Danish Broadcasting Corporation locked in a stranglehold with five hundred jobs cut

Column by Henrik Kaufholz, Copenhagen

My hairdresser – a nice guy with only a little grey hair left – is also a jazz musician. Before he opens the salon in the early morning he will practice on his trumpet. During the day he will also tune his DAB radio to P8 Jazz.

This is coming to an end. P8 Jazz will close down as the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR) plans to axe a lot of its activities. He is very unhappy about it: “Denmark has a fine tradition for jazz and every summer jazz enthusiasts from all over the world come to Copenhagen for the annual festival”.

The axeing of DR will not only upset friends of jazz. We are talking of a frontal attack on freedom of the media. According to a decision made by the parliament (Folketinget) DR has to cut its budget by 20 percent over the next five years.

“We are approaching the Soviet model,” comments the Danish sociologist Peter Duelund, who has been following state financing of public institutions for years.

And that’s actually what’s going on. Up to now, DR now been funded through licence fees and at the moment has six TV channels and eight national radio channels. The budget is 3,5 billion Danish crowns (470 million EUR) per year. When the whole program of savings is implemented, DR is left with three national TV channels and five radio channels. The staff of close to 3,400 will be cut down to fewer than 3,000, 90 of them are working in the news departments

Some of the changes are of lesser significance and not a cause for concern for me as both a journalist and media freedom activist. Denmark was also a living democracy many years ago when we had only one national TV channel – in black and white.

The first problem is the size of the cuts. To save 20 percent of the budget you must put the broadcasting networks in a stranglehold. You can only see this as revenge. Politicians, mostly from parties in the centre and on the right have for years campaigned against DR claiming it to be “red”. These politicians were humming like Winnie-the-Pooh with his honey-pot when they presented their decisions.

Here you have to know that almost all the journalists who have left DR for politics – like the EP-member Morten Løkkegaard, the former minister of foreign affairs Uffe Ellemann-Jensen and the former EU Commissioner Connie Hedegaard – are all members of conservative or liberal parties. In my eyes it’s absurd to see DR as a “red” institution. It’s closer to the real world to see it as an important part of the establishment – the way the Danish society is organised.

Secondly and even more problematic is the new Public Service Contract between DR and the government (parliament). These contracts were introduced in 2003 and they outline the activities of DR. One point here is the amount of Danish productions that DR is obliged to broadcast – and this does make sense in a country with only six million inhabitants. But the new Public Service Contract is an instrument of torture.

It invalidates the so-called ‘arms-length-principle’, which means that the government – in this case also the parliament – will only outline general rules. It’s then up to DR to design the actual activities: the number of channels, number of Danish films made by its own in-house production, the main news programmes, outsourcing etc., etc. That also the way it used to be. But that’s a bygone.

The former Director General of DR, Christian Nissen, has analysed the public service contracts. The first contract from 2003 had only nine pages. The contract from 2015 had 21 pages and the current one, wielding the axe, has 20 with a very detailed list of activities that DR must – and must not – do. The number of detailed regulations has risen from 56 to 172. How many choirs, musicians, amount of outsourcing, number of news programmes – all are specified. The arm is now very, very short.

Add to this the fact that that the new public service contract is clearly marked by ideology.  DR is now obliged to follow Christian tradition. Some politicians seem to worry about the very good correspondent in the Middle East, Puk Damsgaard, who wears a headscarf while doing research in Syria and Iraq! You have to realise the importance of this point in the contract: DR is setting itself up as a Christian missionary.

Finally DR will in future be funded via the state budget and not – as now – by licence fees. The populist-conservative majority in Folketinget (parliament) has thus established a direct controll mechanism on this very important public service institution.

You will also find the publishers of private media among the victors in the battle about DR. They claim – like colleagues in many countries – that the webpages of public service broadcasting corporations with their excellent content of news and comments distort the media market as they are free of charge while publishers are establishing pay walls to earn money. So DR is no longer allowed to publish longer news pieces, comments, interviews or investigative journalism on its webpage.

The new public service contract will give Danes less good journalism on TV, radio and internet.

My hairdresser now has to tune in on P2 Classic. There he will find a lot of funeral dirges.