A man of culture: Sven Gatz on the media, advertising and citizen participation

Summary

I Have Nothing to Say About the Media, claims Sven Gatz in the title of his new book. But the Flemish media minister has plenty to say about the importance of culture to both him and society

Cultural role

A media minister should take a back seat and allow the media to get on with what it does with a minimum of interference. That’s the view of Sven Gatz, media minister in the Flemish government, expressed in a new book, Over de media heb ik niks te zeggen (I Have Nothing to Say About the Media).

Gatz (pictured) has been media minister since he was called back from civilian life – he had left politics in 2011 to become the director of the Belgian Brewers federation – to take one of the two posts reserved for Open VLD in the new Bourgeois government. It’s his first ministerial post after a career of activity in the Brussels and Flemish parliaments, and he couples media responsibilities with youth, culture and Brussels.

One of the main areas where, as minister for media, he does have quite a lot to say is the public broadcaster VRT, whose latest management agreement – the charter that governs what it must and must not do – he negotiated at the end of last year. Gatz describes himself as a left-liberal and he’s a member of a classical liberal party. How does he reconcile the liberal hands-off policy with the existence of a government-subsidised public broadcaster?

“I could give a historical answer, but I think even as a liberal I can say it’s a good thing that there is a public broadcaster, because in these times of fragmentation of the media, it’s not bad that there is a platform that sets a standard, directly and indirectly, for content,” he says. “I’m not saying that private companies can’t make good content – they make very good content – but there is a certain degree of trustworthiness that will always be attributed to the public broadcaster.  That’s not just my opinion; it’s been shown time after time.” 

Media moguls

Private interests in the United Kingdom, chief among them Rupert Murdoch, have made it an apparent crusade to undermine the BBC so as to favour their own media interests. Does he face anything like that sort of pressure from media moguls in Flanders?

“The situation here is different. There is a more moderate approach towards the VRT from most of the private media players, whether it be radio, television or print. Of course, when it comes to advertising markets, you have to be more strict.

“My predecessors put a cap on what the VRT could take in from advertising, and we have confirmed that. Now we’ve included the obligation in the management agreement that they have to order more programmes from private production companies, to create an ecosystem around the VRT. For us it’s not important where the jobs are; they don’t have to be only in that one building.”

Every five years someone has to make difficult decisions about cultural subsidies, and this time it was me

- Sven Gatz

One of the questions where two of his portfolios merge is in a new obligation on the VRT to include, where possible, at least one cultural news item in each main news bulletin. Isn’t it a sign of how cut off cultural affairs have become from the rest of society that such an obligation has to be imposed? They don’t seem to have any problem including one sports item in every bulletin.

“That’s an interesting question, because you know that I’m also busy with citizen participation and my people’s cabinet. Out of the blue, at one of the conversation tables, this idea emerged at the end of the day. People said to me, ‘we are used to having one sports item at least in every news bulletin, and everyone thinks that’s perfectly normal. Why not do the same with cultural items?’ And I just said ‘yes, why not?’

“It was the right time, because we were in the middle of negotiations for the new management agreement. The VRT takes its cultural role very seriously, they have a new cultural manager in Chantal Pattyn, and I think they do a good job, but they should do just a little bit more.”

In the second half of the book, he’s gathered people from the media and asked them for their predictions 10 years into the future. Were there any surprises?

“No, not really. I must say they kept their cards very close to their chests. I understand that, because some of them are really top-notch CEOs and the like and they’re not going to reveal their strategic decisions. The other reason is that they don’t know themselves. Things change much too fast.

“The only thing that was quite reassuring is that they all said, even if we don’t know exactly where we’re going, we’re confident that we will find ways to deal with new legal and technical issues, to be sure that in 10 years from now we will have a very lively media.”  

Crucial question

When the latest round of cultural subsidies was announced, the opposition referred to Gatz as “the Joke Schauvliege of culture”, which wasn’t intended as a compliment. When his predecessor as culture minister first took office, she was caught without an answer to the “gotcha” question of what cultural events she had recently attended – her reply was an amateur dramatics production in Evergem, where she lives. So it seems only fair to ask him the same question.

“I went to the Cactus festival in Bruges last Friday. This is my kind of festival because it’s not too big, and they still have the old-school system where they have one gig at a time. Lately I kept my distance from the cultural sector because I was in the middle of making decisions, and just showing up at one event and not another could cause  all kinds of speculation.

“In general, I try to go now and then to the bigger theatres like KVS, Toneelhuis and NTGent. And on Saturdays I’m regularly on tour to visit individual artists, whether it be in galleries or in their studios.

“I’m a cultural person and I love arts and culture, but every five years someone has to make difficult decisions about cultural subsidies, and this time it was me. Perfection is not possible, but if we can ensure that everyone has had fair treatment, there’s not much more we can do.” 

Photo: Studio Nunu

VRT

The Vlaamse Radio- en Televisieomroeporganisatie (VRT) is Flanders’ public broadcaster. The VRT has a very wide reach in Flanders and draws the bulk of its financing from the Flemish government. Its main and long-time rival is the commercial broadcaster VMMa.
Channels - VRT operates three television channels (Eén, Canvas, Ketnet), one exclusively digital TV channel (OP12) and five radio channels (Radio 1, Radio 2, Klara, MNM and Studio Brussel).
Woestijnvis - For more than a decade, production house Woestijnvis created TV shows exclusively for the VRT, producing legendary programming in the 1990s such as the panel sketch show Alles kan beter; In de gloria, a send-up of reality TV; and the comedic challenge series De XII werken van Vanoudenhoven. A major change to the media landscape in 2011 found Woestijnvis the owner of its own TV stations, which it now favours in terms of production.
Management - Every four years, a new management contract outlines the rights and responsibilities of both the VRT and the government of Flanders in the VRT’s execution of its public service mission.
1 998

the BRT transforms into VRT

46

annual government subsidy per Fleming in euros

13 365

combined hours of TV programming in 2012