By Alessandro Gisotti
During the pandemic, “journalism in public service media organizations became vital to the public information campaigns, public health campaigns, vital to proper insight and analysis. It kept people informed but more importantly it kept people alive”. This is a passage from the Prix Italia “BBC Lecture” pronounced by Noel Curran, director general of EBU, the European Broadcasting Union which is the world’s leading alliance of public service media with 115 member organizations in 56 countries and an additional 31 associates worldwide. In this interview with Vatican Radio and L’Osservatore Romano, Mr Curran focuses on the future of journalism, in the light of the pandemic, and explains why information will always be vital for the common good and progress of democratic societies.
Delivering the BBC lecture at the Prix Italia you affirmed that journalism is under threat. What are, in your opinion, the major challenges in our days to good information and quality journalism?
I think there's a load of very complex challenges. I think the whole digital news cycle which is 24-hours a day 7-days a week, which means quick delivery, speed, being first, is key, I think that is a challenge because some journalists do not have enough time to do proper research. They rely on the same sources and I think that is a challenge. I think intimidation of journalists is a real challenge, and then, the global players: the fact that so much power, so much influence, is now housed in a few large multinational organizations. And I think the power that these global tech companies have, acting as gatekeepers… I think that is also a real challenge for journalism.
As you know there is a lot of negativity about the press, however, as you were saying, during the pandemic journalism had very positive role, especially public service media. How can we keep this momentum?
I think it is worth reiterating the role that public service media played, in particular, during the pandemic. It became a portal for the population: it became somewhere they went for education, where they went for news, where they went for public health messaging. We need to maintain that because they were both young and old audiences and I think we maintain that by saying “How are we different to everybody else? What is it that public service media offers that others don’t?” It's about providing the range of programs, not just being driven by ratings and commercial profit, being driven by public interest, the need to give the public more educational programming and more information programming.
You are convinced that investigative journalism and international news are fundamental and that public service media needs to invest in both. Why are they so important for you?
I think it is important that we, as publically funded public service media, need to invest in investigative journalism because we have seen the returns, we’ve seen the public good, we’ve seen how it has impacted on public policy around Europe, how it has given people insights into worlds they didn't know existed. I think in terms of international news, international news is expensive - Vatican Radio does a fantastic job in terms of bringing the world to people - but a lot of media organizations don't. International news tends to be one of the first things reduced when there are budget cuts, and I think that that for public service media that is a huge mistake because it is one of those things that makes us different to a lot of other media: the amount we invest in international news and international coverage. It is also part of our public service remit, that we do look beyond ourselves and that we do bring the world to our audiences, wherever they may be.
In his message for the last World Day of Communications Pope Francis observed that nothing replaces seeing things at first hand and underlines that journalists are called to “hit the streets”. How is that possible in a media environment, as you were saying, that is more and more dominated by the digital platforms?
For me what Pope Francis was saying around “hitting the streets” works in different ways. One is going out to meet the populations that you serve and all of the audiences, being there, on the ground with them. The other is that we reflect them, that we reflect them in our own workforce. It’s that we make very sure, that we be very careful that we have a workforce which reflects the broader society, be it in terms of race, in terms of gender, in terms of social background. For me, the phrase that he used about “hitting the street” works in both ways: It’s going out there, it's working on the ground, hearing what is happening on the ground (which a lot of our people do), but it is also, in our own organizations, reflecting what the ground looks like, and reflecting the diversity that we see in communities now.
How would you explain to young people - the social media generation, the millennials – the relevance of journalism for their future, for their lives? How would you convince a student that investing in journalism is worth it?
(What I would say to young audiences is) I would refer to every piece of research that there is that shows that huge amounts of young people access social media, they access the tech companies, while relatively small numbers of them have trust in what they are reading. So they access it, but they don't trust it! What I would say to them is that professional journalism allows you to trust what you are reading. Wouldn’t it be great to access news and content online, the way you want to and actually trust it? Because you don't have that now. That is why those younger audiences turned to us in the last 12 months the way they did, and now we need to reach out to them and we need to try to hold on them.