends up in government and thus get to execute their ideas and stake out the future course of the nation. Bearing this in mind it’s of the utmost importance that the media is honest and impartial and that it follows these principles religiously. If the media is unwilling to honour these values then the society in which it exists cannot truly be described as a democratic one.  The last time these principles where set aside in Norway were during the Second World War when the German occupying forces carefully controlled the flow of information and banned any news that questioned its authority.

It shouldn’t really be necessary to debate why the restrictions imposed on Norway during the war aren’t preferable or desirable. Most people understand that it is a bad idea to allow the media to become the mouthpiece of the authorities. During the Second World War the German occupying forces and their Norwegian collaborators made no attempts at hiding the fact that they were censoring the news and everyone in Norway knew what was going on.  It can be a little bit trickier to detect when certain basic principles are put aside in what appears to be a seemingly normal and healthy democracy. For a newspaper or a political organization to publicly admit that they are using the media for their own purposes would be disastrous and be akin to political suicide. But just because no one is willing to publicly admit it doesn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t happen. To allege that the media in Norway are permitting themselves to be used by political forces isn’t as farfetched as it sounds and this is what we are going to take a closer look at in this article.

But before we go there let’s take a closer look at the role of the media and the principles they should try to uphold. As mentioned earlier is it not necessary to write a book about the subject or dissect it in a long and boring thesis. We can simply cut to the chase and narrow it down to two basic and very simple factors.  The media should be unbiased and honest, meaning that it shouldn’t favour any political parties or steer clear of any difficult subjects because of any perceived undesirable consequences it would cause for the political parties involved. It is the role of the media to accurately recount events, to truthfully analyse political news and to shed light on issues that affect the citizens of a society. Personal opinions and political advocacy should be left to bloggers and political organizations, and not be disguised as serious journalism.

There are several factors that will help us to determine whether a newspaper or newsagency is biased or not. One of the most obvious ways of establishing this it is by studying the stories they print. Are they offering both sides of the story or are they focusing unduly on one aspect? Are they favouring certain political factions or are they presenting all political parties in a fair and balanced manner? Another important indicator is the political leanings of the journalists themselves. Are they allowing their own personal opinions to shine through and influence the content of the articles? And more importantly, who is funding the newspaper and what are the political agenda of these financial backers? Because funding does play an important part in deciding the impartiality of the media. Would it be fair to question the integrity of a newspaper if a political organization donated large sum of money to it at the same time as the newspaper was reporting on the political organizations and disguising it as serious journalism? The obvious answer to that question has to be a resounding yes. In a court of law a motion of conflict of interest would be reached if a judge was in position where he was likely to favour one of the pursuant due to financial or personal interests. It all boils down to personal integrity. One of the most important responsibilities of a newspaper is to keep a critical eye on political organizations and decision makers. When the people or organizations that the newspaper is supposed to keep an eye on start paying the wages of the journalists writing about them the lines start to blur.

In Norway representatives from the media and various political parties have on several occasions, and in particular when it comes to the theory of manmade global warming, discredited research on the basis that it is purportedly sponsored by large oil corporations that would benefit from the discrediting of said theory. In taking such a standpoint they are indirectly admitting that funding does have an impact on the impartiality of the one sponsored. And this brings us to the main issue of this article, which is that the Norwegian press subsidies cast a very dark shadow over the impartiality and integrity of the media in Norway.

Each year the media in Norway receives indirect and direct press subsidies to the amount of Nok 6 billion. The biggest chunk goes to NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation) which is the national broadcaster and which up until the mid eighties was the only available TV station for the majority of the population in Norway. The rest of the subsidies go to regional newspapers, many of whom would not be able to survive financially without this additional cash infusion. And what is truly disconcerting is that the media in Norway, with very few exceptions are almost undistinguishable ideologically from one another and by and large share the views espoused by the authorities. The media hardly ever challenge the political establishment in important matters that go against the official line. In Norway both the media and the political establishment are staunch supporters of multiculturalism and hence the media refrain from questioning the establishments’ official policy on this issue. The same thing can be said about manmade climate change, formerly only referred to as global warming, a theory that both the media and the authorities believe passionately in. Keeping that in mind it would not be unreasonable to argue that the media in Norway often mirrors and promotes the ideological views of the authorities who in return heavily subsidizes the same media.

 Is this really a desirable scenario? Wouldn’t it be better for all parties involved if the question of impartiality couldn’t be contested? Wouldn’t it be better if the media refused to accept any financial funding and avoid answering questions about hidden agendas or financial backers with scrupulous intentions? Isn’t it in everybody’s interest to have an independent media without any political ties? From an ethical perspective there is no question that this would be the preferred solution and that maintaining today’s’ practice puts the media and the authorities in a very peculiar light.

How the media subsidies in Norway work

In Norway newspapers receive approximately Nok 2 billion in direct and indirect subsidies each year. Direct subsidies are distributed by the Norwegian media authority which processes applications for direct press subsidies and decides which newspapers are eligible for such funds. The subsidies vary in size from year to year. The newspaper that is currently receives most direct funding from the authorities in Norway is Dagsavisen, which in 2005 received a staggering Nok 41 millions in direct press subsidies. Indirect subsidies refer to the system in which Norwegian newspapers are exempt from having to pay sales tax on newspapers sales. In addition to press subsidies paid out to various newspapers the national TV broadcaster NRK receives approximately Nok 4billion annually in direct subsidies which is financed through a mandatory TV license scheme.

The idea of introducing press subsidies in Norway were first launched in the early 1960’s after several newspaper were forced to close down due to financial difficulties. One of the major media corporations in Norway A-Pressen, which at the time was co-owned by LO (Norway’s biggest Labour Union) and the Labour Party (The Labour Party sold its shares in 1995) proposed the scheme as a way to compensate for dwindling newspaper sales. The scheme was approved and passed in 1969 which was also the first year that press subsidies were distributed.  It should also be noted that A-pressen received 42.1 percent of the overall subsidies the first year and that the traditional conservative newspapers received only a modest 19.5 percent. This was due to the fact that the conservative newspapers were smaller and thus not entitled to the same amount of subsidies as the newspapers owned by A-Pressen. The disparity in subsidies continued to increase in favour of A-pressen in the following years and several of the conservative newspapers eventually had to throw in the towel and allowing A-pressen to greatly enhance its market shares. This would tend to indicate that the press subsidy scheme was instrumental in creating an undue advantage for A-pressen over its conservative counterparts.  

It should also be noted that the press subsidy scheme favours the main rivals of the biggest regional newspapers and that this happens to a very large extent to be newspapers owned by A-pressen. The biggest regional newspapers in Norway only receive indirect subsidies while the number two newspapers receive both direct and indirect subsidies. This is problematic when considering that A-pressen is one of the biggest media corporations in Norway with more than 100 newspapers in its portfolio and that it is a majority shareholder in the national commercial TV station TV2. It is also disconcerting when considering that A-Pressen is strongly affiliated with the Labour Party and that it is a firm supporter of Labour Party policies.

The justification for having press subsidies in Norway is to support smaller newspapers that would otherwise struggle financially and to ensure that there is diversity in the media in Norway. This was the stated intention when the scheme was passed by parliament in 1969. Based on this information one would expect that the media in Norway to be very diverse and that it covers a wide spectrum of opinions and ideas. Unfortunately this isn’t the case. On the contrary there hardly exist any major ideological differences between the newspapers with a few minor exceptions, which clearly go against the stated philosophy of the scheme, which is to increase diversity in the media. As a matter of fact the exact opposite has occurred, namely that the subsidies have favoured newspapers that are closely linked to the ruling Labour Party and those supporting Labour Party policies. This overlapping of public funding and political interests puts the entire industry in a very negative light and leaves it wide open to criticism and it raises the unavoidable question about whether the press subsidies are designed to be exactly what the opponents claim it is, namely a cunning system to booster support for the Labour Party and to promote its policies.

If the sole criterion behind the scheme is to create diversity in the media and give a helping hand to newspapers that otherwise wouldn’t survive then it’s fair to assume that newspapers that qualify for the grants wouldn’t be rejected based on the editorial content of their newspapers. The philosophy behind the scheme is that the more a newspaper diverges from the existing and established the more likely it is to receive funding from the authorities. But unfortunately this isn’t always the case. Both the Christian newspaper ‘Norge I dag’ and the financial newspaper ‘Finansavisen’ have had their application for press subsidies rejected based on their editorial content and format.  The justification given to ‘Norge i Dag’ for the rejection was that the content of the newspaper wasn’t up to standard and that it didn’t cover enough cultural news stories. To be fair it should be pointed out that the newspaper ‘Norge i Dag’ is a weekly newspaper and that slightly different rules apply, but even so the rejection clearly shows that the decision is left to personal whim of the bureaucrats that are tasked with approving press subsidies applications. That a rejection has adverse consequence for those affected and that it leaves them with a disadvantage compared with does that are successful in obtaining subsidies is obvious.

The consequences of press subsidies

One of the consequences of the Norwegian press subsidy scheme is that every single newspaper journalist in Norway is sponsored annually to the sum of Nok 430 000. There are nearly 3 500 journalists working in newspapers (not including magazines and weekly/monthly newspapers) in Norway and the annual total press subsidies amounts to Nok 1.5 billion. On top of this NRK employs approximately 2300 journalists out of a total workforce of roughly 3500, which means that each journalist working for the TV channel is subsidises each year by a staggering Nok 1 140 000. We are indeed talking about astronomical sums of money here just to ensure that journalists in Norway don’t have to worry about losing their jobs. There is no question that the number of journalists in Norway would be considerately lower had it not been for the press subsidy scheme and NRK’s mandatory annual TV licence fee. There would also have been considerately fewer newspapers without the scheme, which takes us to the heart of the matter which is that journalists and newspapers in Norway are dependent on direct funding from the authorities to survive. The labour Party and the Socialist Left (SV) are strong supporter of press subsidies unlike the two main conservative parties FrP (Progress Party) and HΓΈyre (the conservatives), which basically means that it is in a journalist’s best interest to ensure that the Labour Party remains a strong political force in Norway. Political surveys carried out among Norwegian journalists also show that journalists by and large support the Labour Party and SV. Very few journalists support any of the conservative parties. This disparity in political leaning among the journalists could of course be a mere coincidence, but then again it could also be a result of the press subsidy scheme and the media’s dependency on it.

If the original goal of the media subsidies was to encourage diversity in the media then it has definitely failed in accomplishing this. This became especially noticeable in the aftermath of the terror attacks in Norway on July 22, 2011. Despite the blatant incompetence of the various public agencies in the lead up and during the attacks which almost borders on criminality and which can be directly attributed to the policies of the ruling labour Party that has been in government since 2005, not a single newspaper expressed any criticism towards the Labour Party and the prime minister Jens Stoltenberg who theoretically bears the ultimate responsibility for the fiasco and the sorry state of the affected agencies which was supposed to prevent and respond to the attacks.  Even after the official July 22 commission presented its report on what went wrong that day, a report which was basically an unadulterated accusation of the Labour Party and the top echelon of the party, none of the newspapers in Norway called for the dismissal of Jens Stoltenberg or any of his top Government ministers, and one really has to wonder why. Why didn’t one single journalist or one single newspaper raise this issue? There are more than 200 newspapers in Norway and more than 10 000 journalists whose job it is to report and analyse current events in a truthful an honest manner. Why didn’t a single one of them point the finger at the country’s top leadership?

It was equally distressing to see the almost indistinguishable media response in the days and weeks following the attacks in which the Norwegian media targeted conservative bloggers and independent websites, both national and international and indirectly accused them of being ideological contributors to the tragedy. The media’s response almost seemed orchestrated, something which shouldn’t be possible when taking into consideration the sheer number of newspapers and journalists in Norway. Thus it is not unreasonable to speculate about whether this almost uniform response has something to do with the Norwegian media’s financial dependency on the authorities and the way the press subsidy scheme has managed to greatly restrict the diversity in the media to where it is today where it almost appears to speak with one unified voice when it comes to big important ideological issues.  The main problem with this is of course that there is a very real danger that biased reporting will influence and shape the views of the readers. If alternative views and opinions aren’t presented to the readers then how will they ever be able to truly form independent opinions?

If the media deliberately refrain from covering certain issues or covering issues in a biased manner can it really be referred to as journalism? Some believe that the subsidizing of the media can be equated to corruption and they do have a point. No one with a good knowledge of Norway can deny that there exists strong ties between the trade union LO and the Labour Party. LO is one of the main financial contributors to the Labour Party and the labour Party have reciprocated this loyalty several times by awarding special concessions to LO and its members. The trade union owns a large chunk of the newspapers in Norway, as a matter of fact almost half of all the newspapers in Norway are owned by LO through its shares in A-pressen. We also know that it was the Labour Party and the LO that were the driving force behind the press subsidies scheme which they are staunch supporters of to this day. One could be tempted to say that one hand feeds the other something that shouldn’t take place in a supposedly democratic western nation.

Labour Party and public opinion in Norway

Up until the mid 1980’s Norway only had one national TV channel which was and still is one hundred percent publicly funded. Those living near the Swedish border were able to access Swedish state television, but for the great majority of Norwegians NRK was the only alternative. NRK has for many years enjoyed a monopoly on TV and Radio broadcasts and it is no exaggeration to claim that it has been the most influential opinion maker in Norway up through the years and that it has been an important tool for the authorities and it still is to this day. It is the responsibility of the Norwegian government to appoint members to the Broadcasting board which then again appoint the CEO of NRK. It is somewhat of an open secret in Norway that the political leaning of the CEO is more important than qualifications and politicians from all political parties in the country have at some stage  stated that the political leanings of the CEO will influences the presentation of the news. The most vocal proponent of this view was former leader of the FrP (progress party), Carl I Hagen who simpl referred to NRK as ARK (Arbeiderparties rikskringkasting – The Labour Party’s Broadcasting Corporation) as in his opinion the broadcaster blatantly favoured the labour Party and was equally blatant in its hostility towards the FrP and its policies. As a curiosity it’s worth mentioning that NRK up until quite recently has refused to show boxing on TV due to former CEO and Labour Politician, Bjartmar Gjerde’s strong opposition to the sport. This bizarre ban resulted in Norwegian boxing fans being unable to watch highlights from the match between Steffen Tangstad and Michael Spinks for the European heavy weight title in 1986 on NRK, a match by the way which Steffen Tangstad lost.

The Norwegian authorities have always been fiercely protective of NRK’s broadcasting monopoly and this became especially clear in the late 1970’s and early 80’s when they aggressively pursued and closed down independent pirate radio stations operated by idealistic youths who wanted to challenge what they saw as an undemocratic practise. In 1981, in an exceptional show of force twelve police officers raided the apartment of pirate radio activist Rolf Pedersen in Stavanger (City on the west coast of Norway).  Inside the apartment the police found Pedersen and his mom, both of whom were taken to the local police station for questioning. The police also confiscated Pedersen’s transmitter equipment which was the aim of the raid. Pedersen along with several other young activists had on several previous occasions been arrested by the police for disregarding the NRK monopoly. In the end however their perseverance paid off and they were instrumental in breaking up the NRK broadcasting monopoly. And in December 1981 Rolf Pedersen was finally given the first official permit to open up a local radio station in Norway. Looking back it’s hard to understand the reluctance on the authorities’ part to refuse small local radio stations to operate alongside NRK. It’s equally difficult to comprehend how the authorities could justify dispatching 12 police officers to Pedersen’s apartment in order to shut down a tiny pirate radio station. It is also troubling to witness the desperation of the authorities and to see how protective they were of the NRK monopoly. The response of the Norwegian authorities was very similar to that of former eastern bloc dictatorships trying to crack down on political dissidents.

But despite the progress made by small local radio stations which started to pop up all across the country in the following years, NRK still had a monopoly on TV broadcasting and when the first private satellite dishes started to emerge in Norway the police was initially instructed to confiscate the dishes and fine the owners. The justification for going to such drastic steps was exactly the same as the one the authorities used to arrest pirate radio activists, namely that the satellite dishes were in breach of NRK’s TV monopoly. The authorities however finally started to realise that they were fighting a losing battle as the sale of satellite dishes pretty much exploded in the mid 80’s and they eventually caved in and decided to allow private ownership of satellite dishes, and thus the slow erosion of the media hegemony of the Norwegian state continued. 

Again it’s worth asking why the authorities were so reluctant to allow other news broadcasters to tap into the Norwegian market. After all the incentive for the press subsidies was to ensure and facilitate media diversity i.e. to ensure that different opinions and ideas were able to flourish. However looking back it becomes evident that the actions of the authorities have always been in clear violation of these principles. Their actions have always been counterproductive in bringing about media diversity in Norway. The fact that we now enjoy a considerable more diverse media landscape than in the early 80’s is largely due to the actions of private individuals and organizations that have had to endure persecution and harassment from the authorities for having the guts to take them on. Based on this knowledge one really has to ask the question whether the authorities are really interested in having diversity in the media in Norway, and if the true purpose of the Norwegian press subsidy scheme to restrict this diversity.

Another troubling consequence of the lack of distinct political ideology in the media in Norway is that it has become harder to differentiate between the various political parties in Norway. Today there are hardly any ideological differences between the big political parties, excluding the Socialist Left and some very minor fringe parties that have no real political influence. And one has to wonder why the political parties over the last couple of decades have gradually become more alike. Today there are hardly any opposing voices in political circles in Norway when it comes to multiculturalism, social security and climate change. Some very minor differences still exist between the political parties, but not to the extent seen in other nations where true political differences can still be found, which basically means that voters don’t really have any meaningful political alternatives to chose between. There could be several reasons for this dramatic political change, but it’s not unreasonable to speculate that the media have managed to bring about or at least been able to substantially influence this ideological process. Media has a lot of power and they are the most important opinion makers in Norway today. And when they stop or are reluctant to engage in honest and independent journalism and instead starts engaging in ideological based reporting this will with have an effect on the political views of the readers.

A desirable alternative

Most people would agree that diversity in the media in which a wide range of opinions and ideas can be found and debated is an ideal scenario. However, history has shown us, at least when it comes to Norway, that the authorities are ill equipped to bring about such diversity. It has always been private individuals and enterprises that have cleared the path for more diversity in the media in Norway, despite the authorities’ attempts at preventing them from doing so. And the fight to bring about true media diversity in Norway has gained momentum in the last decade and it has managed to put some serious dents in the authorities’ ambition to control the minds of the masses. In today’s digital age with tens of millions of blogs and independent internet based news sites it seems almost impossible for the authorities to control and restrict the free flow of information and ideas. Consumers of news are also gradually changing their habits and are at least in the Scandinavian countries turning to online based independent news sources. And there’s no denying that with the introduction of the internet in Norway people have really started to challenge the media consensus and force the media to cover stories that they wouldn’t otherwise touch. And this is a welcome change; because the more opinions and angles a reader is exposed to the better equipped that reader is to make informed decisions.

Where do we find greater political diversity, in a place like Norway where the media is almost indistinguishable from one another or in a place like the USA where the diversity in the media is diametrically greater and where different opinions and ideas are not suppressed by the authorities? Newspapers do not have to be sheltered and artificially kept alive by the authorities. Normal marketplace mechanisms should decide whether a newspaper has the right to survive or not. A quality newspaper will always be successful and manage to turn a profit. That’s what we should strive for, not to maintain a couple of hundred newspapers that are merely blueprint versions of one another and when true media diversity has been established political diversity will follow and that is as close as we will ever get to an ideal scenario.

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