Kroes and Rabbitte question if EU intervention is needed to ‘preserve media’

22 Mar 2013

Neelie Kroes, European Commission vice-president and commissioner for the Digital Agenda

European Commission vice-president and commissioner for the Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes said today in Dublin that safeguarding media freedom and freedom of speech is critical. However, she said such a debate cannot be had without tackling the question of concentration of media ownership.

The subject of preserving a free and pluralistic media in terms of technology and legal and economic frameworks was discussed this morning at the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin in a debate attended by Kroes along with Ireland’s Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte, TD, and the country’s new digital champion, Oscar-winning producer Lord David Puttnam.

Kroes, who has been championing the EU’s Digital Agenda, underlined the challenges of safeguarding media freedom in a world where content crosses borders and where there are increasing concerns about concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few individuals.

“The solution may lie in action from the EU or member states, from the sector itself, or from a mix. But whatever the answer, I am clear that freedom of speech is a fundamental EU value and the EU has a duty to ensure it is safeguarded,” she said.

Kroes this morning launched two public consultations that will run from today until 14 June. The first relates to whether rules governing national broadcast regulators need to be revised and the second refers to the high-level group’s report of the Audio-visual and Media Services (AVMS) Directive.

Rabbitte tackled the difficult issue of the survival of media in a world where the internet is disrupting traditional business models and advertising across newspapers, radio and TV has plummeted.

“If media is fettered, either by the interests of owners, by fear of authority or by simple groupthink, then our democracy is worse off.”

He said the challenges facing the media industry have implications at a general EU level, at member state level, and particularly for smaller member states.

“At the highest level, we are seeing a deep structural reformation of traditional media players, with a move away from a long-standing vertically integrated model of media provision where a single company owned the editorial process, the advertising sales mechanism and the means of distribution. Contemporary media tends instead towards a more disaggregated and internet-focused model.

“More recently, the rise of social media and the advent of highly flexible and tailored internet-based advertising threaten the basic advertising income of all media, national and local, print and broadcast. Accepted scales of operation, for a newspaper, a television station, or for a radio station, are being rendered redundant by the emergence of a vast crop of new, small and infinitely flexible media players, on the one hand, and by the slow growth of a small number of supra national media operators, on the other, often characterised by cross-media ownership.”

Rabbitte pointed to a report this week in the US which showed that the value of print display ads has fallen from US$45bn to US$19bn since 2003, while online ads have only grown from US$1.2bn to US$3.3bn in the same period.

He later went on to question whether the State or the EU should intervene in order to save democratic media from imploding.

“Should the State or the EU now intervene somehow to ‘preserve’ media? Should we seek to hold up one particular model or type of media operator as exemplar and seek to support that model in all sectors to the detriment of all others?

“My answer to this question is no, and not just because of the acute difficulties associated with governments taking control of large pieces of their media ecosystem. The primary reason is that to try to preserve media in some sort of legislative aspect would be to remove one of the primary reasons for media’s assertiveness and, sometimes, downright belligerence.”

An EU-wide debate is needed

Kroes mentioned high-profile cases around media freedom in the UK, Hungary and Bulgaria.

“Media issues are not limited to one member state; there are concerns and intense debates in places across the EU. From concerns about excessive concentration of media ownership and lack of transparency in Bulgaria; to the UK Leveson Inquiry on the press, where the rights and responsibilities of journalists to abide by the law were tested and found severely wanting in many instances. The scale and the issues are not always the same, but this is a debate that rages across the union.”

Kroes agreed with Rabbitte’s point about member states keeping out of media. “Citizens need to know they can rely on unrestricted information to make good choices.”

She also said we cannot afford to ignore the reality of today’s online world.

“Today we have many different systems in place. For example: national regulators, which can be controversial for print media, are commonplace for audio-visual broadcasting. Yet, in a digital age, once-clear distinctions are becoming blurred: between print and broadcast, between organised media and occasional bloggers, between professional journalist and activist citizen.

“Any attempt to codify and protect media freedom and pluralism struggles to contain those shifting concepts. What do we even mean by ‘media’? The fact is, in an online world, content readily crosses sectoral boundaries: and readily crosses national borders, too. And because the digital transition is a challenge for some traditional media, I have created the Media Futures Forum led by Christian van Thillo to discuss future-oriented solutions across the sector.”

Toxic triangles of media, police and politicians need to be removed

At the event, Lord Puttnam said this week has been an historic week in the UK in light of the deal between UK Prime Minister David Cameron and the leaders of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties to create a Royal Charter to regulate the press in the aftermath of the Leveson Inquiry. Media organisations that refuse to sign up, including websites, could face exemplary damages if they are taken to court.

“Depending on your point of view, it is either the end of 300 years of press freedom or an early victory for press freedom,” Puttnam said.

He said that two years ago, few people in Britain could have imagined that a missing girl’s phone being hacked would ultimately lead to the exposure of bad practices in the UK media.

“It beggared belief,” Puttnam said, pointing out that the hubris in the media reminded him of Citizen Kane.

“It revealed a small but powerful clique who appeared to acknowledge no rules except to accelerate their ambitions.”

He added: “In the UK, it was evident that the problem wasn’t an out-of-control media, the problem was a systemic behavioural pattern that reached far deeper – politics, police, the media – into every nook and cranny.”

The situation, he said, bore the hallmarks of the kind of methods espoused by the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. “Frighten people with a big enough lie and it will develop momentum and credibility.”

Puttnam said the Leveson Inquiry unearthed a toxic triangle of media, politics and police. “We have been forced to come to terms with the fact that once media, politicians and police collude, at that point even the finest judiciary in the world is rendered powerless.

“Once those relationships are corrupted, the game is up for the rest of us.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years