The editors of The Economist and Wirtschaftwoche on the threats to Western liberalism.
The editors of Britain and Germany’s leading business weeklies, The Economist and WirtschaftsWoche, debate the threats from terrorism, populism and technological upheaval.
Great upheavals are testing the glue that holds Europe together, making for some disorienting times. So we thought we would ask two of the continent’s leading journalists to help us connect the dots. In a joint interview, The Economist editor Zanny Minton Beddoes and WirtschaftsWoche editor Miriam Meckel talk about Europe’s refugee crisis, the future of the euro currency and the challenges facing journalism. Beddoes became editor in February 2015, the first time in the British business weekly’s 172-year history that it has been run by a woman. Meckel took over the helm of Düsseldorf-based WirtschaftsWoche, which is part of the Handelsblatt Publishing Group, in October 2014. The interview was conducted at The Economist’s London offices by Handelsblatt publisher Gabor Steingart.
Handelsblatt: Europe is in the midst of great upheavals - the euro crisis, refugees, a series of terrible terror attacks. Our debates are getting more polarized with populists rising just about everywhere. Can our common, western liberal culture survive all these threats? Beddoes: I’m worried about the future of liberalism for three reasons. Firstly, because the world economy has not really regained strength since the financial crisis. Secondly, because the geopolitical problems have not been sorted out. By that I mean the danger caused by Islamic states and the violence in the Middle East, with its effects on refugees and Europe. Thirdly, because of the rise of populism, particularly in Europe – but also in America. Anybody who believes in a liberal world order should be worried. Meckel: Especially because the social cement every society needs is visibly crumbling at the moment. Even in the countries of Europe, it is no longer a given to take a stand for liberal values. [Europe’s] debt crisis, terrorism and the refugee issue are triggering a new kind of tension.
Angela Merkel reassures us,“We’ll manage it.” Meckel: Ms. Merkel’s basic approach is fine for a lot of people. The problem is that Germany’s bureaucratic apparatus is completely unable to deal with a situation that demands immense flexibility. Wherever you go, it is just not working out. “We’ll manage it” is proven wrong every day. Beddoes: Germany cannot deal with refugee movement of this scale alone.
Others have accused Germany of inviting the problem in with our welcoming gestures and our chancellor taking selfies with refugees. Beddoes: There were very large numbers of refugees coming before Ms. Merkel had announced her policy. Should there have been more coordination with the European partners? Perhaps. But the approach of a friendly welcome strikes me as being sensible… Meckel: …and humanitarian. But the problem is that Ms. Merkel didn’t speak with the other European leaders. In the refugee crisis, [she made] a sudden move nobody expected. That creates confusion and annoyance.
How should we as journalists cover immigration? Is it our job to be part of the welcome or should we be neutral, without any opinion? Beddoes: The Economist has always championed liberal ideas. We are not like American newspapers that just have one editorial then no opinions anywhere else. We have opinion everywhere. But that opinion is based on careful research and substantive analysis of an issue. We of course have a clear view on refugees: We are open to immigration broadly, but also to refugees in this particular case.
Without limits? Beddoes: A country of course has the right to decide how many immigrants come in. But in the case of refugees, there is a U.N. convention: People who are fleeing persecution and war should be accepted. Don’t get me wrong: It’s not as if security issues have ceased to play a role. But we as liberal journalists must not use terrorism to close the door to refugees for irrational reasons.
Zanny Minton Beddoes has been at The Economist‘s helm since February 2015.
Do you agree, Ms. Meckel? Meckel: We need precise analysis for reporting. Wishful thinking must not replace reality. In the refugee issue, we have observed a clear shift in public opinion. Journalists also have to be allowed to learn and change their point of view. Beddoes: A policy of welcoming and integrating people is exactly what Europe stands for. Now we need to look at how to successfully achieve integration. What are the lessons from other parts of the world – whether it’s the Vietnamese boat people to America; whether it’s the Ugandans into the U.K. in the late 1970s? What works, what doesn’t?
Is the West at war with radicalized Islam? Beddoes: We need to attack IS and fight back. And we need to think about how to strengthen Europe’s external borders. For that we need much more cooperation between European countries, whether it’s sharing intelligence or police data.
That sounds like armed liberalism. Beddoes: There has to be a military response to the most recent events. It already involves air strikes, and it will involve some form of ground troops, which we still need to be truly effective.
Are you calling for Europe to go to war? Beddoes: IS is able to call itself a caliphate and attract supporters because it controls territory. Therefore, the fight back against IS involves dislodging it from that ground. The best approach is a coalition of local troops on the ground, supported by special forces from the West. Meckel: What we are doing with this war discussion is playing into the hands of IS. They want us to think that we are at war and need to fight for our lives, our culture, our freedom.
This conflict comes at a time when Europe’s economic foundations are still shaky. Our economies are kept afloat with cheap money from the European Central Bank. Meckel: We have maneuvered ourselves into a situation that’s very difficult to get out of. The ECB buys government bonds and for many countries that means: You don’t need to worry about [reforms] because the ECB will [support you] one way or another. That will damage our economic order.
The Economist supports ECB President Mario Draghi’s policy of cheap money, while WirtschaftWoche opposed it. How can two liberal publications take such different stances?
Meckel: It’s probably due to the different traditions in Germany and Great Britain. [WirtschaftsWoche doesn’t have] a radical anti-ECB stance, though. When Draghi said he would do whatever it takes to preserve the euro zone, it was right and necessary. Afterwards, one could have tried something other than flood the markets with money.
Is Europe really resolving its debt crisis, or is it just preparing the next big mess by pumping too much money into the markets? Beddoes: We may not have the right macroeconomic balance. Germany has, in some ways, been part of the problem. The imbalances [in the euro zone] came in part because German savings were sent to other countries. These countries over-borrowed.
But Germans love their savings and their exports. Beddoes: They have too much of a good thing. Every surplus has to have a deficit somewhere. That logic gets lost in the German debate.
Ms. Meckel, is your British friend here perhaps a little envious of German exports being so much higher than Britain’s? Meckel: (laughs). That could be. But the
German and British economies are different. We have a large industrial infrastructure. But that is probably also a challenge for the future. How do you switch that traditional industrial culture into a context of digitization? Beddoes: The Germans think: If only everybody else were like us, the world would be a better place. The problem in the euro crisis was that the prevailing narrative was that everyone needed to be like the Germans. If we have a budget surplus, everybody should have a surplus. The pace of budget cutting in the aftermath of the financial crisis was too uni-dimensional.
Would you still call our system a market economy? Beddoes: Not nearly enough has been done in the euro zone to restructure and clean up. The euro zone has been held together by the European Central Bank.
Let’s talk about your ideas for journalism. What is the biggest challenge right now for traditional magazines? Beddoes: Our business models are changing. Social media is the delivery arch of the 21st century. We have to make that change while supporting and reinforcing the culture that makes The Economist what it is. We have a very strong culture. We have been producing weekly since 1843. How do you translate The Economist’s values, the kind of journalism that we do, into this new world? For me, that is the true challenge.
Everyone is posting their opinions now. What does that mean for a magazine as opinionated as yours? Beddoes: It puts a premium on well curated, bold journalism. We are in the business of producing the world’s best mind-stretching journalism for the globally curious who are interested in the world beyond their borders, who look into the future, and like it. They don’t necessarily have to agree with liberal values, but they want to be challenged by them. Meckel: There has never been a time that has been so interesting for a journalist – that I am convinced of. You can try out a lot of things and get direct feedback from readers. For a long time, we journalists tended to think we knew better. It is good to understand that we no longer have an exclusive claim. Our readers have a voice and can challenge us in lots of ways. Still, I think two basic values are important for traditional media in the digital age: One is orientation. A magazine is something like information insurance. If you read
it, it gives you basic assurance for arguing your position in this very complex world. The second thing is serendipity: People want to be surprised and taken to issues and topics they have just not known. Everything you look up on the Internet is something you are already interested in. In WirtschaftsWoche, you also run across things you otherwise wouldn’t.
Are Google and Facebook our partners or our rivals? Beddoes: We have about 18 million social media followers. Social media is a very important way of reaching many more people than you would otherwise. And it is a way of being part of a debate, because a lot of conversations in the world are happening there. The big technology companies provide opportunities to extend the reach of what we do. So we should embrace them in that way. Meckel: It is all about increased competition, which we shouldn’t romanticize. And it is not just in the media business. If you look at the automotive industry, they have exactly the same issues. Will the big German carmakers still be the big carmakers in 20 years or will the IT industry be the driver of development, with the German carmakers merely delivering the material needed for production? The old and new worlds should cooperate, but they shouldn’t be naïve.
Some of us journalists are still overcoming a narcissistic crisis. Slowly but surely, people are figuring out that they’re not the only ones explaining the world. This democratic learning process in journalism is key to its own recovery. Miriam Meckel, editor of WirtschaftsWoche
Are the editorial staff at our traditional, old-fashioned magazines prepared for this challenge? Meckel: Some of us are still overcoming a narcissistic crisis. Slowly but surely, people are figuring out that they are not the only ones explaining the world to others. This democratic learning process in journalism is key to its own recovery. Beddoes: Good journalism has to be innovative – also in terms of distribution and content production. It is our job to take our still hesitant colleagues with us on that journey.
Young people read less and prefer short videos. Beddoes: We are thinking about how to translate the core of Economist journalism into 15-minute videos. The written way is, of course, our core. But we also do podcasts. Meckel: We are on the verge of launching a
WiWo.Lab to expand our interactive, multimedia offers and try out new formats. We are also setting up so-called “explainers,” short videos with text instead of audio. They are really in demand right now. Written text still plays a big role. We know from research that the way people read is changing. They either read texts with fewer than 300 words or more than 800. It’s not that people have stopped reading – they just read differently.
You both sound optimistic. No crisis for the media then? Beddoes: It is a period of enormous creative disruption. There is fear of the unknown and at the same time wild curiosity to try everything. Meckel: It’s not a crisis; it’s a transformation. This kind of development is something we had several times during the last centuries – and now we have it again. If you’re bold and creative, you can thrive and find new ways to reach readers and users. If you give up hope, you’ve already lost.