The home of media freedom

The Nordic countries have dominated the global media freedom rankings for years. The Reporters Sans Frontieres report for 2016 makes no exception: the Scandinavian countries occupy the top spots yet again. Finland is 1st again, Norway is in the top 3, followed by Denmark, Sweden is in the top 10, Iceland in the top 20. In comparison, the US is 41st, France 45th, the UK 38th. The question many are asking is, what is the core reason for these achievements? What lessons could the rest of the world learn from Scandinavia?

So let us dig a bit into this. First, the public media in the Nordic countries have to give their best to keep themselves neck in neck with the private outlets, and offer quality that would keep the viewers and readers consistently interested. Of course we are talking about money here, but not only. Many countries around the world (including the developed wold) are trying to cut their public media budgets for the sake of austerity, but the Nordic countries won’t allow this to happen. They keep an ambitious approach to the media, believing that a public media could only be successful if it maintains a variety and high quality of the product that it offers. This is the primary criterion for assigning funds on a yearly basis, based on the results. In result, most public media end up offering a stunning variety of materials, from the traditional publicism and research that one might expect from such a media, to sports and even HBO-style entertainment.

It’s a simple principle: if a certain media manages to keep the public interest regularly, it is logical that it should be granted better financial positions. Conversely, if a large enough segment of society stops seeing anything interesting there, that media cannot rely on political and financial support from the government.

Self-regulation is another important factor. The thing is, it only works if everyone involved agrees to it. So it is largely a cultural thing, because these societies are big on ethics and self-regulation. The Scandinavian press councils are independent organisations, mostly funded by the media industry itself. Their function is to review complaints and feedback from the consumers. When they receive a complaint about a certain publication, they give a chance to both sides, the claimant and the accused media, to present their position on the case. The complaint is reviewed by a group of distinguished journalists, editors and citizens, this council ultimately deciding if the complaint is legitimate or not. If yes, the media could be obligated to publish the respective official refutation of its own previous material.

And here is the catch. While membership in these councils is completely voluntary, there is hardly a media organisation in Scandinavia that has not joined one. The self-regulation is voluntary, and done diligently, in a transparent and open way.

Another feature of the Nordic model is that the public media are always trying hard to prove their independence. Since they are funded by the state, the citizens have a strong feeling of ownership over the content they are being served by the public televisions, radios and newspapers. The public media constantly provide feedback to their public, they frequently publish various analyses and reports about the air time each political party has been provided with, etc. There is also very stringent external audit. In Denmark for example, the radio and TV board funds a regular research on the political balance and impartiality of the public media during elections. In Sweden, there is an annual report on the activities of the media and the response of their public, as well as the level of public trust in the public media. The state funds regular researches on the public perception of the media, and this creates an atmosphere of mutual trust. In Sweden there is a joke that the media are the most trusted institution after IKEA. =)

On top of all that, the Scandinavian media system has the advantage of being able to afford to experiment with all sorts of innovative business models. Large media conglomerates, just like any other form of monopolies, are not viewed well by those societies – be they private or public. Which is why in 2010 the Danish government announced they were selling one of the biggest radio stations to the private market in order to boost competitiveness in that segment (it had started to almost dominate the radio market at the time). From a business point of view, such a step didn’t make any sense – you do not quit something that is so successful. But from a public and social standpoint, it was the right thing to do. So there were a number of foreign companies who placed bids for that purchase, but they couldn’t cope with the requirements for high funding levels, and they had a particular problem with the requirement for no adverts on the program. But the government did not cave in, and the requirement stayed. Because it was the right thing to do. So the Danish government developed a new business model, which is essentially a mixed public-private hybrid. The radio station became the property of a private company, but it would receive public funding on the condition that it should accept strict requirements for the public content it would be providing.

Another feature of the Nordic media model is the absolute protection of the information sources. The Swedish law is the most frequently cited in that respect. It says that any court report, public document or government communication should be fully accessible to the public. The state employees are encouraged, not discouraged, to give information to the journalists. It is absolutely forbidden to punish anyone for providing information to the media. The term “leaked information” is practically non-existent.

The Swedish media and information law is so explicit in this respect that if a journalist publishes information from an anonymous source, it would be criminal to insist that they should reveal their sources. The other countries in the region are no different: Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland also consider the idea of full openness of the official documents to be sacrosanct. Which explains why Iceland is actively pursuing the role of an information haven now, by the way – including the desire to host the likes of WikiLeaks. It is what the public wants.

In result of all this, the journalists in Scandinavia are the freest in the world, and the public there is among the biggest consumers of media content. Finland is a fine example: the EU centre for journalism reports that 483 per 1000 people buy newspapers regularly in Finland. 76% of the Finns over 10 years of age read newspapers daily. It is logical that the media market is highly developed and of top quality there.

A very important factor in Finland is the strong journalist union which defends the rights of the employees in the sector: 14 thousand people, 355 companies and 6 media associations are members. And all this, in a country of 5.5 million.

But the real reason that Finland has performed so well is the fact that the government has turned transparency, informedness and quality journalism into one of its top priorities (along with education, as previously mentioned here). While Finland is the standard-bearer in that respect, the other Nordic countries are not too far behind, either. The public there has full and free access to public information at all levels. And this of course reflects on the politics. These countries have topped any and all “least corrupt” rankings in the world for decades. There is a good reason for this of course: given the level of media freedom and public transparency, and the quality of education and the informed public that it fosters, the politicians cannot even think of stepping over the line.

So the world really has a lot to learn from the Nordic countries in terms of media freedom. Journalist protection, efficient and voluntary self-regulation, as well as raising transparency and the access to information to a pedestal, are lessons that these societies have learned a long time ago, and are now picking the fruits from it. They are a fine example that media freedom is one of the key factors for social, political, and consequently, economic prosperity.

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