Why no national Swiss media?
GENEVA The Swiss are well known for their language capabilities, many of them speaking at least three.
Foreigners living here are therefore often surprised to discover how wide divisions are among the country’s four different language regions. Mastery of others’ tongues has been on the decline for decades, while there are few common cultural events and no national media.
Last week, the television magazine Couleurs locales on TSR1 in Suisse Romande joined forces with its counterpart in German-speaking Switzerland, Aktuell on SR1, to try to change this. The result was a week of reports from both sides of the dividing line, the River Sarine,where the two presenters met in the middle of a bridge in Fribourg to share a symbolic plate of Rösti.
It may be too early to assess the success of this attempt to bridge the culture gap,but Claude Torracinta, former editor of Téléjournal, a nationwide programme from the 1960s–70s, isn’t optimistic. “Téléjournal as a single [national]programme failed,” he said, explaining that the show was broadcast simultaneously in German, French and Italian from a studio in Zurich with no presenters, but different language voiceover narrations for the same video images. “Each region was unsatisfied because the news did not give them enough about their own region and they weren’t interested in other regions,” said Torracinta. “Even the journalists who worked with me complained that it was like different chefs trying to prepare a common dish. It simply didn’t work.”
When it comes to a national newspaper, experts say that is impossible in a multi-lingual country. Others note that back in the old days, it was assumed that most educated Swiss could at least read a newspaper in another national language. The problem, said Torracinta, is that “today fewer Swiss are really bi-lingual, especially in Suisse romande, and certainly not fluent enough to speak on radio or TV. Even the majority of federal counsellors express themselves badly in another national language.”
Elsewhere in Europe, attempts have been made to encourage communality among various national languages and cultures through mass media. In the former Czechoslovakia, a single news programme was broadcast both in Czech and Slovak before the Dissolution of Czechoslovakia split the country in two. Today, they are once again combining forces to produce joint media shows. The former Yugoslavia, although not a multi-lingual country, had two alphabets and during the Tito years produced a national newspaper with articles in Cyrillic and Latin script. Currentlythe only really successful pan-European television network is Euronews, which confronts the multi-lingual issue by narrating the same video, often with different presenters, in 13 languages.
The Forum Helveticum, founded in 1968 in Lenzberg (Aargau) to foster linguistic and cultural understanding among the various Swiss regions, is concerned about the rise of isolationism and nationalism. “We don’t know very much about what’s going on in the other regions,” said director Roland Boss. “We are living in a time when we know too much about our own region and not enough about neighbouring regions.”
This problem is exacerbated by recent efforts to drop French as the second national language in schools and the decline of standard German in favour of local dialects, something some teachers disagree with given that it undermines the students’ grasp of Hochdeutsch, or high German. In the 18 May referendum, voters in Aargau approved an initiative to ban standard German in primary schools and promote dialect instead. Zurich approved a similar initiative three years ago. “These days when people from Suisse romande or Ticino come here, they find that no one speaks standard German any more, only dialects,”said Boss. “In the end they are forced to speak English and that is clearly something we don’t want.” He believes the lack of any type of national media could be part of the problem. “Maybe some sports programmes are jointly broadcast in the national languages but not the news. At least the news continues to be in standard German but local radio stations are only in dialect.”
Forum Helveticum noted that the break with standard German came after WWI when Swiss-Germans wanted to separate themselves from Germany. This desire only increased with time and after WWII. By the 1970s, the Swiss national broadcaster SRG/SSR had decided radio and television programmes should be in local dialects.
Boss believes one of Switzerland’s strengths is multi-lingualism and that it could play a greater role in aiding understanding of the different cultures. “For example, we could be better partners on European issues because we have, through language, a greater understanding of other cultures. But alas, Switzerland today is more concerned about itself.” He noted that TV stations do have one major joint initiative on 1 August, the National Day celebration of the founding of the Swiss Confederation in 1291. “There is usually a joint programme of three stations together but last year it was heavily criticized because the Swiss-German presenter didn’t speak in standard German but in his own dialect. And people were right to criticize this.”
Torracinta,however, is adamant that it is impossible to have a single, nationwide TV programme for Switzerland. “As much as I think a single broadcast won’t work and as much as I think a single newspaper won’t work, I do agree that we need to make a greater effort to understand each other.” His recommendations include not onlybetter training ofjournalists in reporting on events happening in other regions,but also to encourage more exchanges among regions at the political level. “Because it’s true there is a tendency to regionalize all information,” he said.
For both Torracinta and Boss, the key to safeguarding Swiss cohesion is preserving its four founding languages. They agree that English is fine for the economy and travelling the world, but it doesn’t help with understanding the culture of other regions, especially the nuances that are lost when one doesn’t fully understand a language. This is reflected by growing numbers of Swiss families, particularly those with international exposure, or of mixed backgrounds such as German and French, or French and Italian. They ensure that their kids learn, either at home or school, at least two Swiss tongues, while embracing English as the language of the future for professional reasons.