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SVT hits back over news agency wedding boycott

Sveriges Television (SVT) is to send a strongly-worded letter to news agencies AFP, AP and Reuters who boycotted the royal wedding after an argument over rights, seriously affecting global exposure of the event.

SVT hits back over news agency wedding boycott

“We are going to send a strongly-worded letter to Reuters tomorrow,” said Helga Baagö at SVT to news agency TT on Sunday.

The letter will be signed by SVT head Eva Hamilton.

“We will outline just how we think they have handled this,” Baagö said.

The agencies had bought 90 seconds of film material from the wedding ceremony inside the church but reacted angrily to the clause that they were only permitted to use the clip for 48 hours and in the end elected to boycott coverage of the wedding entirely.

AFP published a statement to its subscribers on Saturday afternoon, shortly before the wedding ceremony was due to start, saying that “due to restrictions by Swedish public television SVT on images of the marriage … (AFP) will not distribute text, photos, or videos” of the event.

Christine Buhagiar, who heads AFP’s video service AFPTV, was quoted as saying that the amount requested by SVT “largely surpasses the market price,” while SVT has meanwhile insisted that the price was “standard.”

Sweden could have lost valuable publicity over the boycott and many articles penned by smaller agencies were later published without pictures as a result.

The foreign ministry had been allocated extra funds to distribute information about Sweden in connection with the wedding, work which was complicated by the boycott.

The broadcasting rights were negotiated between the Royal Court and SVT, who then struck a deal with the major international media agencies.

But when the four parties sat down to sign the contracts, the agencies reacted strongly to the 48 hour restriction on the use of the filmed material.

The agreement with SVT would, according to the agencies, have meant that many viewers in Europe and North America would not have been able to see the footage until several hours after the wedding ceremony.

The three agencies contacted the Royal Court on Saturday morning in the hope that it would intervene, but to no avail.

In an email addressed to the head of communications at the Royal Court, Nina Eldh, the agencies said that “owing to the impasse over unrestricted television news access to today’s wedding ceremony, Reuters, AFP and the Associated Press have decided to withdraw from coverage of the event.”

In the email, also copied to Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, the agencies said they “will not be distributing still pictures, text or video reports relating to it anywhere in the world.”

“We have made this decision reluctantly and at great cost both to ourselves and our subscribers,” they said, calling on the court to come with “any suggestions you might have as to how the situation could be resolved.”

AFP global news director Philippe Massonnet said “this battle aims to enable us to better inform the public.”

He went on to decry “the increasingly commercialised use” of large events by their promoters.

“This has become common in sports but now affects all kinds of events, especially involving celebrities,” he said.

But Helga Baagö has rejected the arguments and arguing that it is clear why the agencies acted like they did.

“They are trying to raise the stakes to create new future possibilities for earning money, by trying to argue that they should have the rights at a lower price or without any restrictions – so that they can continue to sell the material on to their customers,” she said.

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MEDIA

ANALYSIS: The conservative Swedish news site that crashed and burned

How did a would-be "Swedish New York Times" rise and fall only months after its launch – and what lessons can the media world learn from the story of Bulletin, asks journalism professor Christian Christensen in this opinion piece.

ANALYSIS: The conservative Swedish news site that crashed and burned
Bulletin was marketed as a place where Swedes on the political right could feel at home. Photo: Helena Landstedt/TT

I imagine a Swedish newspaper inspired by the UK’s quality press or their American counterparts – such as the Times of London, the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. Which makes a distinction between news and views, between news and opinion, and which strives to make its readers more enlightened, rather than to pursue an agenda.

These words were published in late December 2020 by Paulina Neuding, editor-in-chief of the newly launched online newspaper, Bulletin. Four months later, Neuding and almost the entire editorial staff, had left Bulletin after a series of embarrassing mistakes, organisational shake-ups and a brutal public conflict with ownership. Taking over as the new editor? A former senior staffer from the New York Times who cannot read or speak Swedish, knows little about Sweden and who will edit the paper from his home in New Jersey.

How did we get here?

Marketing itself as a place where Swedes on the political right could feel at home, Bulletin was created, Neuding wrote last year, to provide “liberal conservative” opinion combined with “evidence-based and neutral” reporting. These comments were made within a very specific context: conservatives in Sweden consider mainstream Swedish media outlets to be predominantly leftist or centre-leftist in ideology. The national public service television (SVT) and radio (SR) channels are particular targets of the right, with steady accusations of leftist bias. Research, however, shows that claims of leftist bias in Swedish news media, including public service broadcasting, are without merit.

So, Bulletin was born. Investors put down around 8 million Swedish kronor (around €800,000); well-known media columnists and personalities signed on to give the site name recognition; and, Swedish media (mainstream and social) gave Bulletin a great deal of coverage and free advertising. If the hype was to be believed, Bulletin could be an interesting case of a new, “high quality” right-wing news outlet entering the Swedish media market.

Despite the PR and hype, however, Bulletin imploded in what can only be described as the most spectacular of fashions.

For all of the lofty talk of inspiration from highbrow Anglo-American publications, Bulletin was always more likely to resemble the anti-immigration Daily Mail Online, or a slightly more serious version of Fox News, than the New York Times or Wall Street Journal. Multiple commentators in Sweden noted that the purpose of Bulletin, rooted largely in the ideology of the primary financiers of the project, was to serve as a messenger for the anti-immigration conservative right.

The content during the early weeks of the publication only confirmed this. Heavy on re-hashed wire service stories and opinion pieces, and thin on actual journalism, Bulletin marked itself with stories and articles centering around immigrants and immigration, and particularly those related to crime and cultural clashes. Evidence of “evidence-based” reporting in the vein of the New York Times was almost non-existent.

But, as it would turn out, low-quality anti-immigrant content was the least of Bulletin’s problems. The outlet was marked from the outset by deep and fundamental structural problems, as well as the presence of owners who saw Bulletin as their own, personal messaging system.

Read more opinions about life in Sweden:

After just two months on the job, Paulina Neuding inexplicably stepped down as editor-in-chief, handing the reins to former columnist Ivar Arpi. As would be revealed later, after discovering that a Bulletin co-owner had published an article on the site without her knowledge, Neuding had the piece removed. The resulting conflict led to her stepping down.

Only a few weeks later, the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published a piece showing that Bulletin had plagiarised over 20 news articles, with material taken verbatim from press releases, wire service articles and even other media outlets. Adding to the crisis, free speech expert Nils Funcke argued in a separate article that Bulletin did not have the proper legal structure in place to offer their sources protection and anonymity; and, in addition, the lack of proper legal structure made those who wrote the stories legally responsible for the content, rather than the publisher (the standard for Swedish news outlets). In short, Bulletin was nothing like an actual news outlet.

At the start of March, the wheels had come off, and open warfare broke out between Bulletin owners and editorial staff. Senior editors accused owners of undermining editorial integrity by using the platform to publish personal pieces without oversight. Owners, on the other hand, accused editors of being both dishonest and incompetent. Publicly. On Facebook. An audio recording was even leaked to the media trade newspaper Journalisten documenting a heated meeting between Bulletin staff and owners. The situation became untenable, and by the end of March editor-in-chief Arpi and several other senior staff announced their resignations.

What are the lessons of Bulletin?

First, the story exposed the fallacy of the idea that if you combine well-known media “personalities” with some money and hype, you can overcome an almost total absence of editorial experience and organisational structure. Bulletin put all of its eggs into the celebrity basket by recruiting famous conservative columnists who had little or no experience either editing a daily newspaper or starting a news organisation from the ground up. The results became immediately obvious to anyone who actually looked at the website.

Second, Bulletin is a classic case study of media owners who think that their investment gives them the automatic right to dictate the content of their outlets. This is nothing new, of course, and owners influencing content – either directly or indirectly – is a feature of many privately controlled outlets around the world. What is unusual in the case of Bulletin, however, is how explicit and how public was the exposure of that tension.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Bulletin is a particularly brutal case study in reaping what you sow. The investors, and many of the media personalities they recruited, made their names by attacking the ideological biases and political agendas of mainstream outlets in general, and public broadcasting in particular, as well as advocating for increased freedom (often in form of the free market) from what they see as an oppressive state apparatus. And what happened? The media personalities ended up working for an outlet that displayed the bluntest forms of corporate bias and owner interference. Those who resigned from Bulletin were not simply victims of aggressive owners. They were, first and foremost, early and willing participants in a media venture that reflected a worldview they had themselves pushed and defended.

That this conservative outlet, which published multiple opinion pieces lamenting the decline of Swedish culture, is now edited by someone sitting in a foreign country who is literally unable to read the stories he publishes is perhaps the perfect conclusion to a tale of media failure.

Christian Christensen is a professor of journalism at Stockholm University in Sweden.

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