12th Apr 2021

Swedish aid for newspapers in EU cross-hairs

Sweden's tradition of support for underdog newspapers is being targeted by the European Commission, which views the country's public funding of a town's second-biggest newspaper as running counter to EU competition rules.

Stockholm has long provided the second-biggest paper in a city or town with state subsidies as a countervailing measure against the tendency for advertisers to flock towards the top-selling paper.

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  • An old copy of the Stockholms Dagblad (Photo: JosephH)

In this way, left-wing newspapers in right-wing areas are protected from the depredations of the market, and vice versa, with the aim of assuring political and media pluralism.

However, the commission on Wednesday (17 June) called on Sweden to reduce the funding it provides to papers in large towns, claiming that they breach EU rules on state aid.

Competition commissioner Neelie Kroes, a Dutch economic conservative, said: "The commission recognises the importance of media pluralism for the cultural, democratic and public debate in [EU] member states and the importance of newspapers in this context."

"However, running a newspaper is also a commercial activity and the commission has a duty to prevent undue distortions of competition and trade resulting from public subsidies."

Ms Kroes believes that the current economic crisis is having "serious negative implications" for the written press, particularly for those papers that do not receive the subsidies.

Specifically, Brussels wants a gradual reduction in the maximum aid provided to large newspapers in the big cities, and for what aid it does provide to be for a limited time only. The commission suggests a period of six years after which a review should be carried out to assess the impact of the aid on pluralism and competition.

The chairwoman of the Journalistförbundet, the Swedish Union of Journalists, Agneta Lindblom Hulthén, said that far from supporting smaller newspapers, the European Commission's perspective threaten their existence.

"The commission really is undermining democracy with this," she told EUobserver.

"Government support for newspapers has a very long tradition and assures that there are more voices. It has been a very important part of the development of Swedish democracy."

"In Sweden today, there are fewer and fewer media outlets," she said. "A total of three big owners have almost total ownership of the market, controlling about a third each."

"Given the growing concentration of ownership in Sweden, the Swedish government instead should do everything to defend and strengthen the present aid," she added.

"Newspapers are dying around the world. We need more aid, not less. This is going totally in the wrong direction."

However, Brussels has only proposed a reduction in aid and a time limit. Sweden has now to say whether it agrees, and it can also suggest a counterproposal that the commission would then consider.

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