Media

The Dumbed-Down Beeb and the Timid Swedes

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Earlier today, Matt Welch took a few well-deserved shots at Ezra Klein and his novel solution to the economic troubles facing his employer, The Washington Post. You probably don't need it, but I'll give you a hint anyway: it involves higher taxes and a government stake in the news business! Welch links to a Klein article from 2007, in which the cheeky chappie discovers that—surprise!—the Europeans have "solved" (his word) the problem confronting American newspapers in a way "free of government interference." As usual, it's Sweden (total marginal tax wedge a paltry 70%) that provides the perfect example:

Sweden, for instance, has a system dedicated to encouraging reportorial competition. They allocate money to all but the dominant paper in a given market, so as to ensure that no town is stuck being dependent on a single newspaper or news source. The system is fully automatic, and works off a transparent and perfectly predictable formula. And the result? According to Daniel Hallin, chairman of the department of communication at the University of California, San Diego, the implementation of this system was concurrent with "a shift toward a more adversarial press. It is actually very strong evidence that press subsidies don't lead journalists to be timid."

First, it isn't exactly true that "all but the dominant papers in a given market" receive subsidies. Stockholm's two tabloids, Expressen and Aftonbladet, receive no support from the government. Subsidies are reserved for the so-called morning papers, not the trashy "evening papers" (which, rather confusingly, also come out in the morning). Second, it is technically wrong that the largest paper in a particular market is prevented from receiving subsidies. The largest "quality daily" in Stockholm, Dagens Nyheter (DN), receives no direct subsidy but in 2008 applied for government assistance because, according to the country's "press support" rules, if it reaches less than 30 percent of potential readers in Stockholm it is entitled to a yearly bailout. DN's CEO told her own newspaper that, considering the current news market, "It would be financially irresponsible not to seek [subsidies]."

The government denied the paper's request this year, though they have already reapplied for 2010. It's closest "quality" competitor, Svenska Dagbladet, last year received $8.4 million in subsidies, as did Skånska Dagbladet, a medium-sized daily covering the south of Sweden. Despite Klein's boosterism, the Swedish government has proposed slashing the subsidies after sustained attacks from the European Commission (EC), which recently denounced the "outdated system that distorts competition." A report from the EC said that Swedish government aid to newspapers violated "EC Treaty rules on state aid," noting that it "has a duty to prevent undue distortions of competition and trade resulting from public subsidies." As I wrote here, the Swedish Competition Authority came to a similar conclusion: "Press support has hardly fulfilled its original intent of preserving a large range of different daily newspapers in local markets…The rules governing support can complicate the establishment of new newspapers and have had a preservative effect on the newspaper market." All of these parties, who have studied the issue in some detail, are apparently missing the finer point of a government-backed network of newspapers.

Klein also argues that because the BBC is supported by a mandatory licence fee, it is therefore immune from market pressures and "need not compete on grounds of sensationalism." Obviously, I don't expect Klein to read a years worth of Swedish dailies (if he did, he would fast understand that the journalism is indeed "timid"), but has he not watched the BBC? Does he believe it all to be Andrew Marr and HardTalk? If Auntie Beeb has avoided sensationalism, as Klein claims, how does he explain the BBC's own chairman acknowledging that the programming has been significantly "dumbed down" in recent years? In 2002 Gavyn Davies confessed to The Independent, "If the accusation of dumbing down is becoming a frequent and mainstream attack from people I respect then, yes, I am worried about it." But it wasn't dumb enough to compete with private channels like ITV and satellite services like Sky, according to an internal BBC report that recommended further sensationalism and mindless reality programming. A 2008 internal review, which quizzed former employees on the state of government-run media, was scathing: "It is with sadness and some anger that they note the 'dumbing down' of programmes and the over-emphasis on celebrity led, contrived reality and lifestyle formats."

But to Klein, who insists upon holding forth on subjects with which he seems unfamiliar, the BBC is immune from market pressure simply because it receives most of its money from the government (it makes money from BBC America, DVD sales, a film company, etc). But it competes rather aggressively with, for instance, Channel 4, home to brilliant programs like Shameless, Peep Show, Dispatches, and Phoenix Nights. As BBC executives are well aware, if it's all Bill Oddie looking at birds or Simon Schama discoursing on Caravaggio, the plebs in Milton Keynes might just wonder why they pay the $231 licence fee for something they don't want.

NEXT: To Burn or Not to Burn?

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  1. The rules governing support can complicate the establishment of new newspapers and have had a preservative effect on the newspaper market.

    Impocerous!

  2. The lesson for Swedish newspapers: don’t get too much market share.

  3. The largest “quality daily” in Stockholm, Dagens Nyheter (DN), receives no direct subsidy but in 2008 applied for government assistance because, according to the country’s “press support” rules, if it reaches less than 30 percent of potential readers in Stockholm it is entitled to a yearly bailout.

    Then why don’t they reduce the quality of their product to improve their position?

  4. “The largest “quality daily” in Stockholm, Dagens Nyheter (DN), receives no direct subsidy but in 2008 applied for government assistance because, according to the country’s “press support” rules, if it reaches less than 30 percent of potential readers in Stockholm it is entitled to a yearly bailout. DN’s CEO told her own newspaper that, considering the current news market, “It would be financially irresponsible not to seek [subsidies].”

    The government denied the paper’s request this year, though they have already reapplied for 2010.”

    Abusers may try to abuse system + well-designed system prevents real-life abuse = government is dumb

  5. So the dominant papers in the largest American cities are in trouble, so they want the tax payer to bail them out in order to keep a wide variety of newspapers in competition?

    Where do you even start with something like that?

  6. “The government will hand newspapers large amounts of money, but won’t try to influence content.”

    And Klein wonders why journalism has a credibility problem?

  7. Klein, who insists upon holding forth on subjects with which he seems unfamiliar

    To be entirely serious, Ezra Klein is stupid. He’s a mimic, who is brilliant at regurgitating whatever shit he’s been fed that day. But he’s incapable of creating a novel argument, understands nothing of depth, and cannot think quickly on his feet. Suffering through him in person instantly activates one’s snake-oil/used-car salesman detector. I don’t understand why anyone takes him seriously, the fact that the Washington Post employs him just shows what’s wrong with news; they should see if they can get a tax credit for employing a retard.

  8. Well, if government subsidies will allow us to replace Ezra Klein with “Shameless” and “Peep Show,” I say, bring ’em on!

  9. Oy, I screwed up my link! Hope you enjoy Wal-Mart ads! They have fabulous deals!

  10. I’ve taken shits bigger than Ezra Klein. This guy is hackery no. 1. I’m glad Reason and some Cato folks are taking him on. For some reason, he gets a free pass. Come on Cosmotarians, kick it up a notch.

  11. Hope you enjoy Wal-Mart ads!

    See that’s the problem. Klein isn’t very good at selling ads. Or to be more precise, the newspapers have been charging gouging-level prices for ads space and classified ads for ages. So the magic of the market found a way around them… and they’re up shit creek.

  12. Channel 4, home to brilliant programs like Shameless, Peep Show, Dispatches, and Phoenix Nights

    It is funny how quickly the non-state media in Europe all go straight for the “boner subsidy” by broadcasting porn-type stuff. You’re either watching a seventeen hour snooker match, a documentary on acorn farmers, or soft-core porn.

  13. Yo Porky, click hier for a larf or three.

    You’re either watching a seventeen hour snooker match, a documentary on acorn farmers, or soft-core porn.

    European non-state tv is awesome.

  14. In Copenhagen they show the Private Channel on free to air TV after a certain time at night. Quality.

  15. > So the dominant papers in the largest American cities are in trouble, so they want the tax payer to bail them out in order to keep a wide variety of newspapers in competition?

    >> Where do you even start with something like that?

    http://cardin.senate.gov/news/record.cfm?id=312605

  16. Klein, who insists upon holding forth on subjects with which he seems unfamiliar

    Sounds like a certain columnist from the Times.

    Which means Klein will likely receive a Nobel Prize sometime in the near future.

  17. Regardless of my feelings on mandatory licensing fees and government sponsored media, I love the BBC and similar boring stuff we get on US public broadcasting. I would genuinely rather watch the documentary on acorn farmers than see some trashy soft-core porn reality show.
    While I do think that markets are the best available way to allocate resources and decide what should be on TV, it makes me sad that markets often tend not to support the sorts of things I like (particularly on free on the air TV).

  18. THIS guy is the ‘brains’ behind Journolist?? We have nothing to fear but stupidity itself. He is devoid of real world perspective. He reminds me of me at 18, lecturing my dad about the superiority of communism; with arguments I borrowed from my sociology teacher.

  19. Shame Thatcher didn’t privatize that fucker

    The BBC is faux-imperialistic bullshit

    The UK government pretending its still important

  20. “The government will hand newspapers large amounts of money, but won’t try to influence content.”

    “The government will hand GM and Chrysler large amounts of money, but won’t try to influence how they are run.”

    I’m accepting bids for the Brooklyn Bridge.

  21. The real problem for libertarians here (main reason I pity you guys, basically) is that the BBC does what the writer describes it trying to VERY well. Despite the entire Murdoch media near constantly gunning for it, it remains immensely popular.

    Much like the NHS. & I know, I know, you don’t care about people & their lowly opinions uninformed by your glorious ideology, you only care about FREE-DUM!, but that’s why libertarianism will never get anyway.

  22. Ezra Klein? Hold forth on subjects with which he’s unfamiliar? Unpossible!

  23. I saw an Ezra Klein post once in which he argued in favor of college tuition subsidies specifically for graduates who take low-paying jobs in fields like journalism, so they don’t feel compelled to go to law school right away. I’m not positive, but I think I also saw a post in which he argues in favor of breast-feeding until the age of 16.

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