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‘The media are under pressure, as is democracy’

An independent media is at the heart of a democratic society. But in more and more countries, the media are under pressure. And so is democracy, says Clemens Pig, CEO of APA. In his new book, Democracy Dies in Darkness, he describes the key role of news agencies in the fight for independent media and democracy. Here he talks to Martin Fröhlich, WAN-IFRA Director, Digital Revenue Network, about the current dangers to media and democracy, his intentions for the book and his vision for the news agency of the future.

Martin Fröhlich/WAN-IFRA: Clemens, congratulations on the publication of your book Democracy Dies in Darkness. How did you come up with the title?
Clemens Pig: I borrowed the title from the Washington Post, which chose this slogan in 2017 after the election of Donald Trump as US President. The title expresses how important the media are for democracies and that the media are the first targets when autocrats or dictators seize power for themselves. They know about the important role of a free media.

How dark is the current state of democracies?
In recent years, we have seen how the phenomena of disinformation, fake news and conspiracy theories, which until the pandemic we knew mainly from the US, have spread to Europe. They have been swept from the digital fringes of society into the centre. Let’s think of the anti-Corona demonstrations. We, the media, are particularly challenged. We must not only look at the harsh censorship in Russia or other Eastern European countries. If we look at democracy as a whole, as we have experienced it in the global boom since the Second World War, we have to realise that this model is unfortunately no longer in the majority. Democracies are being dismantled everywhere. The media are under massive pressure.

In what way?
They are under pressure from the autocratic states themselves, which are abolishing the media and their free reporting. On the other hand, the difficult economic environment for independent private publishers is also a development that we have to keep an eye on. Free media need an appropriate economic framework to be able to report independently. We are in the midst of a pandemic, disinformation, the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine and the question of what AI means for us media companies and journalism. In the book, I try to present this from the perspective of news agencies and to outline possible solutions.

You talk about economic pressures. We are currently seeing a concentration in the newspaper market in Central Europe. In Western Europe and Scandinavia, this concentration has already taken place. It also means less diversity of opinion as several voices become one. How do you view this development?
It has to be viewed critically. In Austria, we are currently witnessing two more newspapers, the Wiener Zeitung and the Oberösterreichisches Volksblatt, shutting down their daily print operations. The mixture is toxic. Advertising money is flowing away to the digital giants. At the same time, media production costs have exploded in the wake of inflation. The third issue is that the delivery of daily newspapers in rural areas is no longer guaranteed. The stakes are high. We are talking about the democratic importance of the media as the fourth estate. Democracies are not just about voting. In order to establish a constructive, factual and verified formation of opinion, a clean media discourse is indispensable. When the media are under pressure, democracies are also under pressure and in danger. 2024 will be a super election year, with US elections, EU parliamentary elections and the election for the Austrian National Council. And it is precisely now that generative AI is coming to all of us.

Is it an opportunity or a threat?
We talk a lot about the threat, but as media we also have to recognise the opportunity of the century. What we have seen so far in terms of new technologies is at best a teaser. There is much more to come. There will be much more disinformation in digital spaces. That is a potential danger. But if the media and independent news outlets recognise these opportunities, we can strengthen our brand profiles. However, we have to be careful about the economic protection of the content. It must not happen again that we are not compensated for our content. Third-party AI providers must not use our expensively produced content to train their solutions while we look the other way. We in the media must join forces to network better in terms of infrastructure and technology and create protected data spaces over which we have sovereignty. We have to be forward-looking and courageous. So the book is very timely.

As the head of a national news agency, where do you see the key role of these agencies in the battle for the facts and how they can help media companies in the development of AI?
There are about 140 news agencies worldwide. Only about 20 of them are independent of the state. They are joint ventures owned by the media themselves. There are 11 of them in Europe, in Scandinavia, the DACH region, Benelux, the UK and Italy. At the same time, up to two-thirds of all daily mass media information comes directly or indirectly from these news agencies. That’s where their power lies. They massively determine media coverage and thus the image we have of the world.

What do you mean?
In the background, there is a battle for the air sovereignty of international news flows. In the Western hemisphere, in North America and Europe, this is done by independent state agencies. In the East, on the other hand, a huge network of state agencies has developed, as in Russia, Turkey and China. The Chinese alone have about 13,000 employees, far more than all the independent agencies in Europe put together. As the arteries of global information flows, agencies are also the transformation heads of digital transformation, because the media are directly connected to them. The agency of the future is a news technology agency. With technology solutions and multimedia content, they will be the Swiss army knife of the media industry.

What do politicians need to do guarantee the framework conditions for the independence of the agencies?
The copyright issue, the ancillary copyright with a view to global platforms, is central. We need remuneration for editorial content. Increasingly, EU legislation is being adopted in national legislations. The next step is to ensure the necessary commercial remuneration. We also need the AI Act. It will come, but it will come too late. We have to keep an eye on the commercial protection of our content, for example through collecting societies. What will happen to our content? We must not let this technological revolution pass us by.

What does that mean?
This is a huge market with an incredible amount of money. We should provide fact-based information and thus become a democratic handle. At the same time, we should keep the valuable content that we produce in a protected European data space that we control and market. I advocate a cooperative digital economic model in which we finally join forces and work across media. We are many, but we need to be networked to have the appropriate scale. We need infrastructure, technologies and support from the EU to be able to do this.

Generative AI is a big topic at the moment. An expert recently said that the task of journalism will no longer be to work out which news is false, but which is true? Is that why the word Wa(h)re [“Truth” / “Goods”] appears in the subtitle of your book?
I use it as a play on words. The Wa(h)re Nachricht as a commercial product. We are not a truth ministry. We do not claim to spread the truth. I think that would be dangerous. Truth and objectivity are normative concepts in journalism that we have to approach as best we can, they are quality standards. Fact-checking is a central issue. APA and DPA have set up a separate department for this. We know from scientific research that people who come into contact with misinformation do experience a correction when they are confronted with fact-checking. That makes sense. But it will not be enough.

What else can the media do?
We also have to work with quality seals and be able to deliver images and video in a way that allows the end user to check with their own apps whether it is verified material – all the way back to the source. If we want to buy organic food in the supermarket, we as consumers must also be able to trust that the label is true. Clean news, like clean drinking water, is fundamental to democracies. We need easy-to-use technologies for users. Traceability to the sources. Where does the news come from?

It has a lot to do with education. There is a backlog of reform in how we expose young people to this issue. And it would be in the interest of the states to provide an appropriate education programme. Yes, it’s a marathon, but you have to start somewhere. This book is a contribution to that. Media consumers need to be more in touch with our brands, with our fact-checking and our technologies in the digital use of social media. Then I definitely see the glass as half full, not half empty.

The war of aggression in Ukraine shows how difficult it is to provide facts. The Russian agency Tass and the Ukrainian agency Ukrinform are state-run, or at least close to the state. How important is it to have independent foreign media on the ground here?
I am very grateful that there are agencies that do their international work directly on the ground. Unfortunately, we always have to mourn deaths in the process, such as the recent death of a colleague from the French AFP. We know that in war, truth is the first casualty and propaganda is used at all levels: The credibility and diversity of sources is central to our newsroom and difficult to establish in a war situation. That is why neutral sources on the ground are so important. The factual situation in war reporting is often diffuse. Agency reports often end with the sentence “This source has not yet been definitively verified”. As the facts change, so must the reporting. Transparency and the culture of error must be improved. The loss of trust that some people have in the media – we should also report on that, especially when the facts change.

Thank you for the interview!

(By special arrangement with WAN-IFRA. Clemens Pig is CEO of APA – Austria Presse Agentur (Vienna) and since 2018 Vice President of the Board of Directors of the Swiss news agency Keystone-SDA. He is also President of EANA – European Alliance of
News Agencies.)