Speech by Foreign Minister Steinmeier at the Lead Awards ceremony in Hamburg, 14 November 2014

15.11.2014 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me. I respect your willingness to take a risk and ask a politician to speak about the state of the media.

If I were a journalist, I would probably describe the state of the publishing industry and media sector with headlines like these:

Small is beautiful.

Picking the press to pieces – Credibility crisis in journalism

The way ahead looks black – Are journalists going to be the miners of the 21st century?

Last one to leave turn off the lights – Mass redundancies shock Germany’s media

But I’m not a journalist, I’m a politician. Besides, I’m not exactly known for misleading brevity. But this quality, as we know from both our very different perspectives, doesn’t necessarily always help.

Diplomats tell the story of an ambassador in a difficult country who is supposed to file a report to the minister back home. The minister asks: “If you had to sum up the situation in your country in one word, what would it be?” The ambassador ponders and then says: “Good.” This isn’t what the minister expected, so he asks another question: “And what if you had to summarise the situation in two words?” To which the ambassador replies: “Not good.”

Not good. That also describes the situation newspapers and magazines are in. As a democrat, this rather concerns me. Free media, as many different free media as possible, are the foundation for a lively democracy. By the same token, the media need democracy, because only in a democracy can journalists truly research and write freely. A democratic society cannot be indifferent if the media are in crisis.

Especially if the print media are in a double crisis, like they are now. Their economic model is in trouble, and at the same time a debate is starting about their entitlement to interpret events and their value as sources of information. Let me take a few minutes to make a few comments on this, in a bit more detail than just saying “good” or “not good”.

In my speeches as Foreign Minister, I like to use the phrase “the world seems to be unravelling”. Standing here in front of you – editors-in-chief, publishing managers, advertising strategists – I’m thinking that phrase isn’t a bad description for your world either.

It’s amazing how quickly it happened. Fifteen years ago, the advertising departments of some big daily papers were turning clients away, so that the Saturday edition would still fit through people’s letterboxes. New papers were being established, offices were being enlarged. The market was buzzing, and it seemed to be regulating everything well, even quality. Then the new economy bubble burst, PCs and laptops conquered our desks, and things have been going downhill ever since. Over the past ten years, advertising revenue in the media industry has halved and circulation has shrunk by a third.

By the way, it’s not our fault: the Federal Foreign Office has subscriptions to newspapers and magazines totalling over 150,000 euros a year. For instance, we have 45 subscriptions to Der Spiegel, 29 to Die Zeit, 30 to the Süddeutsche and no less than 60 to the FAZ. But the Hamburger Abendblatt, the Märkische Allgemeine and the Werra Rundschau too are read every day by faithful readers in my ministry. Moreover, it’s worth noting that the Federal Foreign Office spends some 10,000 euros a year on press reviews, which I hope has an effect on your VG WORT royalties.

Nevertheless, that is not, of course, enough to stop the trend, and the trend is – not good. For decades the media earned high revenues in a market which was protected by language from international competition. The advance of the internet, though, has triggered competition in the press that hits right at the root of the business model: advertising. For a while, sterling efforts were made to offset dwindling advertising revenue through price increases. But there comes a point when that doesn’t work so well any more, especially when circulations drop. And that, in turn, is due in part to the fact that the internet promotes the spread of free ad-funded competition, often from within the same publishing company. The candle, you might say, is being burnt from both ends.

The industry, it’s safe to say, has certainly deserved a few critical headlines and comments for some of its crisis management. Certainly, if we as a government acted the way some publishing companies did, we could expect quite a reaction. One company drops papers that are actually profitable, another buys indiscriminately, probably hoping something will work out well from it. One newspaper strengthens its local coverage in order to keep readers faithful, another closes its local offices to save money. Others, it seems, have temporarily given up the fight to find the best solutions and are instead concentrating on in-fighting. Editors-in-chief are being fired nearly as often as Bundesliga coaches facing relegation.

Probably no one has illustrated the industry’s helplessness better than Donald Graham. The “Washington Post” Chairman and CEO justified the sale of his venerable paper to internet pioneer Jeff Bezos like this: “the newspaper business continued to bring up questions to which we have no answers”. At this point you have a vision of Armin Müller-Stahl in your mind, a sense of “Buddenbrooks”, the story of a slow decline.

Are journalists going to become the miners of the 21st century, as I put it in one of my headlines at the outset? As journalists you may well often have written about structural change. Coal mining has almost disappeared in Germany. My father worked as a carpenter in the furniture industry in eastern Westphalia, which used to have countless small and medium-sized companies, and I had various jobs there. Today it has vanished, apart from the remaining 10 percent. Journalists have often analysed and described processes like these. Are you now being affected by one?

Unfortunately the media are being hit by a second crisis in the midst of this existential struggle. Nothing less than their credibility is at stake. Media bashing has become something of a trendy sport these days. Anyone who – like Eva Herman, Udo Ulfkotte or Thilo Sarrazin – complains about lying, corrupt or mean journalists sells a lot of books. If, on the other hand, a correspondent in a crisis area gets his or her research wrong, or if a commentator takes an unpopular theory further, he can expect insults and conspiracy theories to appear in the social media.

Writing in Die Zeit, media scientist Bernhard Pörksen recently described the coincidence of an economic and a credibility crisis thus: “There is inherent tragedy in the fact that there is blanket criticism of the quality media at a time when some of them are fighting for their very existence.”

You can also put this more pithily, for instance by quoting the legendary footballer Jürgen “Cobra” Wegmann, a son of the Ruhr district, who said: “First we had no luck then we had bad luck.”

What has caused the credibility crisis? The simplest explanation would be this: it’s the readers’ fault, they’re just stupid and cheeky. They don’t understand how good the newspapers are. But readers are like voters. You might get annoyed with them, but you shouldn’t ignore them and you’d be best to take them very seriously.

The second possibility: circumstances are to blame. In this case, that would be the internet again. The internet has given additional impetus to the individualisation of our society. Clued-up readers find personal information channels on the net, and can themselves easily produce information and opinions, without editors or printing-presses, at home with their computer and WLAN.

And so the internet, it might be said, has facilitated the emergence of a “fifth estate”: the public. By the way, that was another quote from Pörksen, not Jürgen “Cobra” Wegmann. The readers look on as the fourth estate works and sometimes give it a good hard rap on the knuckles.

But there is also a third possible cause of the mistrust: perhaps journalists were simply too sure of their monopoly on the right to interpret news and events. Perhaps they lorded it over the reader for too long, failing to notice the new kind of public the internet was creating. But perhaps also the daily reckoning with stupid, ignorant politicians in the papers dulled readers’ interest in politics – and in political journalism at the same time.

That would be fatal, for democracy too. We need these critical, well-founded, relevant reports. Only with penetrating texts and research which have a lasting impact can the press live up to its role as a watchdog.

What can one do to emerge from this crisis, hopefully stronger and wiser than before? Cost-cutting alone will not be enough, although you will have to show your entrepreneurial skills in the coming years.

Perhaps it is even more important, though, to remember the original reasons for your success: quality, relevance and diversity. Set the right priorities. In other words: journalism first!

Diversity is one of the keys for acceptance of the media. Readers need to have the feeling they’re not being exposed just to one opinion. Is there enough diversity in Germany? Sometimes in the morning when I leaf through my ministry’s press review I have the feeling that there was a time when the press reflected a broader range of opinions. There is an astonishing degree of homogeneity in how German editors weight and classify information. It seems to me that there is a great pressure to conform in the minds of journalists.

The spectrum of opinion among the public is often much broader. How many editors want tax cuts, participation in missions abroad, sanctions? And how many readers? You don’t have to write only what your readers want to read, just as we politicians shouldn’t focus exclusively on opinion polls. But neither politicians nor journalists should long ignore the needs of their electorate or readership.

As a reader and as a politician, I want a clear message from my paper. But its assessment should also be well-founded, and best of all it should be recognisably its own assessment, clearly distinguishable from the news. I don’t want to have the impression that everyone is writing the same thing. That gives rise to mistrust.

Arriving at an independent assessment requires insights of your own. We need journalists who take the time to delve deeply into a subject. This means keeping up a network of correspondents. I know that’s expensive, and one experienced foreign correspondent probably costs as much as three young journalists back at head office. Over the past 15 years, Der Spiegel and Stern have halved the number of their foreign correspondents. One is cutting back its Washington bureau, the other is closing Moscow entirely, and so on. You know the facts better than I do. However, in the long term no one can make up for a lack of presence and local knowledge merely through a strong opinion.

I doubt whether you are doing yourselves and your readers a favour. Local correspondents who witness their host country’s problems day in day out are irreplaceable, even in the internet age. Don’t wait until the Federal Foreign Office sets up a crisis unit before you send a reporter from Hamburg or Berlin abroad. If you don’t arrive in the country till then, you will rarely be able to get to grips with the complexity of the political, economic, cultural and religious causes of the conflict.

Maybe now you are thinking “Well, as Foreign Minister he would have to say that. But people aren’t interested in all that.” Are you sure? I firmly believe that responsible citizens are interested in – and will pay for – differentiated reporting. But they also sense when journalists are themselves unconvinced that their material is interesting enough and so go to great lengths to embellish it and sex it up.

I know that good journalism costs money. Recently a debate has begun as to whether there ought not to be a kind of government foundation to promote quality journalism. First you could joke about it. Venerable editors who have spent decades preaching the joys of the free market are fearing for their traditional breakfast-time reading-matter. Then it is declared part of the World Cultural Heritage and the liberal reader-journalist calls for state cash.

Let’s flesh that out a bit. In the Lead Academy, Markus Peichl runs just such a public source of funding. State secretaries from Federal and Land ministries responsible for the media meet up annually in the administrative council. Naturally they will all express their own opinions about quality and seriosity.

The State Secretary of the Federal Foreign Office would perhaps complain that Die Welt was not entirely serious in writing about alleged ransom payments in a hostage crisis. His colleague from the Interior Ministry would moan about cheap sensationalism in articles in Der Spiegel about the protection of the constitution. And the head of the state chancery in a Land government would wonder whether the minister-president’s blatant use of an official car for private purposes really needed to be lampooned in the magazine section of Die Zeit.

Joking aside, I am not against support initiatives per se, but as a politician I would like to point out that some constructions could tempt politicians to be the better journalists.

And we are not. However, the same should also apply in the other direction. Democracy and the media can only function together if a certain distance is maintained. Because only distance enables democracy to benefit from a critical public and the media to flourish freely.

This distance is better maintained when, for their part, journalists resist the temptation to be politicians, when they refrain from occasionally interfering in the workings of democracy with a clever campaign, and when they refrain from attacking other, real, politicians as if they were rivals. They are not. Politicians are not journalists, and journalists are not politicians.

Being a politician is a fantastic profession, but it is one for the professionals. As is yours. Yours is a special profession without which our society would be poorer and without which our democracy would wither. Do everything to ensure that journalists can continue to do good work. The media sector is unlike any other. That is why I hope and trust that you will overcome the current crises in your industry. We need you!

Thank you very much.

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