Leen d’Haenens, Hanne Vandenberghe
With a population of about 17.4 million, the Netherlands is a mid-sized country in Western Europe, a mature parliamentary democracy, and a welfare state. In 2021 it ranked 17th among world economies based on its €925 billion Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and 12th based on GDP per capita (over €49,000). Regarding political rights and civil liberties, the country obtained a score of 97 out of 100 in the Global Freedom Report (Freedom House, 2021), which means that political rights are about as fully safeguarded as possible in the Netherlands. The 3% point loss is explained by rising anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment as well as controversial asylum policies and the presence in some sectors of migrant workers (mostly from Eastern Europe) living in degrading conditions.
The Netherlands can be viewed as a global media player. For instance, the Endemol Shine Group started as a Dutch production house and is now creating content for all platforms worldwide. Another example is RELX (previously known as Reed Elsevier), the product of a merger between British trade book and magazine publisher Reed and Netherlands-based scientific publisher Elsevier. RELX is a global provider of scientific books and information-based analytics.
In times of crisis, Dutch people seem to watch television more due to a heightened hunger for TV news and information, especially among adults aged 35 and older, while the Covid lockdowns gave an extra boost to the use of streaming services, which are favoured by young people in particular (CvdM, 2022a). Indeed, the pandemic has demonstrated the public’s need for reliable, quality journalism. Daily newspapers (both print and online) saw their subscription rate increase significantly. Mainstream media outlets were able to reaffirm their authority as reliable sources for facts and opinions, bringing expertise and explanations to the Covid-19 debate. Radio and television stations appealed to a growing audience, with the public broadcaster (the country’s most trusted news brand) reaching record viewer numbers. With the pandemic causing a fall in advertising revenues and an increased demand for news, the government created a temporary support fund in the amount of €9.3 million intended for the weakest links in the news chain: door-to-door newspapers and local public broadcasters.
The Netherlands has a unique public broadcasting system, commonly characterised as ‘pillarised’ and grounded on the principle of external diversity, traditionally representing society’s social and cultural segments or ‘pillars’ (Christian-protestant, Catholic, and Socialist) (Lijphart, 1975). Its public broadcasting system rests squarely on the shoulders of the Nederlandse Publieke Omroep (NPO, Dutch Public Broadcaster), which operates three public channels (NPO1, NPO2 and NPO3) regulated by the Dutch Media Act 2008. Six pillar-related broadcasters are given airtime on these three public channels to represent and appeal to the diversity of Dutch society in terms of age, lifestyle, geographic and cultural origin, and political orientation. In addition, there are also the broadcasters NOS, whose mission is to bring broad and independent news coverage, and NTR, which brings arts and culture, minorities, youth, education, and background journalism. The NOS is also responsible for two themed digital channels: NPO Nieuws, a 24-hour news channel which rebroadcasts the latest NOS newscasts and covers live events, and NPO Politiek, a live channel featuring coverage of parliamentary sessions, debates, and archive material. The most important news bulletin on television is produced by NOS, broadcast at 20:00 (Achtuurjournaal). NPO Radio 1 is a 24-hour news and sports radio station. NPO Nieuws and NPO Politiek are 24/7 news and political digital channels, both available on cable and on the NPO start website and app.
The RTL group is the largest commercial player in the Netherlands with five TV broadcasting channels (RTL4, RTL5, RTL 7, RTL 8 and RTL7). RTL focuses on news via TV broadcasting, apps, and a news website (RTL Nieuws) and is NOS’s largest competitor with breakfast news on weekdays and several news bulletins every evening. RTL4’s news bulletin is the only rival to NOS’s Achtuurjournaal, and broadcasts also the current affairs programme Editie NL offering backgrounds of domestic news, whereas RTL Z specialises in financial-economic news.
Our analysis also included the BNR Nieuwsradio station, owned by a relatively small media player FD Mediagroep. This commercial radio station initially focused on financial and economic items only, but has since become a quasi-generalist newscaster reporting on economic affairs, mobility, housing and lifestyle, and sports. In terms of format, this is the only competitor to the public broadcaster’s NPO Radio 1.
Furthermore, four national newspapers were included in our analysis: De Telegraaf, published by Mediahuis, the popular daily with the largest nationwide circulation; the quality newspaper NRC also published by Mediahuis; De Volkskrant, published by DPG Media, which is the quality newspaper with the largest nationwide circulation, and Het Financieele Dagblad, focused on economics and business and owned by the Dutch FD Mediagroep. We also looked at De Groene Amsterdammer, an independent magazine and the oldest weekly in the country (Bakker, 2019).
Finally, two online-only news media were included in our analysis. One is nu.nl, the largest commercial website, focuses on news from the Netherlands and has been owned by DPG Media since the end of 2019, when the company took over the Dutch arm of the publishing group Sanoma, the largest Dutch magazine publisher between 2001 and 2019. The other one is Follow the Money (ftm.nl), an independent news website that specialises in financial-economic investigative reporting and has been active since 2010.
Over the last two decades, investment firms have taken over Dutch media companies, so that media ownership concentration is very high, a clear threat to media pluralism. The Temporary Media Concentration Act of 2007, meant to prevent such concentration in the hands of a few, has only been active between October 1st 2007 and December 31st 2010, resulting in an extremely concentrated newspaper market. In general, such a high concentration level is not (yet) seen as an acute risk because national news brands still retain enough differentiating features, catering for different audiences. At the regional level this is more alarming because the newsrooms of DPG Media’s regional newspapers are being dismantled.
Looking more closely at the media acquisitions, two Flemish companies – Mediahuis and DPG Media – have become dominant players in the Dutch market in the last decade (CvdM, 2022b). In 2015, a Dutch subsidiary of Mediahuis took over the NRC Media Holding, the publisher of daily newspaper NRC (1), which caters for a well-educated and wealthy audience. Two years later, in 2017, Mediahuis took over the Telegraaf Media Group (TMG), the publisher of the popular daily De Telegraaf as well as a number of regional newspapers. As a result, TMG was renamed Mediahuis Nederland in 2019. In 2017, Mediahuis acquired the Media Groep Limburg (MGL), the publisher of the regional newspaper De Limburger.
The other Flemish media company, DPG Media, had taken over PCM Publishing in 2009 and rebranded this Dutch subsidiary De Persgroep Nederland. As a result, it became a publisher of national (Algemeen Dagblad, de Volkskrant, and Trouw) and regional newspapers in the Netherlands. In April 2015, DPG Media took over Wegener Media, becoming the publisher of seven Dutch regional newspapers in five provinces.
In 2020, DPG Media acquired Sanoma, and media concentration reached an unprecedented high: the largest magazine publisher in the Netherlands owning nu.nl, the largest online news platform in the Netherlands was taken over by the largest newspaper publisher. “An information giant has emerged” (CvdM, 2022a). DPG Media’s ambition is to become the largest cross-media media company in the Netherlands. With this acquisition, DPG Media became the first media company with a turnover above €1 billion. In comparison, RTL Netherlands does not even reach half of this figure. Worth noting is the fact that DPG Media, which since 2021 owns 50% of RTL Belgium, also wants to acquire RTL Netherlands.
In 2021, the RTL Group announced its intention to acquire Talpa Network. After an unprecedented concentration process in the publishing sector, an audiovisual media giant now seems to be emerging in the Netherlands. It has been almost a year since the merger plans were announced, but the Authority for Consumers & Markets (ACM) has yet to give its go-ahead owing to the large number of questions that still remain unanswered. The ACM announced in January 2022 that an in-depth investigation into the mega-merger was necessary considering its far-reaching consequences for the media landscape.
The Dutch Media Authority monitors the impact of media concentrations based on the need for a pluralistic and independent news supply for citizens in a report called “Mediamonitor” (CvdM, 2022a). However, the publicly available website (mediamonitor.nl) only describes the media ownership structure of the major companies, which were in 2020 (2) Talpa Network (3), NPO, Mediahuis, DPG Media and RTL. In our sample, the media outlets are owned by four of these major companies: NPO (owning NPO1 – NOS), Mediahuis (owning De Telegraaf and NRC), DPG Media (owning De Volkskrant and nu.nl), and RTL (owning RTL4 – RTL nieuws). Additionally, we will discuss the ownership structures of De Groene Amsterdammer, Follow the Money (ftm.nl) and FD Mediagroep (owning BNR Nieuwsradio and Het Financieele Dagblad).
The NPO, the Netherlands public broadcaster, is a steering and cooperation body, consisting of three bodies: the supervisory board, the board of directors, and the broadcasting organisations. The daily management of the NPO organisation is in the hands of the board of directors and the management. The supervisory board oversees the implementation of this and acts as a sounding board for the board of directors. The minister of education, culture and science appoints the members of the supervisory board of NPO (CvdM, 2022a; NPO, 2021).
The Flemish company Mediahuis SA owns 100% of five Dutch-based companies (Mediahuis Nederland Beheer, Mediahuis NL, De Telegraaf, NRC Mediahuis Nederland Holding, and Mediahuis Nederland). Mediahuis SA is owned by three other Flemish-based companies: Mediahuis Partners (50.6%), Concentra (32.%), and VP Capital (16.3%). Mediahuis Partners is owned by several family-related companies such as Mediacore (Leysen and Sofinim families), Cecan (Vlerick Sap family), De Eik (van Waeyenberge family), and Vedesta (Van De Steen family). Concentra is mainly owned by the Dutch foundation De Zeven Eycken (90.1%) and the Belgian non-profit organisation Katholiek impuls- en mediafonds (8.7%), a very small part remaining in their own hands (1.3%). VP Capital is owned by the Dutch family Van Puijenbroek (CvdM, 2022a, 2022b; VRM, 2022).
The Flemish company DPG Media Group owns 100% of DPG Media Nederland. DPG Media Group is mainly owned (99.2%) by the Flemish company Epifin, whose shareholders cannot be identified. However, members of the Van Thillo, Criel and Convent families are on the board of directors (CvdM, 2022a, 2022b; VRM, 2022).
DPG Media Nederland is 68.9% owned by DPG Media Services (fully owned by DPG Media Group) and 29.3% owned by Stichting Democratie en Media (Democracy and Media Foundation), an independent foundation with its own capital, successor to the foundation Het Parool (CvdM, 2022a, 2022b; VRM, 2022).
The three Dutch-based RTL companies (RTL Netherlands, RTL Netherlands Holding, and RTL Group Management) are (nearly) fully owned by the Luxemburg-based company RTL Group. RTL Group is owned for 76.3% by the German company Bertelsmann Capital Holding. The remaining 23.7% is in the hands of public shareholders whose shares are traded on the regulated market (Prime Standard) of the Frankfurt and Luxembourg Stock Exchanges (CvdM, 2022a, 2022b; RTL Group, 2021a, 2021b).
The Stichting 1877 (Foundation 1877) is the only owner mentioned on the website of De Groene Amsterdammer. Via the website Drimble, the Stichting Groene Beheer (Green Management Foundation) and its subsidiary de Groene Amsterdammer Weekblad voor Nederland (Groene Amsterdammer Weekly for the Netherlands) could be linked to the ownership structure of De Groene Amsterdammer. However, neither the shareholders nor the numbers of shares of the different companies could be identified (De Groene Amsterdammer, 2022; Drimble, 2022a, 2022b, 2022c).
Follow the Money publishes an annual report on its website with key financial information. The four companies being part of the ownership structure of Follow the Money can be traced back on its website. However, the most recent information dates back to 2019: the Stichting Administratiekantoor FTM Media (Trust Office Foundation FTM Media) is mentioned as the highest company in the ownership chain. This foundation has five shareholders: Dick Haan, Erik Hallers, Jan Bart Fanoy as well as editors-in-chief Arne Van der Wal and Erik Smit. Information is lacking about the number and division of shares between these five shareholders (Follow the Money, 2019, 2022).
The Dutch-based company FD Mediagroep is 100% owner of the Dutch-based companies Business Nieuws Holding and Het Financieele Dagblad, the publisher of respectively BNR Nieuwsradio and Het Financieele Dagblad. FD Mediagroep is transparent about its ownership structure in its annual report. FD Mediagroep is 99% owned by Hal Investments, which is the Dutch investment subsidiary of Hal Holding and is 100% owned by Hal Trust. Hal Trust is a public limited company located in Bermuda whose shares are listed and traded on the Euronext in Amsterdam. The other 1% of the FD Mediagroep is owned by De Stichting tot Behartiging van de Belangen van het Personeel van het Financieele Dagblad (Foundation for the Promotion of the Interests of the Staff of the Dutch Financial Times) (FD Mediagroep, 2021; Hal Trust, 2021).
A striking result of the Dutch news and information media market is its high degree of concentration, both in terms of audience and market share. As the Temporary Media Concentration Act was cancelled at the end of 2010, there is currently no specific legislation restricting media ownership in the Netherlands.
Moreover, this highly concentrated media market is in the hands of mainly foreign-owned companies. First, the Flemish-based company Mediahuis is owned by a jumble of subsidiaries mostly in the hands of wealthy families, but transparency is lacking on the beneficial owners of these subsidiaries. Second, the Flemish-based company DPG Media Group is owned by the Epifin company: here also transparency on the actual beneficial owners is lacking, although it is common knowledge that the company is in the hands of three families (Van Thillo, Criel, and Convent). Third, the Luxemburg-based company RTL Group, which owns RTL Netherlands, is mainly owned by the German Bertelsmann Capital Holding. However, the actual beneficial owners of the Bertelsmann company cannot be traced back, except for the fact that 80.9% of Bertelmann is owned by three foundations (Bertelsmann Stiftung, Reinhard Mohn Stiftung, and BVGStiftung) and 19.1% of the shares is in the hands of the Mohn family. Finally, the FD Mediagroep is owned by Hal Trust, located in Bermuda.
Generally speaking, the direct owners of the Dutch media companies in our sample are mentioned on their websites. However, in-depth research is required to map the ownership structures. Even then, the number and division of shares of the actual beneficial owners cannot be traced back.
According to the 2021 Reuters Digital News Report (Reuters Institute, 2021), nine digital information intermediaries are each used by more than 5% of the population to get news. Four of these intermediaries belong to the category of social media, where Facebook stands out as the most important (26%), followed by WhatsApp (22%), Instagram (10%) and Twitter (8%). Google News (13%), Apple News (8%) and Upday (7%) are three news aggregators with considerable reach in the Netherlands. However, the three most widely used forms of news distribution are (affiliated with) traditional news media: news TV broadcasts (reaching 36% of the population), websites/apps of newspapers (12%), and websites/apps of television or radio stations (10%).
The risks of lack of transparency in terms of control over news are still limited, as the Dutch still prefer direct access to websites and apps from traditional news brands, besides the high use of television. However, if non-linear news use keeps growing and the intermediaries do not limit their influence over news selection or clarify their role, transparency of control over news might sharply decrease in the next years.
In sum, there is a need for more transparency and standardisation: reach figures are available for all media types (TV, newspapers, magazines, websites), but not in the required EurOMo format. Company data such as VAT numbers are seen as private information. To obtain this information, one must buy it from the Chambers of Commerce. Turnover figures are not freely accessible either.
Dutch policy on journalistic media is limited and specific in nature: only a few million euros per year are involved, with the Netherlands Journalism Fund as its main instrument and the stimulation of journalistic innovation as its spearhead. On the one hand, the government’s long-term approach consists of structural support for a basic news media infrastructure that ensures continuity and transparency. On the other hand, ad hoc subsidies for new initiatives must ensure sufficient innovation and dynamism. However, information on actual public funding amounts is hard to find, one exception being the budget allocated to the public broadcaster. While the Netherlands Journalism Fund promotes journalistic innovation and sustains the journalistic infrastructure through subsidies, the Netherlands Fund for In-depth Journalism awards subsidies to journalistic projects. The projects subsidised by the latter are indicative of the current funding trends, while the Netherlands Journalism Fund’s most recent public annual report dates back to 2019.
In other words, there is a need for close monitoring of news media funding and ownership structures – a prerequisite to evaluate existing policies and effectively develop new ones. We note that the Dutch Media Authority refers to the annual reports of the Flemish Media Regulator for the mapping of ownership structures of the two large media companies. Since the Netherlands and Flanders share the same language, have many shared interests and ownerships, and face the same challenges, parallel or even joint monitoring seems desirable. Governments should create the necessary conditions for this.
It is often said that Flanders and the Netherlands are ‘separated by the same language’. More emphasis on this shared language and identity may well be the best answer to external forces and the threat of amalgamation, now and in the future. We do face the same challenges. And our shared language offers unique opportunities to exchange experiences and learn from each other. We should demand that our governments create the necessary preconditions for this (4).
There are concerns about the future survival of the current journalistic infrastructure due to the rise of global players such as Facebook and Google, which thrive on personalised news and advertising. While eroding the position and viability of national news organisations, these communication companies rake in most of the advertising money. Even greater than the economic threat are the risks to the independence and reliability of journalism, and thus to the trust audiences have in news media. Trust in news is still relatively high in the Netherlands, with more than 61% of the audience trusting the news sources they use (Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, 2021). The importance of and need for independent and quality journalism are now even greater, in part because of the Covid pandemic, but also because of new tensions within Dutch society.
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De Groene Amsterdammer (2022). De Groene financieel ondersteunen [Supporting De Groene financially]. Retrieved 10 August 2022 from https://www.groene.nl/over/pagina/de-groene-financieel-ondersteunen
Drimble (2022a). Stichting 1877 [Foundation 1877]. Retrieved 10 August 2022 from https://drimble.nl/bedrijf/amsterdam/k53968026/stichting-1877.html
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Country report published in September 2022