Enlightenment Beats Entertainment

Jan Stenbeck’s winged words, in their accurate simplicity, will survive MTG, Millicom and Zalando. To capture the entire modern society, however, one must make an addition that completes the circle:

Size beats everything, except ideas.

This macro variant of rock-paper-scissors captures most things in the world, from entrepreneurship to geopolitics and the media. The faster the changes, the more important it is to understand the basic game rules and values.

In Stenbeck’s field – entrepreneurship in the space between the mill and IT – the pattern has been clear, at least in retrospect. As long as the technology allowed, there was a strong state monopoly on broadcast media and telephony. New inventions opened the way for new business. Greater diversity, then tendencies towards commercial concentration, then political backlash.

When one is in this circle, and it is spinning like a dryer on high-speed, it can be difficult to see clearly. No one knows how the programme ends. The memory is short.

The ancient Greeks believed in living in the present, like a gifted fifth-grader noted. To comprehend that our Twitter democracy is coming, and what can be done to influence the direction of its travel, we must recapitulate the historical context.

Just a quarter-century has passed since 1990, when the political map of Europe and Sweden’s mental map was redrawn. On September 12 of that year, one of the greatest landslides occurred, when the victorious powers of World War II gave up control of Germany.

The mighty country was reunited and revived, but in a new place. The Cold War, with its imminent threat of nuclear destruction, ended abruptly.

If the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was the euphoric pre-party and the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 was the stale after-party, the autumn of 1990 stands out as the truly decisive moment.

Just a couple of days after the Treaty of Moscow, a smaller Berlin Wall fell in Sweden, and the coincidence in time was probably no accident. On 15 September, TV4 broadcasted for the first time and, since then, nothing’s been the same on the Ikea sofas. Sweden became the last country in Europe to legalise free, advertising-financed television.

In the shadow of these small and large revolutions of 1990 – TV 4’s fumbling premiere, the unification of Europe, the release of Nelson Mandela and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait – occurred slightly more discreet occurred. Possibly it would have an even greater significance:

The Nordic universities’ and college network’s data link across the Atlantic was upgraded to 64 kilobits per second. From that moment on, it was only a matter of time before the Internet, like the movie Matrix would take a hold on our lives.

We who were there must confess that we did not understand what to expect. Who had ever heard of Nordunet? It sounded like a duvet.

I started work in 1990 at Expressen. Sweden’s then largest and most profitable newspaper, with its own helicopters, staff parties so lively that the participants died, a monumental power over thought in Sweden and an equally monumental self-image.

Expressen’s first review of TV 4 was:

”Put down the shit.”

Public service broadcasters and newspapers reacted with the same insolent levity to commercial radio and television, as well as free newspapers and the Internet. It has cost them dearly, since the pendulum of time turned the other way.

The media houses that used to have automatic answering machines with the message ”You are employed” have fallen back on their savings, freezers and increasingly desperate measures to cut costs. The confidence that, 25 years ago, reigned at Expressen, DN, SR and SVT can now be seen at Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Amazon.

Everyone is suddenly a journalist. Everyone is a photographer. Everybody walks around with a high-resolution camera, a tape recorder, an encyclopaedia and GPS in their pockets.

Everything in our world is, as Tony Blair said, ”new, new, new”. When we talk about media development and democracy, with a public service that is the missing link between, the perspective becomes, ”old, old, old”.

Bonnier, Stampen and the Association of Journalists have every reason to be concerned. But what about the rest of us, as consumers and citizens? Must we also, like 2014’s inquiry into democracy, scratch our heads over the death of newspapers and the emerging information gaps?

Better to light a candle than to curse the screenshot. And say what you like about the internet – it has not been especially dark in the cottages.

Many now rail against the new giants, Google or Facebook, just as they railed before against the power of Bonnier. That which is lamented – journalistic principles, broad quality media, secure journalist jobs – has only just been stigmatised with the stamp of concentrated ownership.

Do not confuse commercial progress with democratic depletion. Technological leaps in the media have admittedly always come with a downside of turbulence, but information and education is not a zero-sum game.

Technology beats politics and money, of course. Size can triumph temporarily, as we see in the case of Google – a black hole of advertising – but ultimately ideas and principles win.

Therefore, it is ironic that a media giant like the German Springer is exercising its powers in Berlin and Brussels to try to slow down Google by political means. It is touching to hear the officials in the European Commission or the Chinese government complaining about the search engine’s power over thought.

These officials are not elected. Billions of consumers have, however, chosen Google because the company delivers outstanding services.

Competition laws should, of course, be maintained. The new information giants will be monitored and challenged like the old. The significant impact of the Internet revolution is still the decentralisation of the privilege of problem formulation – and an openness similar to the very essence of democracy.

The role of politics is not to put obstacles in the way, but to create the necessary complements, much as states once assumed responsibility for schools, railways, defence and cultural heritage.

The most important complement in the media is public service. However, should this priceless core of an enlightened country’s openness look different than it does today, when so much is changing? A modest proposal is to update the following:

Collect current public service, press and magazine subsidies and other government commitments in this area into a powerful new media venture –quality-oriented, innovative, tax-financed rather than licence-financed, independent and legally regulated according to proven models.

Decentralise production instead of keeping it behind a pair of Soviet colossi. The transition will not be easy, but all the best from SVT and SR will of course be kept, and further developed in the framework of overall journalistic responsibility.

Focus on news, politics, economics, culture, foreign affairs, reviews, debate – the central features of the media that fall between the cracks of click market. Entertainment, sport and American series are big enough to take care of themselves. The Eurovision Song Contest will be an interesting borderline case, as will Singalong at Skansen.

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Bury the goal that public service must, at all costs, reach the majority of the population. It was perhaps realistic and desirable in the 1990s, when there were a handful of channels instead of hundreds, and the purpose was to save the licence funding. In the choice between breadth and quality, between reality show and documentary, there is only one option.

Assume journalistic content rather than technology platforms. Quality is quality, whether it comes on TV, radio, computer, paper or on a smartphone or Apple Watch. If any format needs special artificial respiration through the public service in the future, it is probably the printed newspaper.

Think not only nationally but also locally. In a decade, 120 local editorial offices disappeared in Sweden – a third of the total. Meanwhile, the municipal audit is weak, while political commitments at the grassroots level are growing. Tax-financed local journalism is part of the response.

Concentrate the mission around the Swedish language and tradition, following the example of the BBC and British Council. Sweden is a small country but not insignificant in terms of ideas, culture, business. Openness to the world is our signature, egotistical nationalism need not apply, but public service has a particular heritage to cherish.

The hardest trick for public service will be to navigate the new media landscape where web TV, podcasts, blogs and more get forms of expression to converge. Broadcast journalists are expected to be able to write, publishing houses become TV houses, everyone competes with everyone in all formats.

Linear TV’s and paper newspapers’ reduced scope leaves a void quickly filled by other actors, other content. There should be a public commitment to secure a core of quality in this brave new movement.

To achieve this, public service must help itself more, particularly in the digital sphere. I’ll admit I looked a little differently on this when I sat in management of the Daily News.

Objectively, there is no reason why SVT and SR should be forced to behave amateurishly online, only for old media to go downmarket in peace and quiet. Brilliant public service is no more threatening than a government-funded national theatre, where it is also appreciated by its free competitors. But then, Dramaten, of course, stages Strindberg rather than Cats.

The pressed commercial media may well get a better deal: abolishing advertising for newspapers, reduced VAT for digital advertising, developed infrastructure – to name but a few political possibilities. Media companies’ defensive whining about market winners such as Google and innovative public service, however, is not so much to worry about.

In this big world, may it be Jan Stenbeck’s rock-paper-scissors that apply. If we decide democratically and have a clear idea we may well be able to develop a public service in which enlightenment beats entertainment.

Niklas Ekdal is a journalist and author.

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