LSM English: Past, present and possibly future

Take note – story published 5 years ago

Yesterday I climbed into my car on the way to work, clicked on Latvian Radio and heard that in the committee rooms of the Saeima they were discussing shutting down the LSM English language service of which I am the editor. This was a fairly disorienting and unexpected experience.

I immediately called my colleague at LSM English.

"I just heard the news. It appears to be about us. I suppose we should do a story about it," I said, "Can you cover it? I'm driving. I'll let you know if anyone says anything else about us."

"Okay," he said.

That is the finely-tuned operation we run at LSM English. If nothing else, it shows the value of public service media. Had it not been for Latvian Radio's coverage we would probably never have learned discussions about our jobs were underway in parliament.

In the wake of these events, several people have urged me to write a stout defense of LSM and why we should continue to exist, but I do not propose to do that, exactly. Whether or not there should be an English-language service in the Latvian public broadcaster's portfolio is a question for the public and policymakers. But I would like to just lay down a few facts which may inform whatever decision is ultimately made.

LSM's English language service has been in existence since June 2014. Initially it was only set up as a source of information in English during Latvia's Presidency of the Council of the European Union in the first half of 2015, though from the start we insisted that it would not just be used as a way of distributing official press releases but would have complete editorial freedom.  

I fully expected that LSM English would be shut down soon after the end of the EU Presidency, but it seemed that people were generally impressed with it and it was given a stay of execution. 

We tottered on and then a couple of years ago again there were strong hints dropped that the end was near as budget financing could not be found. What happened next was extraordinary and humbling.

Many people sent us messages of support and told us they found the service useful and worthwhile. I was contacted independently by members of four different political parties, all saying they would fight on our behalf. I suggested they contact each other rather than me. Within a week, the future of LSM was on the agenda of a Saeima committee and - hey presto - it seemed the money had magically been found from somewhere.

Now, in all honesty, when this happened I had started to wonder if perhaps it was time to move on and do something else - perhaps something with a chance of making some money. But the outpouring of support really affected me. I was deeply touched that so many people would take time to defend something of which perhaps I had not even realized the true value. If it does not sound too old-fashioned, I felt obliged or honor-bound to carry on, to repay the effort that had been made on my behalf. It would be a mean thing to slink away saying "Thanks" over my shoulder. It was, dare I say it, a sense of duty. 

And now a couple of years later we are back to the same situation: questions at a Saeima committee about dropping the English and Russian services, a defensive counter-reaction, messages of support and even some international coverage. It's quite proper that we should have to justify our existence and our budget periodically, but I am not sure this public brinkmanship is the best way of doing it.

Regarding money - as that seems to be the main issue - I believe LSM English delivers outstanding value for money to Latvian taxpayers. I am not a bean counter and have no real involvement in the day-to-day management of the service, being more the old-style editorial type. The figure being bandied about as the cost of running both the English and Russian language services combined at LSM is 121,000 euros.

Put another way, for the price of a one-day Papal visit, you could run the LSM English and Russian services for about 10 years.

In case this gives the impression we are living the good life at taxpayers' expense, I should point out that the English language service has two employees. The Russian service has four, plus one on a part-time contract. The Russian service makes more use of external contributors than does the English service, which does almost everything in house. This is partly because rates of pay to freelancers are pitiful, embarrassingly small. One could argue about whether this represents savings for the taxpayer or an inability to produce journalism that requires anything other than the briefest and cheapest research without relying upon tremendous goodwill from contributors.

On the English service we take home a pay packet that is at best around the national average of 750 euros per month after taxes. Our colleagues on the Russian service don't give the impression that things are very different for them, apart from the trays of caviar that they leave lying around.

You don't go into journalism to get rich, it is true, but nevertheless I think what we produce represents excellent value for money, particularly when compared with the expenditure of the international outlets that occasionally cover Latvia in English. Basically, if a newspaper in Western Europe sent a staffer to Rīga for the day to cover a single press conference about the "tiny, former Soviet republic" of Latvia, it would probably cost more than an entire month's worth of output from an LSM employee. Incidentally, thanks to the government formation process and the banking sector clean-up, we have in recent weeks been achieving our highest-ever visitor numbers, in excess of 50,000 visitors per month.

The "soft power" and counter-disinformation aspects of having a credible English-language service I will leave to the experts to discuss. It has never been our intention or practice to operate as a counter-propaganda agency. We try to report news about Latvia in an objective manner and to explain the context to people who may not be familiar with the background to a story. Occasionally this may mean a story tries to rectify an obvious untruth about Latvia or to clarify something that may be misleading. But we also show the more problematic sides of the country. We are not a marketing or tourism promotion agency.

In fact we had a good example of LSM's clarification role only this week, with the Daily Mail in the UK suggesting the Baltic states would be squeezed to help re-open Brexit negotiations. LSM English asked the Prime Ministers of Latvia and Lithuania directly, in Rīga, if this was going to happen. They said no. Clarification complete. Without this, speculation about the Baltic back door option to split the European Union would likely still be taking place.

So I would invite those in a position to allocate budgets simply to give these matters full consideration before making a decision. If they feel it is worth spending money on these services, we will be delighted to continue. If they feel the money can be better spent elsewhere and will in the long term bring greater benefits to the country, that too is a decision with costs and consequences. 

Thank you for your time and in particular for the many messages of support we have received.

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