We all grew up with the standard formula: journalism plays a crucial role in making western democracies work by providing citizens with the information that enables them to make informed judgments about urgent issues of general interest. Therefore, the fundamental question for those who study the western new media is: Do they in fact do what they are supposed, and claim, to do?
In the Netherlands, the common answer according to most (Dutch) journalists and researchers is: yes. Usually this claim is followed by a few caveats that amount to non-systemic criticism or an admission that exceptions to the general rule do exist.
In reality the answer is: only very rarely. Dutch journalism often provides an uncritical platform to political and corporate propaganda, for instance during the run-up to the war with Iraq, and as a rule impedes democracy instead of promoting it. Throughout the twentieth century and up to the present, Dutch journalism has primarily served, not the interests of the population but those of elites.
Nick Davies, the Guardian-journalist and author of the acclaimed Flat Earth News is convinced that his devastating critique of British journalism is also germane to other western countries. That’s indeed to be expected. The crucial western capitalist context in which the news media operate in Dutch society and which they fundamentally reflect, is the same as that of British and American societies. Economic and foreign policies in the three countries are much more alike than different. The Netherlands too avowedly promotes ‘free trade’ and ‘the spread of democracy’ to less fortunate countries. In the Netherlands too, neoliberal thinking dominates politics.
Journalism in the three countries is also very much alike. The ruling professional ideology is ‘objectivity.’ The media are mostly privately-owned and depend on advertising revenue. In the name of ‘freedom of the press’, the government exercises restraint, taking the position that, as much as possible, the market should decide which publications live and die. But journalists and politicians are caught in a symbiotic relationship and the PR industry exerts a lot of covert influence on journalism.
It was American journalist Ben Bagdikian, who claimed in his popular The Media Monopoly , now in its sixth edition, that continuing concentration in the American media industry amounts to a de facto news monopoly. As a result, American news reflects the interests of political and economic elites.
Just like in the Netherlands, where media markets are dominated by a few big corporations. The public broadcaster, which admittedly has a large market share, has been under attack for years. Like its commercial counterparts, it is a victim to the logic of cost-cutting. Moreover, the public broadcaster too depends to a significant extent on income generated by commercials.
It is no wonder therefore that ‘ordinary’ Dutch people regularly complain that the agenda-setting media do not represent their interests or even reflect their problems. One can understand why most people do not concern themselves with politics. It’s not as if they have actual influence. Politics has marginalized the people with the crucial support of the media. In the eyes of journalism too the people’s proper place is on the sidelines. This was clearly shown by the negative press reactions to the Greek prime minister’s proposal in 2011 to hold a referendum on the euro crisis. As Willem Schoonen frankly stated in the newspaper Trouw, the future of the euro is too important to leave to the citizen.
The official version of Dutch media history maintains that the partisan journalism which was prevalent until the 1970s fell far short, because it was intimately tied to political parties. In the 1970s, journalism professionalized and since then it has done more or less what it is supposed to do.
But this is a very partial account. Indeed, the partisan media hardly practiced journalism as we like to see it done: acting as the watchdog of democracy. But when journalism shrugged off its political ties, the market filled the vacuum, and far from the market functioning as an ‘engine of freedom,’ to use British scholar James Curran’s words - the market in reality amounted to yet another ‘system of control,’ to cite Curran once again.
The commercial media’s primary task is not to provide the population with relevant, independently-gathered information. Their primary task is to deliver readers, viewers and listeners to advertisers. As a consequence, the media in the Netherlands are owned by rich corporations and persons who have a stake in maintaining friendly ties with other corporations and also the government, for access to powerful political sources needs to be kept at all costs.
No wonder that the journalistic product reflects the interests of elites. The media are the elite, also in the Netherlands, its reputation of a progressive country regarding ‘cultural’ issues like abortion and the death penalty notwithstanding. Dutch journalism thus remains far from independent, at least, if we take Jurgen Habermas’ definition seriously, whereby a public sphere ‘can only approach autonomy if it is independent from both the state and commercial interests’.
In the 1970s, one poll showed that the majority of Dutch journalists had little faith in commercial journalism, echoing an insight that the Dutch underground press during WWII articulated well. Those truly brave journalists blamed the widespread collaboration of the mainstream press with the Germans on the need to keep the newspaper companies in business.
Now leading Dutch media scholars like Jo Bardoel, Cees Hamelink and Kees Brants, and also prominent journalists like Paul Brill and Jan Tromp, warned in the 1970s against the continuing commercialization of journalism. They were part of a small band of critical observers who understood all this very well, a critical perspective that disappeared from the scholarly literature in the 1980s.
But what was true then has even more explanatory power now. The commercialization of the Dutch media has taken giant steps since the 1970s. Making as much money as quickly as possible soon became the guiding adage in the newspaper industry. Since its introduction in the late 1980s commercial television has conquered the Dutch market to the extent that the public broadcaster now holds a market share of ‘only’ about a third. Moreover, the last decade especially has seen the dismantling of public broadcasting in the Netherlands. As Habermas once remarked, we should not succomb to too many illusions about a media system in which a public broadcaster is present but in which commercial media set the tone. It’s a reasonable assumption that the quality of Dutch journalism, as it was, has taken a hit due to the many layoffs in the newspaper industry and the rise of the internet, among other things.
For Dutch journalism the introduction of the internet has turned out to be a disaster. Dramatically lower advertising and subscription incomes have aggravated the already existing, structural problems of commercial journalism. Now there is even less money for investigative journalism. Articles are often put on the web as quickly as possible, without taking the time to check facts or come up with original story ideas or angles. In short, lack of money and manpower have made Dutch journalism even more vulnerable to the nefarious influence of the burgeoning pr-industry.
Not only has professional journalism suffered because of the digital revolution, the hope that the internet would spawn alternative forms of journalism has turned out to be unfounded. Yes, a few websites in the Netherlands are dedicated to media criticism and journalism, but they are underfunded and little-known, as were their predecessors of the alternative press. The answer to the question, Who is going to pay all those critical, blogging journalists? is clear. No one. The only hope left is a solution for which there is almost no support in The Hague, the Dutch seat of government: a large infusion of public monies.
Journalists and other (e.g. academic) observers underestimate the extent to which Dutch journalism has failed democracy because they typically do not problematize the concept of democracy. To them, serving democracy means serving the status quo. The problem is that the status quo is hardly democratic.
Was Dutch journalism truly the keeper of democracy, then it would have rung the alarm a long time ago. For democracy in the Netherlands is nothing but a hollow shell, as can be gleaned from excellent books by journalist Gerard van Westerloo (Niet spreken met de bestuurder), sociologist J.A.A. Van Doorn (Nederlandse democratie), Guardian-columnist Joris Luyendijk (Je hebt het niet van mij maar....) and sociologist Willem Schinkel (De nieuwe democratie).
Luyendijk for instance drew five devastating conclusions in his ethnographic study of the Dutch political milieu. First, the politicians, public relations experts, lobbyists and journalists in The Hague are best seen as one tribe instead of warring groups. His second conclusion is that the Netherlands has ‘one of the most closed-off political cultures in the West.’ Lobbyists are not even required to register, as they are for instance in the United States.
Luyendijk’s third conclusion is that members of parliament lack the means and the logistical support to do their job well, with the result that they heavily depend on their civil servants and lobbyists. Many questions asked by members of parliament in session originate with lobbyists. His fourth conclusion is that the methods that spin merchants use to influence the news and polish up the image of politicians are indeed effective. His final conclusion is that for the participants, there is no escape from getting entangled in the little milieu that makes up Dutch politics: journalists need their sources tomorrow too.
Much research performed by Dutch media studies scholars over the last decades does indeed show the lack of journalistic independence and the frequent pro-elite biases in the reporting. Yet scholars are typically reluctant to draw the ultimate conclusions as to the true extent to which journalism has failed the Dutch population. One cause, in my opinion, is that many researchers too hold to elitist notions of democracy.
Take Dutch reporting on the run-up to the war in Iraq. The majority of the population was against war. Independent experts were of the opinion that Iraq (very likely) had no WMDs. The US and British governments never provided evidence to the contrary. Lawyers warned that an invasion would be illegal. But the Dutch press praised Colin Powell’s mendacious speech before the Security Council and lent much more credence to the claims that Iraq possessed WMDs than the facts warranted.
The credible claims that the US was in it for the oil could only rarely be found on the pages of newspapers and the obvious interests of the joint Dutch-British-owned Shell in war and the corporation’s influence on Dutch foreign policy went virtually unmentioned. On the day of the invasion, NRC Handelsblad, the Dutch New York Times, wrote that one could have reasonable doubts about whether the invasion was justified. Nonetheless, according to the paper, now that the Brits and the Americans had gone to war, they should be supported by the Netherlands, not just politically but also militarily if need be.
In other words, if Britain and the US jump off a bridge, the Netherlands should follow suit. Or, rather, if Britain and the US rob a store.... Hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of refugees later, one would hope that the Dutch press has been humbled by the shame of that slavish attitude in 2003. But no. Dutch press commentary during the US troop withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 ignored or put a positive spin on the illegal invasion and occupation, the devastation of Iraq and the well-documented US war crimes.
The government-installed but independent commission that examined Dutch involvement in the Iraq-war concluded in 2010 that the government supported Washington primarily in order to maintain the intimate partnership established after WWII. One can expect the Dutch state to prioritize the political and economic interests of elites over human life, especially when the victims are ‘mere’ Iraqis. The problem is: Dutch journalism does the same.
This article first appeared in Dutch in the alternative Dutch news-site, Ravage.
Bergman, Tabe, ‘Following Washington’s Lead: The Dutch Press on the Run-up to the War in Iraq,’ International Communication Gazette.
Bergman, Tabe, ‘Liberal or Radical? Rethinking Dutch Media History,’ Javnost-The Public 3(2013): 93-108.
Bergman, Tabe, ‘Relevant But Long Since Absent: Re-establishing a Political Economy of the Dutch Media,’ International Journal of Communication 7(2013): 722-740.
Bergman, Tabe, ‘Euros over Citizens: The Dutch Press’s Narrow Conception of Democracy.’ Presentatie op het congres van de Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), Washington DC, August 2013.
Schoonen, Willem (5 November, 2011) ‘Democratie? Een dealbreaker is het!’ Trouw, p. 23.