by Malcolm Curtis
Swisster.ch | November 20, 2010 | 09:00
The involvement of Swiss People’s Party politician and businessman Christoph Blocher as an adviser to the Basler Zeitung, Basel’s leading newspaper, ignites a storm of public protest and concerns from the daily’s journalists about editorial independence. The new owners of the money-losing journal maintain that Blocher’s company Robinvest is hired for strategic business reasons but others fear unwelcome political influence and a loss of journalistic independence.
Robinvest, a company owned Blocher, a billionaire industrialist and vice-president of the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), was contracted by the newspaper’s new owners to provide consulting services.
This has touched off an uproar because of fears that the right-wing views of the former federal justice and police minister (2004-2007) will unduly influence the editorial content of the paper. The Basler Zeitung’s owners Ticino financier Tito Tettamanti (75 percent) and Basel lawyer Martin Wagner (25 percent), who acquired the journal in February, insist that Robinvest was hired solely to provide a strategic and organizational “orientation” for the press group.
According to the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper the pair want to boost revenues by 10 percent. The Basel daily, formerly owned by the Hagmann family, lost 12 million francs in 2008-09. But members of the public and the editorial staff of the paper believe Blocher’s influence goes further than financial consulting. Earlier this month the staff protested the hiring in August of Markus Somm, a journalist who has written a biography of Blocher, as editor-in-chief of the Basler Zeitung.
Somm was previously deputy editor of Weltwoche, a German-language magazine that is close to the SVP. In an open letter issued a little more than week ago, the Basler Zeitung’s journalists denounced the seizure of “political influence” that threatened the paper’s credibility and journalistic independence.
And they called on part-owner Wagner specifically to make public all of the newspaper’s financial ties and to make good on his promises to maintain the independence of the paper and to keep it “of and for the Basel region”. The journalists are further concerned about rumors of layoffs and the transfer of the newspaper’s head office to Zug.
The head of the Basel City cantonal government, Guy Morin, a member of the Green party, leapt into the fray over the weekend with his own concerns about Blocher’s involvement. In an interview published on Sunday by the NZZ am Sonntag, Morin said he could understand the reactions to Blocher’s involvement with the Basler Zeitung.
The protests are an expression of the strong identification of the Basel population with the newspaper, Morin said. But he said recent decisions taken by the paper’s owners have not contributed to reinforcing confidence in its journalistic independence.
In the framework of regular meetings with local businesses, the Basel government plans to meet with the Basler Zeitung’s owners to discuss some of the issues of concern, Morin added. The NZZ am Sontag also reported that Blocher’s Robinvest was directly involved in negotiations to acquire the newspaper back in February. Robinest submitted a “catalogue of questions” regarding the journal’s finances, according to the report, which appears to contradict what the owners have been saying about the role of Blocher’s company.
Robinvest regularly checked on monthly financial figures and information about personnel, according to NZZ. And in October, the firm organized a strategic seminar for Basler Zeitung management in canton Aargau, while another one planned for last week was rescheduled for a later date, possibly as a result of the media coverage.
Left-wing and labour groups protested the role of Blocher outside the newspaper’s offices in Basel last Thursday. One of the banners carried by demonstrators decried the “colonization” of the Basel newspaper by the Swiss People’s Party.
Blocher, for his part, has not yet commented on the affair. Meanwhile, a talk planned for Monday evening by the Basler Zeitung’s majority owner Tettamanti at the University of Basel was abruptly cancelled for reasons not provided by organizers. The Ticino financier was to have spoken about the power of the media, however, a left-wing group had called for people to protest the talk.
Update from December 14, 2011: Swissinfo.ch reports that Blocher has acquired the Basler Zeitung, further inflaming concerns.
Further update from December 14, 2011: It turns out the newspaper has been sold again to yet another proprietor according to this report.