We have fact checked some of the public claims made by the current yellow-brown government regarding public contributions to media outlets.
Let’s see how they hold up.
1) ALL NEWSPAPERS ARE RECEIVING PUBLIC MONEY
FALSE. After years of such propaganda, just a few days ago, Undersecretary Vito Crimi himself had to admit that out of around 18,000 newspapers registered in Italy, only 150 are receiving government funds (Crimi on RAI’s Gr1 on Dec. 16). As we explain here, only publishers meeting certain well-defined requirements can access the pluralism fund.
The so-called “big newspapers” (Repubblica, Corsera, Fatto, etc.) are publicly traded corporations and have shareholders who are financing them. They do benefit from the pool of €30 million in concessions and discounts for expenses set out by various laws (which will only exist until 2019, if the proposed amendment passes).
2) THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY IS THE SECTOR RECEIVING THE MOST PUBLIC FUNDS
FALSE. At the beginning of his mandate, Undersecretary Crimi described publishing on several occasions as “the sector receiving the most assistance from the state.”
To support such a claim, the undersecretary calculated that public expenditure for media reached €3.5 billion over 15 years. Beside the issue of the doubtful accuracy of that number, even if it were correct, it is easy to refute his claim by quoting just one figure: the public subsidies for the fossil fuel energy sources that are harmful to the environment (gas, coal, oil, fuel pellets, etc.) are equal to no less than €11.5 billion per year.
That figure is an official one provided by the Environment Ministry. The 5 Stars’ program included the repeal of these subsidies, but this provision has vanished without a trace in the government’s plans and in the draft budget.
3) “PURE PUBLISHERS” DO NOT EXIST IN ITALY
PARTLY TRUE. According to a post published on the 5 Stars’ blog on Nov. 13, “the vast majority of the major Italian newspapers distributed at the national level are owned by publishers who are in full conflict of interest.” This statement is inaccurate.
According to a fact check by AGI, among the most important Italian newspapers, one can find some that are put out by essentially “pure” publishers, i.e. who do not have significant business interests outside publishing (for instance, the media outlets owned by RCS and Riffeser), while others are indeed “impure” (e.g. those owned by the GEDI Group or the Caltagirone Group).
Looking abroad, however, in France there are no “pure” publishers at all, while in Germany they are the norm. The situation in Britain and the United States is a mixed one.
In the end, paradoxically, the proposed cuts to publishing funds are certain to hurt many “pure” publishers, i.e. the media outlets run by journalist cooperatives, which by definition have no other activity except running that newspaper, magazine or radio station. (Il manifesto is one such newspaper.)
4) THE NEWSPAPERS THAT RECEIVE PUBLIC FUNDING ARE DEPENDENT ON THE GOVERNMENT
FALSE. The sheer variety of publications that draw on the pluralism fund shows that these are not newspapers who are subservient to the government: Avvenire is very different from Libero, which is different in turn from il manifesto or Primorski.
The Lotti reform has already given the government a purely administrative role, taking away from the realm of politics the power to decide regarding individual funding requests.
On the contrary, the proposed amendment to the draft budget by the current government is something that smacks of a political power play, harming the freedom of information on a political whim.
As for us at il manifesto, we have no friends in the “high places” of government, nor have we ever had any.
5) CUTTING THE FUNDS FOR NEWSPAPERS IS IN THE GOVERNMENT CONTRACT
FALSE. In fact, the Lega has previously ruled out that possibility. They have said so repeatedly in dozens of interviews and public statements. Furthermore, their opposition was manifest when the draft budget was passed in the Chamber of Deputies, where both the main signatory of the budget law and the government’s representative (both from the Lega) had expressed their opposition to the 5 Stars’ amendment to cut the funds for publishing, causing it to be withdrawn.
Now, as the budget is passing through the Senate, the cut could only be introduced if there is an obvious flip-flop by the Lega.
6) THE PATUANELLI AMENDMENT ELIMINATES STATE SUPPORT FOR PUBLISHING
FALSE. Leaving aside the issue of RAI, the tax-supported public TV station, the 5 Stars’ amendment does not abolish the fund for pluralism, which remains intact at around €180 million. It does change the funding conditions to the point of prohibiting access to all but around 20 larger outlets from the 52 which would be entitled to the funds. It is therefore an amendment that has been carefully tailored against certain outlets, one which will affect voices that are very different, but have one thing in common: all are critical towards, or inconvenient for, the current government majority.
In reality, the last paragraph of the proposed amendment would create a kind of “Crimi Fund” at the full discretion of the Prime Minister’s office, not regulated by any law and not subjected to parliamentary control, to be devoted to vaguely-defined projects by unnamed “public and private entities” to supposedly promote “the culture of free and pluralistic information, of participatory and grassroots communication, of digital and social innovation, and of the use of media.”
The public funding would stay the same: however, the government would have supreme discretion on how to spend it.
7) THE STATE WOULD SAVE MONEY WITH THE PATUANELLI AMENDMENT
FALSE. Not even one euro would be cut from the pluralism fund. Instead, the amendment merely blocks certain publications from having access to it (see point 6 above).
8) THE PRECARIOUS WORKERS IN JOURNALISM WOULD BE BETTER OFF WITHOUT THE ORDER OF JOURNALISTS
FALSE. The Order of Journalists is a public entity governed by applicable laws. Abolishing it would leave the field to be regulated by self-organized private associations. Nothing would prevent the development of more or less “forced” associations of journalists with ties to one particular publisher rather than to another. For example, one might be told: if you want to write for us, you must be represented by association X—with all that this implies.
The Order of Journalists has responded positively to an invitation by the same Mr. Crimi and has presented a proposal for self-reform to the government, which is still awaiting response.
9) THE EDITORS OF NEWSPAPERS ARE INCAPABLE OF INNOVATION
FALSE. No industry has changed more than print media. Holding a newspaper in hand may feel the same as it did 30 years ago, but the way we produce them today no longer has anything to do with how it was done in the time of our grandparents.
A large newspaper is not just a piece of printed paper: it is a professional and industrial organization capable of having a person write on any subject concerning events taking place anywhere in the world at any time, and publishing it over different media channels.
It is a “heavy duty” organization, similar to the civil protection services, which remain in constant readiness to deal with any emergency.
10) PAPER IS DEAD, THE FUTURE IS DIGITAL
FALSE. The publishers of printed media have indeed been swept up by the “digital revolution,” but 85 percent of their revenue still comes from hard copies. Every day, 2.8 million copies of newspapers are sold all over Italy, for a total readership of 16,200,000.
The digital revolution is set to take over TV as well, as soon as the bandwidth is available. There are no more technical obstacles to publishing an article on the web, and the barriers to doing this for video are set to fall in the near future. The first signs of this new trend are already visible (see, for instance, Netflix).
Moreover, apart from GAFA (an acronym which stands for Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook) and the so-called OTT (“Over The Top”) world of on-demand services, it is actually digital publishing which is lacking in innovation.
Ninety-eight of Italian online newspapers depend exclusively on advertising, and earn less than €21,000 per year (according to data from AGCOM).
11) THE FREE MARKET IS ENOUGH TO ENSURE PLURALISM
FALSE. There is no cultural sector that is not being supported by the state in one form or another: books, movies, theaters, operas, museums, exhibitions, monuments. None of these could survive just by selling tickets or the equivalent.
Information is one of the constitutional rights of Italian citizens, which the state must guarantee.
On the contrary, the publishing industry is in the grip of the phenomenon of concentration at every stage of the pipeline: just two groups (RCS and GEDI) sell almost half of all newspaper copies. In many areas of the country, the number of local distributors has fallen to just one per region, while there are just 2-3 major national distributors left.
Left to its own devices, the market favors oligopolies. In the case of information, the resulting situation is typical of authoritarian regimes, not of democracies.
12) PUBLIC CONTRIBUTIONS TO MEDIA EXIST ONLY IN ITALY
FALSE. Apart from tax-supported public TV stations (RAI and the BBC are just two examples), forms of direct or indirect state support to information outlets exist in most European countries, from France to Luxembourg.
In its 2019 budget, Canada has allocated over $600 million for this purpose. In the United States as well, a debate has begun on the need for public protection, especially for local outlets, given the sorry state of state and county newspapers.
There are whole areas in the Western world where—to put it simply—transparent and democratic information about, and control of, those in power no longer exist.
Italy should not become such a place.
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