Accountability systems

In June 2011, the Swiss Federal Council published a report entitled “Protection of the pluralisms of the press” and stated that the Swiss publishers have to take the lead in keeping pace with the ongoing transformation of the media industry. Three years later, the federal government reiterated that the accountability, the responsibility and the ability of self-regulation by the corporate media have to be the primary answer to media system in disruption. Strange enough, the government was not willing to take action, although the findings of several different research undertakings demonstrated a wide range of structural deficits, especially in the newspaper industry.

Between 1968 and 2013, the number of subscribed daily and weeklies shrank from 410 to 210 units. On the other hand, the number of free sheets has risen. Out of 26 cantons, 21 only have one or even no newspapers within their territories. Only in the cantons of Zurich, Geneva, and Ticino, there are two politically and economical independent media organisations with a daily newspaper. Only one third of all households in Switzerland are subscribed to a daily newspaper. Advertisements accounted for around 70 percent of the revenues in the past century. This figure is currently down to 50 percent. The financial loss of the classic print media cannot be compensated by the growth of the online news media (Schranz et al 2017). The growing Native Advertising provokes collateral damage, which requires new self-regulation modes for digital and analogue journalism (Porlezza 2017). In the French-speaking part, the biggest publishing house Tamedia controls both print media as well as the online media market (Vogler 2016). The low level of availability and willingness to pay results in a down-spiral in online information media concerning the quality standards, which collide with the requirements of direct-democratic decision-making processes (Schranz et al 2017).

The newly established Federal Media Commission (FMEC), headed by Otfried Jarren, a communication and media researcher from the University of Zurich has been more active than the Federal Government. The extra-parliamentary FMEC is an independent commission of experts set up by the Federal Council. It advises the authorities with regard to the media, such as on the development of social communications, and contributes to sustainable solutions for shaping the future of the Swiss media system. The 15 members of the Commission are professional experts from various fields like publishing, radio and television associations, the broadcaster SRG SSR, media studies, education and training, new media, advertising, journalism and civil society. In addition to its advisory, monitoring and analysing function, the commission has also the right, to promote the public discourse and to address critical topics on its own initiative and discretion.

In 2014, the FMEC - in sharp contrast with the Federal Government - not only assessed the trends but also called for political action and recommended a number of supporting measures to the Federal Council. According to the FMEC, the Swiss media are caught up in an irreversible process of transformation. The changes are happening at a rate that many traditional organisations cannot cope with. In addition, a process of internationalisation is taking place in the media sector, which exacerbates the challenges for industry structures in the confined limits of Switzerland. In the interests of democracy it appears advisable for the FMEC that this process should be accompanied by supportive measures, because the current press subsidy arrangements do little to meet this need. To ensure a diverse and pluralistic media landscape, the FMEC therefore proposed various measures under certain conditions. In this process - according to the FMEC - the potential influence of the state should be kept as small and brief as possible, and thus prevent a situation which merely maintains the structures. In its report, the FMEC recommended two types of subsidy action. Both types differ in their timeline: short/medium-term (1) versus long-term (2):

  • Type 1: Subsidies for basic press agency activities, for journalistic training and professional development, and for innovation projects through a programme of the Commission for Technology and Information (CTI).
  • Type 2: Subsidies for journalistic startup businesses, for outstanding editorial or journalistic services and for media research. 

Four months later, the reluctant Federal Council reacted to the propositions in a report - created in fulfilment of a motion by the Political Institutions Committee of the National Council. However, the Federal Council has been very cautious about the rapid introduction of new support measures. For the Federal Council, the structural changes are continuing in the media industry, the media concentration is increasing and advertising revenue is being diverted from traditional to online media.Further developments are currently not foreseeable and the outcome of the transformation is open. The Federal Council concluded that the various challenges - caused by the transformation - can best be tackled by the industry itself. Therefore, the Federal Council wants to give the industry time to cope with it on its own. The Federal Council shares the opinion that "the primary focus is on self-responsibility and the self-regulatory capacity of the media companies.".Further, the Federal Council fears that the premature introduction of untested funding and subsidies approaches could lead to wrong incentives in the media market.

A newly released research by the Foundation of Technology Assessment proposes an “Infrastructure programme for journalism“ (Puppis et al 2017) and made some recommendations for political action: Media policy should support journalism financially, safeguarding the conditions for independent media performance; politics, the media industry and the citizens have to ensure that (not only younger) citizens are media literate; media organisations and new intermediaries are required to safeguard transparency.