Opinion has been split on how best to handle state press subsidies ever since the Press Subsidies Council (Presstödsnämnden) agreed on Wednesday to award 2.3 million kronor ($321,000) in operational support to Nationell Idag (‘National Today’), a weekly newspaper run by the extreme right-wing National Democrat party.
Culture Minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, herself formerly a delegate on the subsidies council, said a review was needed of guidelines prohibiting the council from taking a publication’s political views into consideration.
“Even if this is about freedom of expression, that’s not the same thing as using taxpayers’ money to support this type of media,” Adelsohn Liljeroth told public broadcaster Sveriges Radio.
But the minister’s view was countered by Jan Strid, a media professor at Gothenburg University.
“What opinions should we pay for then? This is one small way of restricting the liberty of the press, which is under enough threat today as things stand. Either we change the press support system and get rid of it completely or we give it to everybody,” he told Stockholm daily Dagens Nyheter.
Strid was also critical of Fokus magazine’s editor-in-chief Martin Ahlquist, who “must have known” before stepping down from his post on the council in protest that existing regulations prevented the council from taking a political stand.
Madeleine Sjöstedt, the Liberal Party head of Stockholm’s Culture and Sports Division, exhorted the culture minster to abolish Sweden’s system of press subsidies.
“I call on culture minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth (Moderate) to go to the ministry and draft new legislation abolishing press subsidies, rather than distancing herself from those whose job it is to put her decisions into practice,” Sjöstedt said in a statement.
“Press subsidies should have ended a long time ago. They’ve served their purpose. It’s almost ridiculously out of step with the times to believe, in our digitalized age, that citizens require a daily paper from each of the blocs in every town,” she added.
The European Commission gave Sweden a rap on the knuckles last June for maintaining a system of press subsidies that “distorts competition”, calling on the country to gradually cut back its support for large circulation metropolitan newspapers.
“The commission recognises the importance of media pluralism for the cultural, democratic and public debate in member states and the importance of newspapers in this context,” EU Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes said at the time.
“However, running a newspaper is also a commercial activity and the commission has a duty to prevent undue distortions of competition and trade resulting from public subsidies,” she added.
In its decision on Wednesday, the Press Subsidies Council ruled that Nationell Idag fulfilled the criteria necessary to qualify for operational press subsidies. For example, the council found that the newspaper publishes more than 1,500 copies, is primarily sold to subscribers, and publishes at least 1,000 column metres of editorial material per year.
Nationell Idag was granted 699,583 kronor for August to December last year, as well as 1.679 million kronor for 2010.
The decision did not enjoy unanimous support, with one of the nine council representatives present calling for a further examination of whether Nationell Idag can be considered a “general newspaper that has the publication of regular general news as its primary function.”
On its website the Press Subsidies Council explains that it is “a governmental organisation whose task is to safeguard the diversity of the daily newspaper market. It carries out its function by distributing the state’s subsidy to the daily press.”
The council disburses operational subsidies totalling 483 million kronor a year to around 80 newspapers.