Granville Williams, European Initiative for Media Pluralism
On 22 March Neelie Kroes, the European Commission Vice President, gave an important speech in Dublin on safeguarding media freedom and pluralism.[i] Scouring the UK press I didn’t see one mention or report of it. No surprises there then, but you would have thought that with the intense interest about media regulation stimulated by the Leveson Report journalists might have wanted to pick up on the key points of her speech, if only to attack them.
What Neelie Kroes signalled in her speech was an openness to revisit a key area of EU media policy, one which the Commission has always shied away from until now. She identified a free and pluralistic media as a key foundation supporting democracy, transparency and human rights within the European Union (EU) but went on to identify a number of problems which have arisen in member states: media concentration and lack of diversity; restrictions on online and offline media; state control, pressure and interference. Unusually she cited particular countries: Hungary, Bulgaria and the UK. Italy could have been included too, where a discredited Italian politician whose political career seemed to be over was able to use his immense wealth and media dominance to come a close second in the February general election. ‘The scale and the issues are not always the same,’ Kroes said, ’but this is a debate that rages across the Union.’
Policies on the level of media ownership or forms of media regulation have normally been left, under the concept of subsidiarity, to member states. Only when media mergers pose issues of market dominance across the EU does the EU Competition Commission intervene (or not, as in the NewsCorp/BSkyB takeover which it cleared in December 2010). The other area of media policy the European Commission claims competence over is the audiovisual market. Since the 1989 Television Without Frontiers directive, subsequently updated and renamed as the Audiovisual Media Services (AVMS) directive in 2007 to cover internet TV and on-demand services, clear rules on advertising, both content and duration, and other matters are laid down. The intention of the directives was to ensure common rules to facilitate the efficient working of the EU audiovisual economic market.
Now Neelie Kroes is using a report she commissioned and was published in January by a High Level Group of experts on issues of media freedom and pluralism to kickstart a dual consultation. The first is in a field where the EU already has legislative competence and requires national regulatory bodies to oversee the implementation of the rules in the AVMS directive. The problem is the extent to which governments can influence the composition of such bodies for blatant political purposes, as the Fidesz party under Victor Orban has done in Hungary. The consultation is specifically on whether or how to strengthen national regulatory authorities to guarantee their independence from government. [ii]
The second consultation deals with the other numerous recommendations in the report, A Free and Pluralistic Media to Sustain European Democracy.[iii] There are some unequivocal policy proposals in the report, but it was blatantly misreported with the Daily Telegraph suggesting the EU would seek the power to ‘sack’ journalists.[iv] The report did, however, recommend that the EU should be able to have the competence to act to protect media pluralism.
The same concerns which Neelie Kroes highlighted in her speech also inspired the citizens’ million-signature campaign, the European Initiative for Media Pluralism (EIMP). The genesis of the initiative lay with a group called European Alternatives and work began on the campaign around the time News Corporation announced its plan to take full control of BSky in June 2010. Indeed the plan, codenamed Project Rubicon by James Murdoch, had a clear strategy: get clearance from the EU Competition Commission and then remind David Cameron it was payback time for the support the News International titles had given him in the 2010 general election and push the takeover through. Once cleared James Murdoch planned to integrate the European operations, including Sky Italia and Sky Deutschland. I still find it incredible to ponder how close we came to creating a media behemoth in the UK.
The EU clearance was quickly given but the decision highlighted the problem of relying solely on competition law. Promoting competition to ensure market efficiency and safeguarding pluralism on democratic, social and cultural grounds are distinct and different policy objectives. The issue of pluralism was irrelevant in the EC clearance of the BSkyB takeover.
In terms of the UK the only ‘protection’ against the News Corp takeover on BSkyB was a ‘media plurality test’ inserted in a last-minute, rearguard action by a group of influential Lords, including David Puttnam, to the 2003 Communications Bill. Without that, the News Corp takeover of BSkyB would simply have been nodded through in 2010. Instead people power intervened and a growing body of support mobilised through online activism to challenge the takeover.
It was a close-run thing, with the BSkyB bid pre-emptively abandoned on 13 July 2011 before a House of Commons debate in which every MP who spoke excoriated News International for the phone-hacking scandal and opposed the BSkyB bid.
The EIMP was officially launched in Brussels in February 2013 and we had the UK launch on 21 March in the House of Lords. Nine European countries support the EIMP so far: Bulgaria, Belgium, France, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, and the United Kingdom. The initiative calls for:
- Effective legislation to avoid concentration of ownership in the media and advertisement sectors;
- Guaranteed independence of media supervisory bodies from political power and influence;
- Definition of conflict of interests to avoid media moguls occupying high political office;
- Clearer European monitoring systems to check up regularly on the health and independence of the media in member states.
At the UK launch I said, ’This is an ambitious and inspiring project to develop a clear, democratic framework for the media across the European Union, It involves cooperation amongst over more than 100 organisations who care about free and independent media.’ I believe that and urge people to sign up and support the initiative: www.mediainitiative.eu
Granville Williams is the UK Coordinator European Initiative for Media Pluralism
[i] ‘Media Pluralism and Freedom in a Connected Europe,’ speech by Vice-President Neelie Kroes: https://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_SPEECH-13-252_en.htm