I wonder how the Turkish “mainstream” media could report the deaths of 21 people under a collapsed building on February 7, if President Tayyip Erdoğan didn’t go and inspect the site and deliver a speech two days later; the authorities had immediately imposed a broadcast ban over the incident. There were a number of such bans in recent years but they were mostly terrorism-related cases; perhaps public authorities had thought that Turkey’s image as the rose without a thorn shouldn’t be damaged with this unlicensed construction case especially as the country is heading for local elections on March 31.
Now the bar of intolerance is lowered to the level of third-page news and this incident could be the summary of the Turkish “mainstream” media.
Mainstream media is a term that Turks adopted and translated from English. The Collins Dictionary defines it as “conventional newspapers, televisions and other news sources that most people know about and regard as reliable”. Urban Dictionary adds that mainstream media outlets at least “pretend to be neutral”.
Not so long ago, perhaps we can say some ten years, media outlets that are known by “most people” could at least “pretend to be neutral”; since I was one of the responsible editors, I have to include myself into that lot and say “we could”.
Then, by 2006-2007 it starter to get risky for the best read and watched media outlets to claim that. “Pretending to be neutral” has started to be perceived as “not standing by the government” and gradually as “being against the government”. (Parallel to that but not necessarily linked, the arrest of the least welcomed journalists and writers had begun, which deserves a separate story.)
The results of that change in perception of “pretend-neutrality” have started to be observed in the circulation of newspapers. There was, of course, an important negative effect of the rise of digital journalism, but those who have an interest in media affairs know that the effect of digital in the West is quite different to the one in Turkey.
For example, Turkey’s population has increased from 75 million to 80 million in five years between 2013 and 2018 with a considerable rise in literacy and urbanization. But as figures compiled by the semi-official Anadolu Agency from the Turkish Statistical Institute’s (TUIK) data shows, the total number of newspaper copies printed in Turkey has dropped by 32 per cent from 2 bln 296 mln to 1 bln 559 mln. That means as Turkey’s population increased by 7 per cent and urbanization rose from 80 per cent to 90 per cent, the circulations of Turkish newspapers dropped by roughly a third in five years.
This drop is not due to the digital shift. According to the 2017 report of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism conducted with Oxford University, Turkish people ranked second (alongside Greeks) with 38 per cent having a pronounced distrust of the news in media; Americans ranked first. In the countries where there is a widespread distrust of media news, newspaper sales drop much more than countries like Finland, the Netherlands and Germany where the trust in media news is still more than 50 per cent and the drop in more traditional media consumption is due to digital only.
We can also measure the level of distrust from a separate set of data. According to the 2018 Turkey Social-Political Research of the Kadir Has University (KHAS) in Istanbul, the number of people who said they don’t read newspapers any more has risen to 57.5 per cent in 2018 from 37.1 in 2017. The number of people who said they read every day has dropped from 19.6 to 10.5 per cent, almost by half in the same period.
There is no surprise in that. Headlines, as well as commentaries, have become increasingly similar to one another and with the avoidance of critical political and economic headlines under the disguise of “focusing on human stories” are deterring people from the “mainstream”, or perhaps in a better description, from the “dominant media” in Turkey.
In the 15 highest circulation newspapers in Turkey, with the exception of Sözcü, [with 246 thousand daily circulations, after Sabah (278) and Hürriyet (262)] all of them are owned by capital groups with pro-government owners. The measure here is whether the owner(s) could say publicly that he or she is not pro-government but neutral. When the circulation reports are observed it can be said that owners of some 90 per cent of Turkish papers could be considered as pro-government.
In spite of the decrease in circulations (with doubts that they reflect the true circulations, the payments through the advertisements of the public companies to the newspapers are on the rise. For example, according to TUIK figures, the total circulation of newspapers dropped by around 4 per cent from 2016 to 2017, the amount of government ads to newspapers has increased by 4.5 per cent to 445 mln Turkish lira. Most of those papers can hardly survive without the support of certain public institutions.
The case on TV is no different. Recently a TV star colleague heralded in social media that their multi-host political talk show was the champion of the night. After a few questions I learned to my surprise that it was true; the show was number one in prime time that night. Then I looked into the ratings and shares to find the truth in shame: they were so low that it was not possible to get into the first 50 lift not more than five years ago. Like the newspapers with very little readers were proud of being on the highest circulation, this TV colleague was proud of being the champion of the night with negligible viewers. In the Turkish TV world, the situation is a bit more balanced thanks to Fox TV with some immunity due to its American ownership; 25 per cent say Fox TV is their prime news source. With some small independent TV stations and Fox, the domination rate on TV is less than 75 per cent.
That means, with the “known by most people” and “reliability” criteria, the room for “pretend to be neutral” possibility is diminishing.
That’s why it is not very possible to talk about a “mainstream media” in today’s Turkey, but a “dominant media”.
But it is not clear what kind of benefit this single-voice chorus delivers to President Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government, with decreasing reliability and trust. Perhaps only suppressing opposing voices, with the exception of rare interviews with opposition leaders who are still tolerable by the government.
The result is a picture which could be summarized with the case of former President Abdullah Gül. Being one of the three founding fathers of the AK Party, serving as foreign minister, prime minister and president of the country on the AK Party list, a recent speech of Gül, critical of populist and authoritarian policies could find almost no place in the dominant media.
The dominant media in Turkey as it replaced the mainstream is far away from delivering the expected political benefit; they might further problems when Erdoğan realizes that.