Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the Publishers’ Summit of the Association of German Magazine Publishers (VDZ): “Responsibility of media and politics in the digital age”

07.11.2016 - Speech

Mr Burda,Ladies and gentlemen,
Mr Holthoff-Pförtner,
Ladies and gentlemen,

No, your eyes are not deceiving you: I am not Sigmar Gabriel. He has unfortunately had to cancel and has asked me to take his place. The last time I jumped in for him was at the ITB. Mongolia was the guest country and, needless to say, I didn’t have a speech prepared. As luck would have it, I had just been in the country and the Mongolian President had presented me with a horse at the end of my trip. So I could tell the audience a story or two... I can’t do that today but I’m happy to be here nonetheless. After all, this year’s Publishers’ Summit is a special time for the Association of German Magazine Publishers. After almost 20 years, you, Hubert Burda, are stepping down as head of the VDZ and you, Mr Holthoff-Pförtner are taking up the reins at a tempestuous time for your entire sector.


“Is anyone still interested in the truth?” That was the headline a German paper chose for an article about the US election campaign which is nearly over ‑ thankfully, one has to say. Those who took the trouble to watch one of the television debates from start to finish are rendered almost speechless by the chutzpah and the perfidy with which, in the plain light of day, facts are twisted and disputed, expert knowledge discredited and barefaced lies are told. And this holds true of course not just in the United States or in the UK, where the Brexit campaign proudly announced “people in this country have had enough of experts”. I fear even here in Germany that people can create a certain political atmosphere with an ever more aggressive disinclination to resort to facts! In some debates, the truth is no longer merely being deliberately distorted. Far worse, it seems to no longer count for anything. In the Internet age, it is not truth but “subjective truths” which are the hard currency.

This is all the more reason to pay tribute today to someone who, irrespective of all the challenges and shifts in the media business, has always been interested in the truth and who has seen and defended publishing houses with this mantra as an institution of democracy. I am talking here about Hubert Burda. Today we would like to thank you. The very first sentence of the code of practice drawn up by German publishers commits to the “respect for truth” and I hope, Mr Burda, that you will continue to use your voice and your influence in this field to keep the standards up at a time when it is certainly not getting any easier to do so.


Ladies an gentlemen,

Concerns about truth in the public sphere are actually not anything new. More than half a century ago ago, Hannah Arendt wrote essays on truth and lying in politics. So the question is, what is new in our age that a media and political phenomenon such as Donald Trump is even possible?

Precisely because I don’t want to bore you with a lofty speech, I’ll try with an anecdote that is popular in the Federal Foreign Office. It’s about a German ambassador, who has come to Head Office to report to me, the Foreign Minister, about the situation in the country he’s posted to. But it could just as easily be the foreign correspondent of a German newspaper or magazine reporting to the editor-in-chief back home. The editor-in-chief is pushed for time and asks: “If you had to summarise the situation in your country in one word, what would you say?” The correspondent sighs, thinks for a second and says: “good”. But that’s a bit too imprecise for the editor-in-chief after all, and so he asks again: “Hmm. And if you had two words?” The correspondent mulls over the question again, and finally says: “not good.”

I think we are dealing with two opposing trends here. On the one hand, the growing complexity, networking and multifariousness of the world we have to deal with in foreign policy terms and which you have to report on. On the other hand, as a reaction thereto, the growing yearning for simple, indeed non-complex answers: “Good or not good! Black or white!” These are the kind of answers people want, preferably with no more than 140 characters.


Of course, the digital revolution, and the ensuing contraction of time and space, generate an unending torrent of information from this complex, hard-to-decipher world. Mr Burda, it was you who said, “The impact of the digital revolution will not just change the way in which we produce and sell magazines but in fact the way we work, travel, learn and entertain ourselves”. Today, many are making similar noises. But your quotation dates back to January 1996 ‑ this is something you predicted almost 21 years ago.

My fear is that to this day we are neither intellectually nor politically nor culturally truly ready for the digital age and all it brings. The internet does of course give us access to an unprecedented avalanche of information from a vast range of sources. Yet, our ability to immerse ourselves in or empathise with other realities and perceptions is simply no longer keeping pace with the information with which we are being inundated. And this over-stimulation, this feeling of being overwhelmed generates reactions: fear of a loss of identity, a return to national, ethnic and religious mores, to notions that more readily give people a feeling of having firm ground under their feet. And what fits the bill best of all is the eminently simple response “Us against them!” Being sure of one’s own identity by excluding others, by creating distance, hostile stereotypes: that is the route the populists and nationalists are taking who are advancing in so many places.


Ladies and gentlemen,

if we as journalists and as democratic politicians are returning to the headline once again, “interested in the truth”, the question arises as to what we can do?

First of all, we need to be aware of our own weaknesses. We humans tend to be lazy, also when it comes to truth. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman proved how much we tend to accept very familiar information as true and not to actively question it. He calls this “cognitive ease”. Facebook and co. make it all too easy for this human weakness to thrive. We must instead actively seek out the truth, look for critical sources and keep checking the picture we have gained. We need to break through the “echo chambers” of our own social and cultural environment and, what is probably most difficult, constantly put ourselves in the position of the other side so we can see what they see. This is particularly true of foreign policy!

Secondly, we need to invest in our ability to make judgements. We must not allow ourselves to reduce the complexity of the world to a mere woodcut. Instead, we need to pay attention to precision and the ability to differentiate, both in the media and in political debates. This investment in our ability to make judgements also means investing in the social institutions and systems that “produce the truth” in our societies: schools, research and the judicial system, but particularly the media. Many of you as traditional print media are finding that your business model is being questioned, while your credibility is being subjected to severe criticism. Some have reacted by making ratings and numbers of clicks a priority in their strategy. Many have drastically reduced their networks of correspondents, particularly abroad, thus curtailing their ability to appropriately grasp and describe the complexity of the world.

I believe this is the wrong way to go about things. Today we need more media that do not only provide a critical public with information, but also communicate context and knowledge. Our efforts should not be on getting the maximum number of clicks and inputs but on maximising the ability of responsible citizens to judge for themselves. This is true of journalists as it is of the way in which we communicate as politicians.

The legacy of the European Enlightenment is, to quote the words of Immanuel Kant, “man’s emergence from his self‑imposed immaturity”. For many decades we took this legacy for granted, at least in our part of the world. But the contempt for reason that we are seeing in many parts of the world today and here in Germany ‑ both the form of contempt of the differentiated and the appropriateness of political language and as a compulsion to whip up sentiment, build barriers and radicalise ‑ is a warning sign. Nationalist thinking, and we Germans remember where this can take us, prided itself once upon a time on ending all dialogue. Critics were only seen as representatives of a “hostile system”. There was only one’s own truth and other people’s lies. In a uniquely perceptive way, the great historian Fritz Stern, who died recently, laid bare the fateful connection between contempt for reason, indeed a deliberate irrationality that many downright celebrated, and the collapse of German democracy in the 1930s. Only those who know nothing about the catastrophe of wrong turns taken in our authoritarian past can think that such paths might work in the future. Does our cultural memory really fade within three generations?

At least this memory is one which I believe we need to renew today! That is part of our responsibility as politicians and your responsibility as publishers. It was quite right of Matthias Döpfner to declare the abbreviation “V.i.S.d.P” (responsible in the sense of press law) the proudest five letters in the media world. So, very much in the spirit of Hubert Burda, those interested in truth should stand up for political good sense!

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