Media transparency is the key in a world of challenges

By Suzanne Moll

It could have been just another book about media from a former drug addict, doorman and now an unknown journalist describing what everyone thought to be fiction. And it would have been soon forgotten beyond a few book reviews. But as it turned out this book triggered the biggest scandal ever to hit media in Denmark when the description of how the news magazine Se og Hoer got their insider information turned out to be the truth and not fiction.

The author was largely unknown to the majority of media people in Denmark, so when Ken B. Rasmussen’s book of memoirs Livet det forbandede (The damned life) was announced, nobody noticed. But rumours began circulating among media insiders.

When the book hit the newsroom of Berlingske Tidende one of Denmark’s two daily tabloid papers they found his colourful stories from his work as a doorman in Los Angeles with huge addiction problems and celebrity sex much less interesting than the explosive details of undercover journalism and his description of how Se og Hoer allegedly was paying an inside source with access to bank details from credit cards during the years 2008-11. It set off an earthquake, because by getting these details the weekly magazine was able to publish exclusive stories about the Danish Royal family and celebrities.

This is how they knew where a royal Prince spent his honeymoon, and how they disclosed the infidelity of the top comedian Casper Christensen (known to some as “Klovn”) and a lot of other scandals.

The scheme was described as a systematic “work relationship”, and the source was rewarded for every tip (needless to say without declaring it to the Danish tax authorities). Se og Hoer is a part of Danish controlled Media Company Aller which is a top player in the Scandinavian Magazine market and controlled by members of the Aller family for three generations. It is a reputable publisher and respected for its high integrity.

As it happened a new chief editor had just been appointed three months before the scandal broke. Niels Pinborg went directly into a tsunami of troubleshooting and remembers this clearly:

“It was totally crazy, and I knew nothing except the rumours before they published the first story,” he says. “We established a task force to investigate from inside, and I was constantly talking to journalists. We were “the perfect target” because the magazine made a lot of people angry during those years. The tabloid papers were actually behaving much better than the so-called “credible” press. “

The impact on the Danish media scene was unprecedented. The country’s reputation for liberal democracy, freedom and lack of corruption was put to the test. Denmark always scores high on the international transparency index and this scandal created shock waves within media and beyond.

Of course every journalist has confidential sources and, for example, tabloid journalists might have sources inside the police, hospitals, and, of course, the Royal household etc. But this was too big to be a one-man operation.

And soon two former chief editors, managing editors, several other journalists and a corporate finance chief were in the spotlight. Subsequently nine people at Se og Hoer were suspended. In the end four people were sacked (including head of content in Aller and the Chief Financial Officer), and one former employee lost her job in another media. How far up into the Aller board (revenue of 1,2 billion kroner) of directors this will go is yet to be seen. As this is written the chairman of Aller, Bettina Aller (a photogenic globetrotter with big curly red hair) has managed to stay clear of criminal accusations. Several police investigations are pending but so far no charges have been laid.

Following the scandal Aller has raised a major case at the Supreme Court to challenge the police demand for access to all information about sources of information. Niels Pinborg, chief editor says: “Personally I would not mind to give them everything we have. But if we are forced to do this, all other media can be asked the same and this would include revealing sources within the police also. So we need to try this case at the highest level.”

Self-rule and regulation

This is a case that highlights issues of press behaviour, ethics and public interest and gets to the heart of how media self-regulation works. Danish media have by no means escaped the global trend of media losing customers, falling advertising revenues and contraction of the media business model. Traditionally media has received public funding for decades, a system that is broadly accepted by public opinion. The National Danish Broadcaster (DR) receives 3,5 billion kroner (470 million euros) per year and the Print Media 370 million kroner (50 million euros) to support 61 titles some of which are owned by the two major players Berlingske and Jyllands Posten/Politiken. In addition the print media benefits from being exempt from paying VAT.

“Dead trees” by Jacob Bøtter (https:// is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“Dead trees” by Jacob Bøtter (https:// is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Public funding, of course, does not cover the cost of running and distributing newspapers among the 5,5 million people living in the country. So like everywhere else the publishers and broadcasters are trying desperately to avoid inevitable further contraction, but the clock is ticking.

With the general and economic support for the independent media industry in Denmark, there has been a good relationship between the politicians and the media. The timing of the Se og Hoer scandal however was unfortunate, because it coincided with growing concern by some politicians about the ethics of the journalists. Some spectacular disclosures were already creating concern and anger.

For instance, when the Minister for Environment had her private trash can examined and this revealed her household throwing batteries in the bin and not separating waste like you are supposed to (bad girl!). Stories like this and other personal disclosures of politicians published not only by the tabloids led politicians to consider new legal controls on the press.

They argued that if the media cannot control themselves and clean up their bad ethical standards, then the politicians must lay down the law and do it for them. This objective created a rarely seen alliance between almost all political parties and in turn caused a big scare in the media circles where the principle still holds that freedom of expression and free press is a cornerstone in any democratic state, and should not be bend or exposed to interpretation.

The threat of new laws caused the press (both publishers and journalists) to initiate some precautionary measures. First of all an overall revision of the Press Ethical Rules was published in 2013 and accepted by all stakeholders.

According to Lisbeth Knudsen Chief Executive and Editor in Chief at Berlingske the original press ethical guidelines were written before the Internet, and this made them outdated. “This in combination with a political demand for a longer time limit to file a complaint was the reason we revised the rules,” she says. “We did this with publishers and journalists working side by side”.

Besides the extension of the time limit the new rules include retractions and excuses being published at a more prominent place (that is, the front page) instead of hiding them in the back of the paper.

The web constitutes a special challenge for publishing content. In 2014 two Danish journalists published a survey: Etik for journalister på nettet (Ethics in Online Journalism). Their conclusions are based on interviews with over 5000 journalists from Europe. The overall finding is that demands for speed is the single biggest challenge for correct online journalism.

“Journalists in all three countries say they have too little time to fact-check and do independent research. This means mistakes are made and jeopardises the credibility “says Jakob Albrecht one of the authors.

The survey shows only one percent of the journalists think the web has made press ethics better. Some 74 percent of journalists think the speed of the Internet harms the quality of their work.

In particular there is a demand for quick publishing on breaking news. In this case the journalist controls the speed but not the platform.

A journalist interviewed for this report cites an example. He published a story but after some further research the story had changed. But by this time the initial version had been published on several platforms. It’s a common problem when the culture of “rush to publish” dominates the newsroom. However, “you don’t have to be quick, just because you can,” says the journalist involved. He subsequently spent a lot of time contacting the competing media to correct the initial mistake.

In spite of what most journalists interviewed think the authors believe the web can actually reinforce ethical methods, if the media are better at addressing the problems and benefit from the possibilities.

“The web is a God’s gift to ethics,” says Andreas Marckmann Andreassen. “You can correct mistakes at once and have direct contact with the readers on social media. You can be more transparent in your research and method than ever before.”

Making money from tipping news

There is no excuse for the ethics at work at Se og Hoer. If it is proved the magazine was systematically paying for bank details this is a crime, and will be dealt with using the judicial system. But the road towards this unfortunate possibility is shaped by a global trend of traditional media in a state of panic and adopting desperate measures to survive and make a profit.

Danish papers are losing circulation fast and the loss is counted in double digits. Berlingske lost 20 percent in 2013 alone.

No publisher in his right mind imagines turning the tide. But to keep the customers and advertisers as long as possible however, the daily papers even the public broadcasters have become more tabloid and colourful in order to attract viewers and readers. If a football player is caught drunk driving the story might very well hit the television news, which was unheard of in the days when the news market was a cash cow and television primetime news were “King”. This slide towards celebrity news and scandals has put pressure on the traditional tabloid magazines.

Initially Se og Hoer started giving fees for tipping of a celebrity news story, and the custom spread to other media like the tabloid Ekstra Bladet owned by Politiken. While Se og Hoer for obvious reasons do not pay for tips these days, Ekstra Bladet maintains the reward system. Editor in chief Poul Madsen explains: “We reward a tip, we use with maximum 1000 kroner (134 euros) but this is more symbolic. We get around 3000 phone calls/emails a month, and on the average we pay for three of them. These tips are not motivated by greed but by indignation, people being upset by something they find unfair”.

The Editor in Chief at Se og Hoer might bring back the cash reward for a good tip. A working group is trying to draft guidelines on the use of tips and photos. Says Pinborg: “If we do not reward people, they will contact our competitors. We can not maintain our market position if we are more cautious than our competitors.”

The modern journalist: One reporter, many platforms

The stereotypical image of a traditional working journalist is the person constantly walking the streets in the search for news, having long talks with people that could have interesting information. But the reality of today’s newsroom is more that of a worker standing by the assembly line, producing 24/7 news for several platforms – web, print, audio television and social media. Today’s news journalist has little or no time to leave the office and is increasingly dependent on stories coming to him.

The Danish Agriculture and Food society is naturally one of the most influential lobby organisations. Denmark has a very big production of meat, dairy products and other agricultural produce (20% of the export revenue). Only 10 years ago it was normal to wine and dine the journalist says Leif Nielsen, head of press and communication. But those days are gone and today the job is to make it easy (and fast) for the journalist to produce a story.

“We have an ongoing dialogue and try to be both active and proactive, “he says. “We will help journalists by giving them access to our sources, as well as providing them with sources that might be against us. Because we know that a story with only one source will never make it in the paper. “

Lisbeth Knudsen from Berlingske supports this impression: “The production of business content has changed with the increasing demands. It is no longer a question of big dinners and wine. The lobby organisations monitor the journalists on social media and try to accommodate their interests. In particular biotech and pharmaceutical industry are good at this.”

As for reporting on travel and leisure this was always been a special challenge, making room for great offers to see exotic countries free of charge, but with the expectation of a glossy mention over a couple of pages. With the increased focus on ethics these attractive offers are not taken. At the business daily Børsen (The Market) chief editor and CEO Anders Krab-Johansen has three simple rules: “1) we do not take this offer. 2) We pay our own transport and hotel. 3) We make sure to write explicitly in the article, that we were invited”. These rules apply in other papers too.

The new landscape and its advertising challenges

Danish news media, like others in the West are trying to survive in a battle that they cannot win. News production is moving into social media and into corporate media production with the speed of a formula one race. And as the percentage of advertisement dropping leaves media very creative in combining the two. At the business paper Børsen (the Market) the independence of the corporate world is the single remaining selling point.

The CEO and editor in chief Anders Krab-Johansen says, “With the speed of the production, mistakes happen more. But it is no embarrassment any longer and we correct mistakes as soon as we can on the web. The competition from Google and the banks with their own media services and television channels is our biggest threat. Our credibility and independence is the basis of our livelihood”

At Børsen they have reinforced what the chief editor calls “an old-fashioned ethical approach in a modern world”. All reporters working must declare and register their personal investments (pensions and all). If they write about a business on the stock market, they must not trade for one month before and after the article has been published.

At Børsen they are also careful with advertisements disguised as journalistic content. As a rule the logo of the company must be present, the font and colour must be different from the papers. Other papers have similar rules. The battlefield of placing commercials moves on. At Ekstra Bladet advertising revenue moves from print to sponsorships on their TV web programs.

Says Johanson, “It is like journalism but is controlled by sponsors. We will always safeguard our journalistic integrity, and our sponsors ask for journalistic content. This is a balance.”

The media group Søndagsavisen, a free weekly paper delivered in the mailbox, uses a different model. Content is a combination of editorial features with a high focus on consumer-related stories. Readership is 1,2 million, which makes it the biggest print media and an attractive place to reach families over the weekend.

The research shows the commercial content is very attractive and as a result Arne Ullum, CEO and editor in chief, has hired a journalist to work with the sales department in creating commercial content with journalistic edge.

Says Arne Ullum, “It must be very obvious that this is commercial content. Our rules are: we have a header that says commercial and includes the logo of the company somewhere on the page. We have no journalistic byline. The journalist working with this does not take part in the editorial meetings. This is a guarantee both to the newsroom of independence, and to the advertiser that there is confidentiality.”

At Berlingske they also moved a journalist into the marketing department to help customers create commercial/journalistic content. Lisbeth Knudsen explains, “The shutters are very tight. If the business section writes critically about Pandora (global Danish jewellery brand), they in turn cannot place an ad that goes against the original article”.

Trust requires clarity

Nevertheless, at Copenhagen Business School (CBS), professor Jan Trzaskowski is not impressed with the Danish standards for advertorials and commercial content. He has done several studies in consumer behaviour and is not sure we always realise the marketing aspect. His point being that the pressure is rising because of the economic challenges and says it should be the responsibility of the publisher to make sure the underlining message is clear.

“The producer of a product has a legitimate interest in promoting and selling,” he says. “So it must be the responsibility of the publishing house to make sure it looks like marketing not journalism. We are much more affected though our subconscience than we realise, and we should protect those who do not see through this.”


“Design shopping” by Lars Plougmann (https:// ic. kr/p/4g5q2q) is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The grey zone covers the bloggers with no obligation to the ethical guidelines of the press.

However to the extent their blogging serves a commercial purpose, they must comply with marketing law.

“Horizontal marketing is much more effective than vertical,” says Jan Trzaskowski. “If someone you think is cool recommends a product, it becomes attractive to you. Lego for instance invites bloggers to come and play with their product hoping to get a good mention. Interacting with bloggers is not an unfair commercial practice, but traders should ensure that the bloggers understand their obligations to disclose any commercial intent. This is particularly relevant for less professional bloggers.”

He is supported by Lisbeth Knudsen of Berlingske, “I wish the quality on the internet debate was more professional and a journalistic approach, because some of the debates do not reach professional ethical standards.”

Consumer protection is very high on the agenda of Pernille Tranberg. For many years she has been covering consumer subjects for several media, and spent six months as research fellow at South Danish University. The result of her work was a recommendation of the “Trust mark”.

“The whole idea of copying the way journalism is done is to hide the message and pretend it is journalism,” she says. She recommends three steps to ease the problems:

  • Firstly, be transparent — put the ethical guidelines on the front page of your website.
  • Second, prove what you claim is true and establish a Trustmark, that can maintain the credibility to your news production, and
  • Third, watch out for robots – like tools that can help identify and control credible content.

Some newspapers, but not all, use the Trustmark, disclaimers or “how we did it”. Anders Krab-Johansen of Børsen says: “I think it is a bit silly. Good journalism is easy to detect. It does not need explanation and journalists are held accountable every day.” But Tranberg disagrees: “The industry has neglected to explain how we work by claiming it our “secret”. But this is the key to (re)build our credibility”.

Back at Se og Hoer Niels Pinborg has introduced new editorial guidelines and still recalls a staff meeting in the middle of the chaotic weeks following the revelations of years of malpractice:

“I was constantly in meetings never in the newsroom, everyone hated us and still staff kept working. And this particular Friday, I was trying to make a speech about how I admired their commitment to work. But I broke into tears and had to stop. Se og Hoer was the “perfect target” for everyone to hate. But with me as editor we work within the law and not outside.”

If the scandal ends in a court of law, the maximum will be two years prison. If any prison sentence is given it will be the first time ever in Denmark. So far two former chief editors and four other people are being investigated.

This spectacular case is not normal for Denmark where the media world still struggles to understand how a tabloid magazine could drop their standards to this all time low.

It is easy to point the finger and say “never with me”. But some reflection in the business might still be appropriate. The overall picture is of a fairly balanced media scene with all stakeholders fighting to maintain the credibility of independently produced journalism.

But no-one is complacent. Not only are business models challenged, journalism itself is under siege threatened not just by the whirlwind of change in the world of corporate media investment but by the fact that with the world wide web, we are all in control of our own media. Everything is changing, but it’s still not clear if it will be to the benefit of journalism and its ethics.

Main image: “Berlingske Tidende Ad” by Mark Jensen (https:// ic. kr/p/6ejnUe) is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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