Margo Smit
Ombudsman at NOS, docent RUG
(Photo copyright of NOS/Stefan Heijdendael)

Tell us about yourself. What is your current role and how long have you been in the position? What are your chief duties/responsibilities?
From January 1, 2017, I will be the first appointed news ombudsman for all the journalistic programming and production of the Dutch public broadcasting networks.

As you may (or may not) know, the Netherlands has an outrageously difficult broadcasting system, with a number of different broadcasters (I believe 21, at the moment…), all of whom produce different kinds of content (in accordance with their affiliations their backers) for the three TV networks, the five radio stations and the many websites.

One of the public broadcasting system’s core businesses is news, sports, current affairs and opinion programming. I will be the ombudsman for all of this programming, taking care of complaints, but also having the opportunity to research journalistic issues and topics of my own interest and liking.

This is the first appointment in the Netherlands ever. I am proud to have been appointed. For it is a huge expansion of my duties and responsibilities, for up till now I was ‘only’ responsible for complaints about the programming of the main news provider: NOS. Will I have time to sleep after January 1? I don’t know yet…

What was your career/background prior to taking up your current role?
I started in broadcast journalism in 1989, going through the ranks over time: from desk reporter to parliamentary reporter, to documentary maker and investigative reporter. Between 2009 and 2015, I ran the Association of Investigative Journalists in the Netherlands and Flanders. Also, since 2009, I was a journalism teacher at the Master’s program of the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, and guest lecturer at several other journalism schools in the Netherlands and Flanders. Since August 1, 2015, I worked at NOS as ombudsman.

What are the biggest challenges and/or opportunities faced by your organisation/the media in general in your country?
The biggest challenge at the moment for the public broadcasting networks is to stay relevant to the different groups in society, most prominently youth (up to 29), people with a foreign background (immigrants, but also people who were born here but whose parents were not), lower income citizens. Public broadcasting is becoming a ‘grey, old, white male’, and needs to retain (or even: regain) the interest of other groups in society.

And for news and current affairs programming and the journalists who make those programmes, there is the additional challenge of fast (internet), narrow (information bubble) and fake news. For sports programming, the main challenge is losing broadcasting rights to molochs who don’t need to spread their resources over foreign correspondents, a network of websites, catering to the entire nation and spending money on outrageously expensive sports events….

However, on days when crises hit, when planes fall out of the skies, when voters vote and when athletes win and lose, public news and sports broadcasting is still on everyone’s mobile, tablet or TV and radio. There is no lack of interest in news, it is just that the public broadcasting system needs to be where the public is, needs to uphold the values of fair and impartial reporting and still being fast and live. All that on a shrinking budget and not necessarily supportive political climate. Not easy. But so rewarding when it works ;-))

Feel free to share any of the most significant or challenging issues you have had to deal with recently in your role.
See below.

Is there any question or comment you would like to make to the ONO membership generally as part of this profile? Something you would like advice or input on?
I am still so interested in hearing about how other ombudsmen are dealing with comments, questions and complaints about biased reporting when it comes to populist politicians.

March 2017, the Netherlands faces parliamentary elections with a populist party perhaps becoming the largest in parliament. Already I get a lot of comments and questions about our political reporting. Either it is ‘colourless’, ‘lifeless’, ‘unpronounced’ or ‘too nice to party x, y or z’ (depending on who you talk with..).

Striking a fair and founded balance between political correctness and calling a lying politician when you see one is something that apparently is difficult to convey to the public. I would love to hear colleagues’ opinion and experiences with this issue.

My current blogs are at www.over.nos.nl/ombudsman, from January 1, 2017, I will be at www.over.npo.nl/ombudsman.

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