Unlikely allies target public service broadcaster in Switzerland

Tristan Brenn speaks with communication students from Zurich University of Applied Sciences. Photo by Alison Langley.

Tristan Brenn, editor in chief of Switzerland’s German-language public service TV network, was not expecting a grilling when he faced an audience of communication students early in December.

He was roasted anyway by the 100-strong audience at a studio in SRF’s headquarters in Zurich. Why is the media giant spending so much money on a new studio at a time when funding may be uncertain? Why is SRF placing instant videos on Facebook, essentially giving away its content for free to the social media giant?

But the question that stung the most came from someone way in the back: Television and radio serves an old and aging public. Why should young people be forced to pay the hefty 450 Swiss Franc ($450) mandatory licensing fee per household per year?

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It will be Brenn’s job for the next three months to persuade not just students but all of the Swiss electorate of the value of public service broadcasting. On March 4, voters will be asked to weigh in on a referendum to abolish the annual license fee that covers about three-quarters of the public broadcaster’s budget.

If the referendum passes, Switzerland would be the first European country to abolish mandatory license fees for its public service broadcaster, a move supporters of the operation say would put it out of business. This comes at a time when studies from Reuters Institute and the European Broadcasting Union have shown that independent public service media act as a moderating influence in an ever-polarized world and increase trust in mainstream media.

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“People are better positioned to hear different voices and also to be confronted with a variety of voices, not just populists,” says Vinzenz Wyss, a journalism professor at the Zurich University for Applied Sciences, who organized the student visit to SRF and invited a CJR reporter to join.

Yet the initiative to cut off funding has strong support. Conservative parties want to weaken mainstream media, while some young people don’t see the point in paying for radio or TV news they can get it for free, either online or from free newspapers.

“For older people, SRG is a clear thing,” says Omar Zerouak, 22, one of the students in the studio listening to Brenn. “For younger people, it’s too expensive. They don’t use it. For many, it’s about money. They only see the cost.”

Brenn says he’s up for the challenge to defend the high feeproducing news, entertainment, sports, and cultural programming in more than four languages isn’t cheap. And he welcomes the chance to talk with young people about how SRG sees the digital future. But he worries about the pressure coming from the right.

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“Everywhere these days, we are seeing criticism of institutions,” he tells CJR, “and we are an institution, one that people have to pay a fee for at that.”

But, he adds, public service media is especially needed at a time like this. “We are economically independent, on the one hand and also politically independent, and that has a high price in a direct democracy, in any democracy. And it would be missed if it didn’t exist anymore.”

For its part, the Swiss government agrees. President Doris Leuthard in early December urged voters to reject the referendum, arguing Swiss public media play a crucial role in supporting cultural diversity and political discourse in the country.“ A varied media offering is important for a small, polyglot country like Switzerland with its direct democracy,” Leuthard said during a parliamentary session.

Swiss public media is not the first to be under fire by populists. Hungary’s leader Viktor Orban has installed his own cronies to run that country’s main broadcaster. Last year, the government of Poland pushed through an amendment to the country’s media law, granting the government tighter control of the country’s public news services. Public broadcasters in Spain and the UK, too, are under attack by far-right parties. As one SRF employee told the students, the strategy of the right is to “destroy what bothers you.”

The measure’s proponents say they do indeed want to weaken SRG’s power. Slashing the financing of the public service broadcasters would pave the pay for more diversity of voices for businesses that can’t compete against the Swiss public media behemoth.

They say the annual feewhich is slated to be lowered to 365 francs ($365) in 2019should be voluntary. They add that putting that money instead into the pockets of Swiss households would help spur the economy.

“The public should not be forced to pay for news, television, and radio they don’t want to consume,” says Andreas Kleeb, spokesperson for the committee bringing the referendum.

Public Service Broadcasting in Switzerland dominates the electronic media market. With a budget of 1.6 billion Swiss Francs ($1.6 billion), the mother company SRG runs 17 radio stations, 7 TV channels, and online productions in German, French, Italian, and Rhaeto-Romance, a language spoken by about 37,000 people in the Grisons in the eastern Alps. The company also has a news website in 10 languages for the 25 percent of the country’s population that hails from other countries.

In addition to reporting on national, regional, and local news, SRG is tasked with promoting Swiss culture, by, for instance, co-producing films and TV shows. It broadcasts summer music festivals, like Montreux Jazz, as well as classical concerts live. On one radio program, some 50 percent of the music comes from Swiss artistsimportant to protect Swiss culture. It also airs Swiss sports, like soccer or ski racing, and even funds a small orchestra in the Italian part of the country.

The company says that 86.8 percent of all TV viewers in the German-speaking part of the country will at some point in the week turn on SRF. And, RTR, the Rhaeto-Romance station, provides the only radio and television available in that language.

About 75 percent of SRG’s budget comes from the licensing fees. Without the fees, Brenn says the channels would be annihilated, because unlike the US, there isn’t a tradition of foundations and private individuals donating to public service broadcasters.

“People don’t want to pay for news anymore,” he says. And, he fears, a weakened public service media would push advertising revenue to the mostly foreign-controlled commercial media from Germany, France, and Italy that operate in the country now.

“If the income goes, then it’s an illusion to say Rhaeto-Romance, or (French) or Italian Swiss programs can support themselves on advertising. The markets are too small. They’d never be able to finance it. It means the programs we are doing today won’t be there anymore,” Brenn says. “There is no plan B.”

Referendum initiator Kleeb disagrees, saying he would like to see the public service group about half its size, funded by advertising, donations, and a sort-of pay-per-view system. He envisions a platform for news based on Netflix or Spotify, where users can choose which stories to consume and by whom.

That way, he says, “you’ll be able to have access to the news that they want, not the news that’s forced on you.”

Brenn believes that’s the real point of the initiative: “They don’t like it that we’re balanced in our news coverage.” He adds, “They say we are too left; the left says we’re too conservative.”

This is where the referendum gets tricky. Christoph Blocher, a Swiss industrialist who for decades has been the leading ideologist behind the far-right People’s Party, SVP, has been slowly buying media in the German-speaking part of the country. Blocher and his party support the referendum.

He controls the largest subscription newspaper in Basel, Basler Zeitung, and has an operating agreement with another subscription paper in Grison. There is speculation that he also quietly finances Weltwoche, a popular conservative weekly news magazine. In August he purchased 24 free papers that together cover nearly all of the German-speaking country. In at least one instance, he replaced the editor of one of those papers.  

“Blocher’s motivation behind these free papers is political power; he wants to send his messages; the SVP’s messages to his readers,” professor Wyss says.

There has also been speculation that when SRG goes digital in the coming years, Blocher will buy up the FM frequencies and produce hyper-local programing with a conservative bent. Blocher denies he has any intention at this time to do so.

Wyss, the journalism professor, calls Blocher’s strategy “fear media,” and he points to a 2016 incident in Salez, Switzerland as an example. A man set fire in train, injuring six people. Fox News sent a crew and insinuated it was a terrorist actexcept that it wasn’t, Wyss says. “We use that [in class] as an example of what could happen if they or Breitbart or these other companies try to increase their influence here in Switzerland.”

That does not disturb proponents of the referendum. Kleeb says he turns off the radio when he hears stories about the center-left or left parties. The digital new information order means he has immediate access to news he wants to read from all over the world. Blocher’s purchase of the newspapers is saving jobs in Switzerland.

Moreover, he says he is not concerned about the future of local or regional news, believing the markets will pick up from the vacuum left by a smaller SRG.

When asked if citizens would be properly informed to make a well-rounded decision during an election or for a referendum if they didn’t have access to a variety of opinions, Kleeb answered, “They already are selective.”

Moreover, he says he welcomes a further divide in politics and society. “I hope we have more polarization. That’s the only way to energize people to act.”

Brenn hopes that over the next three months he and his colleagues at SRG will be able to energize people to support public service media. He knows that success at the polls will depend on outreach to youtha hard sell, like the grilling he got at his own studio.  Even his own son, who is 23, complains about the fee.

Zerouak, the student, says that although he gets most of his news from his phone, he makes a point to check SRF online from time to time. He estimates he goes to its website about three times a week.

Yet he supports paying the annual fee because it’s necessary to back public service. “We can’t leave news to commercial networks alone,” he says.

Brenn isn’t relying just on supportive professors like Wyss to teach youth about the merits of quality journalism. SRG is pulling out all stops: They have a largefor Switzerlandpresence on Twitter. They are active with Instant Videos and live feeds on Facebook. One TV anchor has written a book, to come out in January, making the case for public service broadcasting.

Along the way, they have to maintain their mission to present both sides of the referendum, providing equal time to the group that wants to defund them.

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Alison Langley 's stories have appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian, The Financial Times, and Deutsche Welle. She currently lives in Zurich.