Watch out for the virtual freemasons

Once we had organisations like Opus Dei, the Illuminati and the Rosecrutians: secret, closed, usually WASP’s networks you had be very influential and undergo obscure initiation rites to be admitted into. The freemasons of the information age, however, are of a different breed all together.

Some of you might remember the peculiar case of journalist Anna Björkman, whose temporary contract, to cover European Melody Grand Prix for Sweden’s biggest broadsheet Dagens Nyheter, was terminated in early 2006 after an 'investigative scoop' revealed she participated on a closed email-list, aptly entitled “The Elite”. The list counted some of Sweden's top celebrities as subscribers, centred on celebrity gossip and was run by Swedish artist Alexander Bard. In other words, a clear charge of ‘freemasonry’, according to the same newspaper.

Imagine the new groundbreaking piece of investigative documentary focused on one of those vicious, power-hungry, secretive celebrity-gossip email-lists, where participants plot to impress upon a producer to cast a particular actress or actor in the hottest new movie, comment on the best bums in town, or the most outrages extra-martial affairs.

Perhaps this type of scandal is exactly what we deserve in today’s celebrity obsessed culture, and perhaps exactly what Canadian professor Neil Postman had in mind when he wrote in his seminal work “Amusing Ourselves to Death”:

"Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of showbusiness, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.” Comparing George Orwell’s dystopia “1984” with Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New world”, Postman wrote: "Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance."

Before “Amusing Ourselves…” was even conceived of, The Observer’s Scandinavian correspondent of the early sixties, Roland Huntford, in his largely forgotten book “The New Totalitarians”, compared Swedish society to that of Huxley’s “Brave New World” and said that of the “1984” dystopic scenario, where authority was enforced from above, and that of Huxley’s, where the citizens were taught to love their servitude and worship the superficial, Sweden had certainly embraced the latter. Fast-forward to 2006 and a Swedish journalist is fired for taking part on a ‘secret’ gossip list – now if that is not a storm in a teapot verging of a sea of irrelevance, I don’t know…

I guess I have to state for the record that I'm not a member of any secret email list, and I'm not planning on joining one any time soon, but I found this story a rather troublesome 'highlight' from 2006 for two reasons: 1) the sheer triviality of the subject, and 2) the story reminds me of the problematic idea of perfect information: the argument against Björkman was that journalists should not take part in forums that are not open to the public, whereas I thought part of a journalist's role was exactly to open up closed doors, be a mediator or the public's eyes where the public cannot go - 'cause let's face it, even in today's increasingly transparent world, information is not perfect, not equally distributed, and many doors remain locked to all but a select few...

2006: Mergers, acquisitions and plain war

The Scandinavian media landscape changed irrevocably in 2006: Orkla sold its media arm to a British company built on borrowed money, the region's media giants were busy consolidating and expanding internationally, and Swedes and Danes were bombarded with freesheets from left, right and centre

In what has been dubbed 'The darkest day in Norwegian media history', former Mirror boss David Montgomery bought Orkla Media, but had to borrow money from Orkla to finalise the deal - aggravating Orkla journalists already aggravated that Orkla had decided to sell to a foreigner. To add insult to injury, it was later revealed that Orkla Media executives had received generous bonuses to stay onboard throughout the sales process.

In Sweden, Modern Times Group (MTG) scooped up close to a dozen TV-channels in eastern Europe, but paused its expansion eastwards to acquire Norway's biggest commercial radio company P4. The Swedes do of course have a historic preference for eastern dominions, and Hans Holger-Albrectht, MTG's CEO said: "Norway is also east for us, it depends on where you stand." Bonnier strengthened its positions in the east as well, but in two raiding trips across the Atlantic it also acquired Weldon Owen Publishing and half of World Publications. After a few years of consolidating its Nordic position, the Swedish media giant signalled it was hungry for more international acquisitions, especially in the US.

Merger mania
Norwegian media group Schibsted moved out of TV, but consolidated its leading position online. Kjell Aamot, Schibsted's CEO, was crowned the king of internet in Sweden, and, following favourable mention in The Economist, Schibsted's successful online transition – its biggest Norwegian online paper had a staggering 42 per cent profit margin in 2005 - was put on the curriculum at Harvard University. The company outmanouvered Montgomery by forging a gigantic merger, dubbed an acquisition by Mecom, between Schibsted's Aftenposten and southern Norway's three biggest regional papers. The merger, which has yet to be granted regulatory approval, prompted Mecom to sell its shares in the profitable big regionals, a move Dagbladet's editor-at-large, John Arne Markussen, predicted will weaken Mecom's ability to defend its local positions in the long run.

Meanwhile, Baugur-controlled Dagsbrun, who lost the battle for Orkla Media, challenged Montgomery and others to freesheet war in Denmark. The Icelandic company sent shivers down the spine of Danish media proprietors when it announced plans to launch its quality, door-to-door distributed free newspaper, highly successful on Iceland, internationally – with Denmark as the first stop. It provoked a freesheet war on an unprecedented scale, and prompted Danish trade journal Journalisten to send a representative to Iceland to investigate the actual finances of a conglomorate whose intricate company structure makes such things somewhat opaque.

Montgomery won the race to bring the first new freesheet to Danish doorsteps, and Icelandic Nyhedavisen got off to a late and bad start, hampered with technical problems and shambolic distribution, but at the end of 2006 it was not looking too good for Montgomery's Dato. Mecom-owned Berlingske Officin already has one well-established traffic distributed freesheet with a distinct profile, Urban, why then sink money into a door-to-door distributed one which had the worst readership figures of all the major freesheets in recent polls? One new freebie has already thrown in the towel, which leaves five, in addition to Nord Jyske's two regional ones. My bet is that Dato will be the next to go, at least that would make most sense if logic has anything to do with it.

Hmm, did I forget anything? Many smaller M&As I'm sure, and of course, Schibsted and Bonnier challenged MetroXpress' freesheet domination in Sweden...

All is fair in love and newspaper war

Well, maybe not, but sometimes you just get lucky... Remember the story of the media company that graded prostitutes? As always, the question of 'who benefits from the story' is a pertinent one...

Imagine you plan to launch an ambitious new freesheet that aims to grab market shares from all the existing, well-established paid newspapers, and, while examining you future competitors businesses, you find that one of these respected media companies has a subsidiary company with a website that reviews prostitutes in the same way other newspapers review restaurants. I'll save you all the sordid details, you can read the full story in Danish here (via Journalisten), but say this is a company on par with News International: the website in question is run by The Sun, but the overall director for the site is also the director for the entire corporation, so you can justify a title which sounds pretty much like "The Times buys and tests prostitutes." The Danish media company in question takes its name from its two 'serious' newspapers Jyllandsposten (JP) and Politiken, hence the headline "JP/Politiken buys and tests prostitutes", which, by implication, made the whole media group party to the bizarre 'consumer testing' - voila, what a scoop for David Trads and Nyhedsavisen, who also came close to igniting another Mohammed crisis with the scoop he ran on the paper's launch day...

Move to scrap TV-license after ministers fail to pay up

After three of the new Swedish government's ministers had been hauled of the coals, and one forced to resign, for dodging the TV-license, last month's indications that the government wants to ditch the licence system alltogether made sense. Apparently three out of four parties in the government coalition are keen to get rid of the licence: both The Centre Party and the Moderates are said to consider putting it on the tax slip, and the Liberals have come up with the altogether more novel suggestion of selling off state companies to create funds from which television companies can apply for money, according to The Local. A spokesman for The Centre Party said the TV license system was outdated in today's changing media landscape.

Now, I wonder: what will this mean for the labour laws the same government has found it so difficult to abide by?

What Mohammed and Montgomery can tell us about our brave new (media) world

2006 was a year of big ethical challenges and high-strung financial deals, or "The year of Mohammed and Montgomery" as Norwegian trade journal Journalisten so aptly headlined its summary of Norway's media year.

The year started with Norwegian and Danish flags and embassies set ablaze in the Middle East, following the publication of the infamous Mohammed cartoons, and ended with loud protests about former Mirror boss David Montgomery wielding the axe in his new won European media empire – both potent symbols of a rapidly changing (media) world.

The Mohammed-crisis
"There are no time zones anymore," said Christopher Willcox, the then US deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, while describing the challenges in fighting the propaganda war in Iraq, during a seminar I attended in May 2003. Internet, he complained, has made "segregating messages for different groups very difficult".

The cartoon war showed us that there is no national media anymore: as networks of communities spawn the globe, and groups of all interests and persuasions use internet to communicate across borders and distances, every news story in every language has a potential global audience and can spark global reactions and alliances.

The Orkla-Mecom debacle
So does national media ownership really matter in this new global reality? David Montgomery, and his British investment vehicle Mecom's, successful bid for Orkla Media certainly had politcians and journalists in Norway, Denmark, Germany and elsewhere up in arms. "These newspapers are not only businesses but democratic institutions vital to local political debate, a weakening of these newspapers would be critical ," Norway's culture minister, Trond Giske, told me in an interview, and repeated his 'strong preference for a Norwegian buyer' all through the sales process.

The Orkla-Mecom debacle was a typical example of the tension between the local and the global: it could have been Ganette's acquistion of local newspapers in the UK or MacDonalds buying a local restaurant chain in India – at core it was the same story, same reactions, just different countries and different industries. Mecom's acquistion of Orkla Media was also symbolic of the democratisation of finance: could a "fly" like Mecom have found the financial backing to "swallow an elephant" like Orkla Media 30 years ago? The company's highly geared business model continues to be a cause of great concern among the employees of former Orkla Media.

Highlights from the Scandinavian media year 2006

If the year behind us is anything to go by, the Scandinavian media market will be an interesting one to watch also in the year to come. 2006 was so packed with media wars, controversies, upheaval and startling revelations that it almost beggared belief.

On a serious note, it was the year of Mohammed and Montgomery, a year the regions' media map was redrawn, and the year of the great freesheet invasion. Among the lighter, but still thought-provoking, stories that caught my attention: All is fair in love and newspaper war, Watch out for the virtual freemasons and Move to scrap TV-license after ministers fail to pay up.

As the year progressed, so did these stories, and some I simply never found the time to blog, so most of these blog posts are new, though I sometimes link back to old stuff to explain. Two previously blogged stories that were symptomatic of the year: 'hack fired for accessing the governing party's intranet blogs his way back' and 'tabloid contests that a blogger brought down Sweden's trade minister: it had the scoop a day before it published it'

Evidence suggest sex, crime and violence, celebrity and scandal generate the biggest hits online (via Martin Stabe), and Norwegian media magazine Kampanje's top 20 list for 2006 seems to confirm this, but for this blog it's only partially true. Yes, my top story of the year was probably the media company that graded prostitutes, it travelled all over the media world and blogosphere (read the real story behind how the story surfaced here), and generated big hits, especially from Washington Post and this blog I can't even figure out the letters in, but stories on the Mecom-Orkla debacle, especially this and this, and the Norwegian journalist who faked interviews with the rich and the famous also generated a lot of traffic (the latter even earned me a rather dubious thank you note from Microsoft for blogging it in a language its spin maestros could read).

On a more philosophical note, after a year abuzz with so much change an upheaval I guess it's hard not to notice how different the world looks, but the following quote from Norwegian journalist Paul Leveraas is still worth pondering for most news professionals, including a self-empoyed one such as myself: "We stand in the stream of events, while busy chasing deadlines the world changes and we are too busy to notice the change." (I must have copied this down in my early blogging days, cause I don't have a direct url for it).