The Swedish political party the Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna) stirred quite a bit of attention in Sweden yesterday. The party announced that 20 journalists that had applied for press accreditation for the party’s convention later in November would not be granted it. The result was a virtual outrage from the media and the party’s political opponents. I’d like to comment on that, but also, more importantly, on how this is part of a changing media landscape and something that I wager will become more frequent over the years to come.
The Sweden Democrats initially claimed that all applicants could not be granted press accreditations due to lack of space. 70 journalists had applied for it but the party could only accomodate 50, they claimed. This soon turned out to be an obvious falsehood though, as one of Aftonbladet’s journalists requested that his press accreditation be granted to one of his colleagues instead, and the party refused. Also, the party made a U-turn that very evening saying that all applicants would be accredited, proving there was no problems solving the accomodation issue, if there ever was one.
Critics claim that the party tried to influence journalists’ work and how the party is portrayed by the media. Of course they did! All party’s do, as do all companies and organizations big enough to have a public image to worry about. That’s what press offices and press secretaries are for! Their purpose is not primarily to cater the press, but to establish and maintain a favorable public image of the employer. The fact that Swedish media either does not understand this, or pretends that this is not the case, is at once both sad and laughable.
Some critics even claimed that the Sweden Democrats tried to limit the freedom of the press. Frankly, I think that’s a grand exaggeration. Having a press accreditation to a political convention typically means that you are provided with a work station and that you are given coffee and snacks for free. Freedom of the press means you have a right to write, publish and distribute what you see fit. It does not mean that everybody else have responsibility to go out of their way to help you to do so. If you are a journalist and you are working on an piece about me, I am under no obligation to invite you in to my home, offer you my kitchen table as a work station, and serve you coffee while you work.
Even so, not granting a select group of journalists press accreditation to a political convention is unorthodox and, in my opinion, regrettable. To me, exposing yourself to scrutiny and critisism the way you do when you let journalists into your midst, is a sort of “quality certification”. It means that you acknowledge and promote the instrumental value that journalism provides for the greater public.
And that’s the key thing here. It seems to me as if it is increasingly becoming the perception, especially among journalists, that journalism provides an intrinsic value. It doesn’t. The intrinsic values are information, awareness, and a relationship of sorts with politicians, corporations and organizations that everybody could not possibly have a personal dialogue and relationship with. Could not, as in “could not before”.
For the last century or so, the media has been the channel through which the public has got important and up-to-date information, as well as the only way of having any kind of semi-relationships with politicans, CEOs and celebrities. It has also been the only, or at least the best, channel for those same people to reach the public. And journalists seem to increasingly confuse their instrumental role, which they have played for so long in this chain of interaction, with the intrinsic values that it represents. The digital age offers new ways for the public to reach influential people and institutions. And, conversely, for these people and institutions to reach the public.
The media part of the interaction can increasingly be bypassed altogether. That’s the big picture here, and unfortunately it is being overlooked. For the first time (in Sweden at least) a political party has recognized that it doesn’t need to go through the filtered channel that is the media to reach the public. This is part of a major shift in all communications, not just politics. In a recent survey among Swedish marketing directors, the bulk of them said that they will reduce their spending on marketing in traditional and increase their presence (not necessarily spending) in digital channels and social media. Marketing directors of B2C companies even said that they will reduce their spending on PR and media relations. They realize that in the future media will no longer be as important a part of communications. That’s the big news story here, and it should be sending shockwaves through the media. And yet, it is not.