Should Commercial Interests Limit YLE?

The Finnish government has submitted a proposal to amend the law relating to the public service broadcaster, the Finnish Broadcasting Company, or “YLE” as we refer to it here. 

According to the amendment YLE may only publish textual content that mainly relates to TV and radio programs. This amendment has been demanded by the commercial media lobby that is basically run by Finland’s two largest national media companies.

The proposed amendment states that this is a technical change to bring YLE’s public service remit in line with EU state-aid rules. There could be nothing further from the truth about the move sentence!

The big private media groups have been trying for years to limit YLE’s remit by making claims that text unrelated to TV and radio programs is tantamount to state-aid. It appears that these groups want to stop or reduce what YLE is allowed to broadcast over the Internet in order for them to maximise their own footprint and revenue streams.

There are three important points to consider here before dealing with the proposed amendment:

  1. We have three sources of news – the television, the radio and now the Internet. The last source is of course what most people are using on their laptops and smartphones. The internet has been flooded by the Big Tech companies like FaceBook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft and others.  We all know who they are because we use them each day – there are hundreds of millions of users all glued to their screens.
  2. The commercial media have seen that the Big Tech companies have reduced their advertising revenues to a trickle while their articles have been copy-pasted without remuneration.
  3. It is important to note that YLE does not allow advertising on any of its media, nor has it expanded its activities into other digital sources like the commercial media companies. All of YLE’s revenues are from taxpayers through the state budget and from us Finns who are obliged to make a modest annual licence payment for a reasonable service. 

The claim that YLE’s written text news falls foul of the state-aid regulations if the article or topic in question is not related to a TV or radio program is preposterous in today’s world. There are many good reasons to support this view:

In the first place, news and explanatory texts are posted instantaneously on the net. TV and radio news are normally broadcast at fixed times, unless the story is an exceptional event of breaking news. Very few countries and few media houses can afford to employ staff around the globe to follow daily events, so most news in our national broadcasts are based on copy-paste solutions. For the most part large independent public service broadcasters and a handful of big newspapers in large countries are the sources that get copy-pasted by smaller media houses. It is also the case that few of our local journalists spend long hours and days digging deep into potential stories that should be told. Investigative journalism is a dying trade with a few important exceptions. In both cases, why should private media companies have exclusive access to breaking news?

Secondly, the proposal, as it currently stands, is rather naive in that it fails to take into account the fact that there are just two remaining larger national media groups in Finland. Both exercise enormous commercial and political influence through their media coverage. They are heavily dependent on many large commercial companies in the Finnish market for advertising and journalistic coverage. This coverage also means that they also have close relationships with the some incumbent political parties especially on the right-hand side of the political spectrum. Although they generally maintain high journalistic standards, it is quite conceivable that certain stories that need to be seen by readers and consumers may be in conflict with the private medias’ commercial interests, leading to less coverage or coverage with a certain spin. 

Thirdly, YLE is a well-managed media company with a long and distinguished history. They occupy and important position as a major employer of many well-trained journalists who also maintain high ethical standards like their fellow journalists in the commercial media companies. It is essential that they be treated on an equal footing without limits on what they can report. The safeguards in place around YLE to ensure political and commercial neutrality are strong and well-proven, meaning that there is little reason to limit the remit of YLE as proposed. YLE is also large enough to participate in international cooperation with other private and public media bodies giving it ease of access to information from important sources.

Fourthly, the interpretation of state-aid is muddled for the simple reason that a single long story written by a single journalist or group of journalists requires a few thousand euros at the most. It is impossible to believe that state-aid could apply to such a tiny sum, although one could easily imagine how lawyers’ fees would increase one hundred fold if a disputed interpretation of the proposed amendment was taken to court! 

Fifthly, there is also another argument to be considered that is absent from the proposed amendment’s rationale. We the taxpayers have a right to public information immediately without paywalls, without paying extra for “Diamond Articles”, and without having advertising being forced down our throats.

Finally, taxpayers are already paying out large amounts of cash to commercial media companies – now that is state-aid in its purest form!

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