The intervention below was delivered by News Media Europe’s Executive Director, Wout van Wijk, at the European Commission’s high-level multi-stakeholder conference on Fake News on 14 November 2017 in Brussels.
Good morning and thank you very much for inviting me to this panel.
My members, staff and I represent the progressive news media industry in Europe – over 2200 titles of newspapers, radio, tv and internet. While we focus here in Brussels on EU policy related to copyright, AVMSD, VAT on digital content, rules on advertising and so forth, protecting media freedom and promoting media pluralism underpins everything we do and stand for.
Freedom of the press is more than simply a policy priority. It is the foundation on which European democracy, and European civilization, is built. It is the guardian of every other individual liberty we as European citizens take for granted – of thought, conscience and prayer, of the judiciary and the right to a fair trial, of free assembly. Where the press falters, the quality of our democracy suffers. That is why News Media Europe is so passionate about this, and why our central mission- central to everything we will do – is to be vigilant in safeguarding it.
News Media Europe is committed to maintaining and promoting the freedom of the press, to upholding and enhancing the freedom to publish, and to championing the news brands which are one of the most vital parts of Europe’s creative industries.
Yesterday we discussed at this conference the problem that is fake news, as well as initiatives being deployed to counter them.
Today I am asked to talk about future actions to strengthen the quality of information and to reduce the spread of disinformation online. I will talk about the need for adequate funding, corporate responsibility, and discuss media literacy initiatives as a way forward.
But let me start with the fundamental issue of trust.
As in any relationship a business establishes with a customer, trust is key. This is no different for the news media sector, who are amidst a transition towards securing a more digital future. In our industry, consumers generally have a strong connection with a certain news brand, on which they rely for bringing them reliable quality news content, in a format they identify with.
It is therefore key to the industry to foster this trust also online: a transparent and reliable source for the consumption of local, national and international news. News Media Europe is convinced that consumer trust in online news consumption is key to the success of the transition towards online content offerings.
In come the issue of fake news, or misinformation, online.
Consumers base their trust on news brands as they feel that the information presented to them is accurate. It is therefore important for publishers that their trusted news brands are recognizable as such. Those of you who consume news through e.g. mobile platforms, will have noticed that sometimes it’s hard to distinguish one source from another, as changes in the visual characteristics of a news article makes all the sources look alike.
A recent report by Kantar revealed that the reputation of what they call ‘mainstream news media’ remains largely intact while social media and digital-only news platforms have sustained major reputational damage as a result of the ‘fake news’ narrative during recent election cycles.
Mr De Pear from Channel 4 yesterday showed a video on Macedonian fake news farms. This, as he rightly explained, costs large sums of money to produce, as a journalist needs the time to do his or her research, travel needs to be covered, a camera crew needs to be paid, the footage needs to be edited, and so on. Investigative journalism is expensive.
It is also therefore very important that news brands remain properly funded, to remain independent and to enable them to provide high quality, and relevant content to its readers. Moreover, I see an adequately funded and pluralistic media landscape as one of the key remedies against fake news.
Unfortunately, publishers are faced with the fact that it has become increasingly more difficult to monetize their content online. Stricter rules on advertising will lead to a decrease in value of advertising as such and the new ePrivacy regulation could seriously hamper certain business models for the monetization of publishers’ content online.
On the other hand, the European Commission has acknowledged the imbalance between publishers and platforms in its Copyright proposals and we are eagerly looking to correct that imbalance by establishing a publishers’ right, which would help publishers to better enforce their copyright online.
The business models that the news media sector applies to its digital offerings depend on online advertising. And while European legislation might affect the ways that publishers can use online advertising, there’s a clear issue when we look at the proliferation of fake new online, as providers of fake news are fishing for the same advertising revenues as quality news media. So in an arena where we compete with the platforms for advertising revenue, fake news becomes yet another layer of competition, by players that don’t play by the rules as a principle.
Fake news is not a new issue as such, but the power of the platforms has significantly amplified the magnitude of the problem.
The role of platforms as amplifiers as they were called yesterday, or a public forum, is one that needs to be discussed urgently. I’m not necessarily calling for regulation, but I would want to see them step up to plate when it comes to their Corporate Responsibility. Last week I met with some of my members who came back from their visit to Silicon Valley in a bit of a shock. At a meeting with Facebook, they were proudly told that Facebook had recently doubled its efforts on combatting fake news. The team went from 15 to 30 people.
Perhaps we should also realise that the issue of fake news online, and its disruptive powers, is one of which we only recently started to understand its implications. It is therefore that I’m grateful to Commissioner Gabriel for prioritizing this issue.
I do believe that dealing with the issue should be a concerted effort from the entire ecosystem.
In light of this, I’d like to mention that my colleagues from the Flemish News Media Association (Vlaamse Nieuwsmedia), with their partners, have launched the 15th edition of their “News in the classroom” (Nieuws in de klas) programme yesterday. This programme makes materials available to schools that provide students with the necessary tools for critical thinking towards accessing content online and valuing its sources and intent. This year’s programme is expected to reach nearly 8000 classrooms in Brussels and Flanders.
I am currently collecting information from my membership on similar activities elsewhere, and as of this morning I have received information on similar activities in The Netherlands, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Estonia. While some of these activities are supported by local governments, I would like to suggest looking into making media literacy a part of the curriculum throughout Europe, so that all young Europeans have access to this type of education. This will allow all of them to fully enjoy, and make well-informed decisions about, our free and democratic society – one in which free and pluralistic media play a fundamental role.