‘EU shouldn’t define who’s a journalist’: union

Swedish journalists have joined European colleagues in criticizing an EU report urging that bureaucrats be able to dismiss reporters, and noted that its authors did not consult the European Federation of Journalists.

'EU shouldn't define who's a journalist': union

The report, released in January, recommended that bureaucrats be given the power to “remove journalistic status”.

“It is not up to politicians to define who is a journalist,” Arne König, the Swedish president of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), told The Local.

The recommendation read: “Media councils should have real enforcement powers, such as the imposition of fines, orders for printed or broadcast apologies, or removal of journalistic status.”

The EFJ recently posted a reply to the high-level working group’s recommendations, which The Local was given access to.

The federation said it had not been consulted by the working group, despite several offers to the EU Digital Media Commissioner Neelie Kroes, who assembled the working group, to give its view on the issues at hand.

“We deeply regret that the Commission and the [high-level group] did not consider the only truly representative journalists’ organization as a valuable stakeholder to be heard and listened to,” read the letter.

The reply also inferred that the high-level working group had breached one of its own recommendations of multi-party dialogue by failing to include the union in its deliberations.

König told The Local that the Commission and the EJF normally had frequent and productive meetings, and underlined that at this stage the report was simply a non-binding proposal.

“The high-level group doesn’t have any legislative mandate, so the proposal could end up in the bin,” he said.

The EJF also underscored that what they called “the cases of spectacular misbehaviour of a small group of UK journalists” should not be allowed to taint all European media.

The letter added that it was inappropriate to make “the ‘Leveson’ issue an EU issue because there is no ground for it,” referencing the UK’s Lord Leveson inquiry into the News of the World wiretapping scandal.

The union was not wholly critical of the report, which, among other things, called for “vigilance” at a time when media ownership, especially online, is becoming more concentrated.

“The dominant position held by some network access providers or internet information providers should not be allowed to restrict media freedom and pluralism,” the high-level group report noted.

“I do welcome that the report talks about media ownership and that it calls for greater transparency,” König said.

“From the Swedish point of view, transparency is needed when the union takes on copyright infringements. One of our members in Sweden can have their work stolen by a media outlet anywhere, and we need to know who the owner is in order to go to court.”

He echoed the report in saying that greater transparency was especially important in the would-be union member states. The high-level group recommended that “a free and pluralist media environment must be a pre-condition for EU membership.”

“Media ownership is particularly opaque in eastern Europe, where many owners prefer to remain in the shadows,” König said.

“We had a case in one of these countries where a journalist wrote a very critical article about an organized crime boss, who turned around and told her ‘I own this paper, who the hell are you, you little sh**, to write such things about me?'”

The woman in question had not been privy to who financed the media outlet.

“Journalists need to know who they’re working for,” König said.

Traditionally, he said, the EU had stayed far away from media questions. König welcomed that the report had underscored the democratic importance of the free press.

“But then they miss the target with the ‘media councils’, and they completely miss the target when they start talking about defining what a journalist is.”

Ann Törnkvist

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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.