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External review of public broadcaster calls time on political interference – UJF president welcomes findings

The external review of the operations of the Finnish Broadcasting Company (Yle) has found that while the public broadcaster operates independently, Yle needs to put its house in order with respect to its journalistic management.

The review was conducted by Professor Olli Mäenpää, who headed the independent media watchdog the Council for Mass Media (CMM) from 1999-2003. Yle commissioned the review of the company’s journalistic decision making in February.

This came amidst the fallout in the wake of efforts by the Prime Minister, Juha Sipilä, last year to influence reporting on a business deal concerning a company, Terrafame, owned by members of his family, and of the subsequent restrictions on reporting the affair imposed by Yle’s management.

According to the review, the so-called Terrafame case has not been adequately addressed in the house. It recommends that Yle’s Board of Directors re-evaluates journalistic management in news and current affairs in this respect and draws the necessary conclusions.

The so-called Sipilägate controversy led to severe reprimands by the CMM amidst extensive public debate about press freedom and the role of politicians concerning the media.

Mäenpää’s review finds that the maim problems at Yle specifically concern the editorial organization and running of news and current affairs. There are clear disparities between newsroom and management practices. Emphasis has been placed on editors and management avoiding mistakes and criminal liability instead of journalistic responsibility. In individual cases management has fallen into micromanagement.

The review finds that journalists feel they cannot rely on the support of management in all situations.

It also says that is especially problematic that safeguarding Yle’s funding could have led to positive and cautious journalism favouring those in positions of political influence and in programmes dealing with political power holders.

The review finds that in the case of Terrafame these problems became evident in the extreme. Mäenpää warns against generalizing the details of the Terrafame case concerning the Yle’s other editorial activities, but points out that other similar situations emerged from the interviews conducted for the review.

Altogether 48 people were interviewed for the review, most of them Yle staff and key figures. The interviews revealed that efforts by power holders to influence Yle’s journalistic decisions were not unusual. But for the most part the experience of journalists was that such efforts did not affect their journalistic work.

Mäenpää’s general conclusion is that while Yle acts independently, it should not dismiss efforts to influence its work as a “customary”.  Direct efforts to influence Yle’s journalism are newsworthy.

Mäenpää wrote that it is essential that Yle’s journalistic independence from external influence is strengthened and made more conspicuous. These requirements could be introduced by having a visible and robust firewall, which in part could include a legal definition of independence in the public broadcasting act, as well as annual reporting on efforts to influence Yle’s work.

UJF president Hanne Aho welcomed the findings of the review, which she said are good and relevant. “The report is sincere and it’s an extremely important matter.”

Speaking to delegates to the spring conference of the UJF Council, Aho said that the situation at the public broadcaster has been overwhelmingly harsh for many people. She said that Yle staff have been preoccupied not just with redundancy talks but also with the massive debate going on about Yle.

“It should be remembered that Yle is a company with hundreds of highly skilled programme makers. The debate on whether the management of Yle has prevented the publication of information about leading politicians or acted under pressure from them concerns only a small number of them. Yet the shadow falls on everyone.

A clear message in the review was that Yle’s news and current affairs have problems concerning organization and journalistic broadcasting. This is not the case in other editorial units.”

She pointed out that Yle is Finland’s largest media house that that its journalism reaches every corner of the country. In her view it is crucial that people can continue to rely on Yle, and that all Yle employees can be sure of the support of their superiors when the going gets tough.

“The management now needs to demonstrate great humility and a strong desire to bring about change,” said Aho