Our #BrusselsCalling series of media debates – entering its seventh year – moved to a whole new level on 11 March 2021 when Margrethe Vestager, the European Commission’s Executive Vice President for a Europe Fit for the Digital Age, moderated the latest panel discussion. The EVP quizzed journalist covering tech and innovation on what it takes for Europe to catch up with China and the US – and become a digital leader. In the hot seat were Natalia Drozdiak (European tech correspondent, Bloomberg), Ryan Heath (Global Translations author, POLITICO), Kara Swisher (New York Times columnist and Sway podcast host) and John Thornhill (Financial Times innovation editor, Sifted founder and Tech Tonic podcast host).
Journalism under lockdown is (mostly) hard
Working remotely poses as many challenges for journalists as for the rest of us. Natalia cited the absence of in-person conferences where she could have casual conversations and exchange ideas with sources. But then again ‘I never thought I would be speaking to the digital commissioner while wearing yoga pants’.
For Ryan, one issue was building contacts and bonding with sources in the US where he had moved from Brussels just five months before lockdown. Another was being ‘bombarded by messages on multiple platforms’, which made it hard to set boundaries between life and work.
John too noted that journalists are ‘heavily reliant on talking to people we’ve already met’ and that establishing a rapport with new contacts remotely was tough. The upside though was greater access to ‘a lot of important people’ such as CEOs and officials with more time on their hands given travel bans. Ryan told the EVP that remote journalism means ‘gatekeepers have more ways that block us from getting to people like you’. He pointed to the trend for leaders and CEOs opting for soft interviews by think tanks rather than by journalists, although to complain about this would be to seem like ‘a whiny bitch’.
After working from home for 20 years, Kara’s familiarity with digital tools enabled her to launch her Sway podcast smoothly last year. In fact, she previously did half her interviews remotely and questions how many she will conduct in person in future.
Tackling tech’s ‘dark side’
For John, tech companies, with our reliance on them and their astonishing rises in share prices, clearly did well during the pandemic. Journalists areright to focus on the negative aspects of tech but should not forget their positive contribution, particularly in healthcare. Ryan argued the case for getting tax right. ‘Until we figure out a way to crack the tax nut I’m not sure we’ll be able to achieve what we want to achieve’ with reaping the benefits.
Natalia conceded the difficulties faced by the Commission in regulating tech and curbing its ‘dark side’. Regulation will take time to enforce ‘and the more time that we give [to tech companies] the more time we give to these harmful effects to gain steam on the internet’.
For Kara, ‘one issue is speed but also putting into place guardrails to control big tech’. She noted the US government’s recent appointment of antitrust crusaders Lina Khan and Tim Wu to top jobs as a sign of things to come.
How to deal with lobbyists?
Natalia explained the importance of providing balanced coverage of both sides of the story. She was sceptical about the usual arguments from companies that ‘X regulation is going to hurt innovation’, as with GDPR. John agreed, saying journalists should understand both the insurgent and the incumbent tech companies, as the current structures favoured the people with power. The media should also listen to academics, although many are linked to companies.
Ryan was critical of Big Tech’s deep-pockets lobbying approach, saying that often ‘it’s falling flat’. Kara sees tech companies increasingly working with ‘friendly journalists’ and avoiding with tough interviews, ‘which makes sense for them’. She warned however against generalisation on Big Tech, saying each company had its own issues and there was scope for working with some productively.
Big Tech’s call for regulation just a ‘smoke screen’?
John noted that regulation could benefit bigger companies to the disadvantage of smaller players, saying the balance was hard to strike. He mentioned the surge of start-ups in Europe that are challenging incumbents. Kara advocated better support for small start-ups and closer scrutiny of tech giants’ acquisitions.
Ryan argued the EU had been ‘soft on competition’ in terms of mergers, saying ‘so many get cleared but competition drives innovation and clogged-up markets hold innovation back’. EVP Vestager acknowledged: ‘message well taken, competition drives innovation’.
The EVP concluded with a tribute to the ‘important, difficult’ role of the journalist. Quipping that as moderating should clearly not be her fallback job, she said she ‘might have to go for a third mandate’. Stay tuned!