Kari Karppinen: Media culture in Finland is exceptional, but it also has its challenges

Kari Karppinen is a GPC lecturer and track leader for the Media and Democracy study track. He specialises in media and communication policy, digital rights and internet governance. In the interview, we talked about his teaching, research, and the media culture in Finland.

You teach the introductory course for the GPC programme Globalizations: Politics, Economy and Communication. Can you tell us what are the main points of the course, and also what do you enjoy the most about it?

I think it's an interesting course because it's the first one that the master's students take. So it's a good opportunity for me to get to know new students from all tracks because afterwards they are going to be taking mostly courses from their own track. I used to be the director of the program before Sonja (Dr S. M. Amadae), and now I'm also in the steering group, so it's a good way to keep myself up to date with what kinds of students we have and what are they interested in.

The idea is to discuss the interdisciplinary aspects of the program and make people reflect on their own perspectives. And then of course there are visiting lecturers from different tracks, so people also get to know some of the teachers and get a quick introduction to some of the themes that they will get to more in-depth later.

You are on study leave right now. What are you working on?

It’s a research leave, which means that this semester, I don't have any contact teaching. Once every four years everyone gets one semester where they can focus on their own research. And what I’m working on… Everything that I haven't had time to work on in the last four years. I'm involved in a couple of research projects: one is called Communication Rights in the Age of Digital Disruption (CORDI), so issues related to the digital platforms and the regulation of the digital media and in particular citizens’ communicative rights. Then another project, Media Platforms and Social Accountability (MAPS), deals broadly with regulations and platform policy. I was also involved in something called Media for Democracy Monitor Project, which is an international comparative project. And I'm also trying to get work done on my own research, which mostly deals with guiding principles and underlying values of media policy and different conceptions of the role of media and democracy.

As you mentioned, one of the topics of your research is digital rights. You are a part of the CORDI research group, and in 2020, you also published an article about the discourses of digital rights (co-authored with a PhD researcher Outi Puukko). Could you tell us what are digital rights in general and if you think that their importance in the digital space is increasing?

There is increasingly more debate and concern about rights, which I think reflects the growing power of digital platforms and their presence in our daily life. It is self-evident that we live in the structures and structural power of digital companies, which are in many ways beyond traditional ways of regulation. And I think that the idea of talking about rights is one response to that…

In that article, we discussed how this can be used. We can talk about the rights as a legal instrument, a concrete tool of regulation, or as a moral or ethical demand: for instance, that the platforms should respect our rights as a matter of self-regulation and ethics. And then we go into the different normative assumptions behind these ways of talking about rights, whose rights are we discussing, and whether they should be understood as formally binding or just as a moral obligation.

I think digital rights are obviously important because of the relevance of the platforms in contemporary societies. But my perspective is also to try to examine the different assumptions and broader normative ideas behind the discussion of rights. They of course relate to different ideas of democracy and to different normative theories: some focus on individual rights and autonomy, whereas others on social justice, fairness, or minority rights. And I think the debate reflects these broader ideological and normative theories and different ways of seeing the role of the individual and the state.

In the article, you write that the origins of the internet were very libertarian, painting the internet as a new space of absolute freedom. But now we see that countries like China or Russia are limiting what can be said online…

You could say that in the Ukraine war context, the platform politics has also become very geopolitical. China had its own platform ecosystem for a while, now Russia is cutting all ties with the Western digital ecosystem. So you see those political ideologies. But even nowadays there is this one very libertarian strand of understanding the internet as empowering the individual and being very suspicious of the state. It reflects those early internet ideals, and we can see it also in the ideas of the decentralized internet and the cryptocurrency movement.

So you see one ideological basis there. But then, on the other hand, there is this more welfare-state type of thinking where people are saying let's extend the idea of public service broadcasting to the internet, make sure that everyone has access… So we see that there are different political ideologies and normative ideas behind the debate about the shared problem of what to do with this new kind of information infrastructure.

I also want to talk about your book chapter in the Media for Democracy Monitor 2021, which you already mentioned. You write there about the state of media in Finland and the impact it has on democratic society. What were your main findings? And how would you assess the current state of journalism in Finland?

I was already involved in the project in 2010 when they had a previous round, so it was an interesting exercise. It quickly becomes clear in these international comparisons that Finland is often seen as a model case, that our media system is doing fairly well in terms of democracy: media has retained its independence for the most part; people use a lot of traditional media and the trust in traditional media and journalism is very high compared to most other countries. Also, most Finnish journalists follow the code of ethics and have a professional identity, the media field is not as polarized as in some other countries. So lots of very positive things that people from other countries look at as ideal.

But at the same time, of course, it's not all good. Resources available in journalism have been declining as in most other countries: the number of journalists working in Finland has been cut by about a third, I think, in the last 10 years. Also, the ownership of the media is quite concentrated. Partly because it's a small country and small language, so there are limits on how many different media we can have. But recently it's been the case that two or three of the biggest publishing houses own the majority of regional and local media, which possibly could influence the diversity of views that get access to the public sphere.

And also traditionally, the flip side of strong professionalism and consensual politics is that people sometimes complain that the Finnish media are too polite, that we need more ideological diversity, more challenges to the official truths, so to speak. Mainstream media – the public service broadcaster of course, but also the main newspapers like Helsingin Sanomat – have a lot of power in setting the agenda.

But overall, you do become aware of the exceptionality of Finland compared to many other European countries where the media is so compromised and so polarized that it is difficult to uphold any kind of journalistic autonomy or independence.

What's your opinion about the importance of public broadcasting?

At the moment, I think it's very important to have a public service broadcasting system that is genuinely independent, particularly because of the difficulties with funding commercial media, polarization, disinformation, and so on. And I think Finland traditionally has that. We've had some cases where it's been debated and the politicians have tried to interfere, but compared to many countries where there is no genuine independence, the Finnish public service broadcaster has done very well.

But there are also lots of people who question this service. The private media outlets have campaigned to try to limit the role of public service broadcasters because they see them as competitors. For instance, we have just had an amendment to the law on public service broadcasters, where they limit the kind of news that public service media can post online, the text-based news because it’s seen as a free competition to the private newspapers.

I think that's very short-sighted in the sense that you try to limit and curtail an organization that is valuable to the people, and that is one of the things that make the Finnish media system work and keep the standard high even for commercial media. So I don't know if we would be better off if we moved to the American system with big commercial media and very marginal public service media. It’s important to hold on to the system that we have: it may not be perfect, but at least in an international comparison, it's doing well and it's important for the people. And maybe it would be worth thinking beyond the current institutions and using the public service model as an alternative to the current platform capitalism or data capitalism. 

It's an interesting line of argument. 

I think to an extent, it’s a European-wide phenomenon: the commercial media are invoking the European competition law, the idea that you have to justify state subsidies to any kind of commercial enterprise. They argue that the scope of public media should be very limited so that it’s not general state aid that's interferes with free competition. But I think there are good grounds to say that the media market is a little bit exceptional: it's a public service that has a role in democracy and people's right to know. You should not view it only from the perspective of market competition or market failure, but from a wider perspective of citizens, rights and democracy.

I have one last question to wrap this up: is there any good book that you would recommend us to read this spring?

I’m currently reading a book about trees – Overstory by Richard Powers. It's a good novel with themes like activists, society and capitalism, so perhaps relevant for global politics students…