segunda-feira, 28 de março de 2016
Belgian media boss: Attacks are ‘reality check’
Belgian media boss: Attacks are ‘reality check’
Christian Van Thillo’s journalists have been at the forefront of covering the Brussels attacks.
By ALEX SPENCE 3/28/16, 5:30 AM CET Updated 3/28/16, 10:16 AM CET
In nearly three decades at the helm of one of the Benelux countries’ biggest media companies, Christian Van Thillo has tended to leave political commentary to his newspapers.
After the attacks in Brussels, the Flemish media tycoon opened up in an interview, telling POLITICO about his concerns for the future of the Belgian state.
Tuesday’s bombings should be a “reality check for all the people running this country,” Van Thillo said two days after ISIL terrorists struck a Brussels metro station near major European Union institutions and the city’s main airport, killing at least 31 people and injuring hundreds of others.
Belgium is a “fantastic country in many, many ways,” but its political system “just doesn’t make sense,” Van Thillo said. An excessively complex, divided and deeply dysfunctional political system has made the country of 11 million ungovernable.
“They should reinvent the way they lead and manage this country. That’s what I believe,” Van Thillo said.
The comments are notable for a businessman who says he doesn’t like to discuss politics in public and has always tried to stay out of the limelight.
Van Thillo’s family business, De Persgroep, controls a sizeable chunk of the news media from Flanders to Denmark — including the newspapers De Morgen, Het Laatste Nieuws, L’Echo, De Volkskrant, and Berlingske, and a share in the Belgian TV channel VTM —but he has always preferred to wield influence quietly.
This is no ordinary moment, though.
Since the attacks, Van Thillo’s Belgian papers and VTM have been at the forefront of the news coverage of the Brussels attacks. It’s been frantic, challenging, and highly emotional.
“You have tons of emotions at the same time,” the businessman said in the interview.
The newsrooms are flushed with adrenaline as journalists work around the clock, spread out across the country trying to piece together what happened, who’s behind it, and what might come next. There’s satisfaction as the newspapers are widely cited in the foreign media outlets that have descended on Brussels after the attacks, giving Van Thillo’s media websites a huge traffic boost; Het Laatste Nieuws got 3.5 million visits last Tuesday, three times more than normal.
Then again, “It was one of the blackest days in the history of our country,” Van Thillo said. And like all Belgians, he is still trying to get his head around what has happened and what it means for the country.
Van Thillo, who lives in Antwerp, was waiting for a train at Antwerp Central Station on Tuesday morning on his way to a business meeting in Amsterdam when he first heard the news about the explosion at Zaventem.
He was listening to Qmusic, one of De Persgroep’s Flemish radio stations, when the presenter reluctantly tried to break the horrific news: Unconfirmed reports of a serious incident at the Brussels airport were all over Twitter.
“Jesus, don’t tell me this is a terrorist attack,” Van Thillo recalls saying.
Van Thillo carried on to his meeting in Amsterdam, but he could barely concentrate on the business discussions.
He spent much of the day on the phone with his editors.
Van Thillo insists he’s not the sort of publisher who tells his editors what to write: He’s more in the mold of Arthur Sulzberger of the New York Times, or the Daily Mail’s Lord Rothermere, as he describes it, than Rupert Murdoch. He’s engaged in the process and the business of publishing without seeking to influence editorial decisions.
“Everybody knows: journalism is free and independent in this house, and it’s holy to us,” he said. “I mean, I’m religious about it.”
He’s not a detached owner, though, and as Tuesday’s horror unfolded he regularly sought updates from editors on their plans, pushing them to be distinctive from their competitors. On Wednesday morning, he called his Belgian newspapers, websites and TV station to express his admiration for the coverage of the bombings in their own city.
“It’s very strange to congratulate people in these circumstances,” Van Thillo said.
Yet it’s at moments like these that news organizations prove their true value — gathering the facts in the most challenging and confusing of circumstances, sorting the truth from the noise, helping people make sense of the senseless.
“This is when as a publisher and CEO of a media company you feel how important media are to society,” he said.
It makes him optimistic that the old newspaper mastheads can survive in the digital era.
Newspapers that once made healthy profits from print have been clobbered as readers and advertisers increasingly move to the Internet. Analysts worry that TV news, too, will in time be similarly eroded. All “legacy” media companies are trying to reinvent their brands and businesses online. Few have had much success so far.
Van Thillo is hopeful that, whatever disruption technology brings, the marquee names of journalism — those that have, over tens or even hundreds of years, built reputations for authority, trust and accuracy — will endure.
Events like those, unfolding in Brussels in the past days show that people, more than ever, need high-quality professional journalism to help them navigate the “jungle of information,” he said.
“Everything we have always been about in journalism, in my opinion, has never been as relevant as today,” Van Thillo said.
If only he could be as upbeat about the prospects right now for his country.