Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The media and "European values"

There is a flurry of excitement, which some of this blog's readers may have noticed. It stems from an article by Bruno Waterfield, entitled Leveson: EU wants power to sack journalists. The Financial Times, whose journalists also picked up the story, gave it a more sedate headline: Brussels tables tighter EU media laws. Whichever way you look at it, this is not a pleasant story, not least because the dreaded oppressive EU is taking a leaf out of the British rule book. Who owns the Leveson Committee and its report? Not Latvia or Germany.

The subject of all these articles is a report produced by a "high-level group" that was set up in October 2011 to discuss freedom and pluralism of the media across the EU. The report was welcomed by Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission with special responsibility for the digital agenda on her blog. One could argue (and in the case of this blog, one does argue) that such a position is a ridiculous joke and a scandal at the same time, the scandal being that it costs an enormous amount of our money, both in the sums received by Commissar Kroes and her staff and in the problems they inflict on business including the media.

Over the week-end, Commissar Kroes tells us, she read the report and has not presented it to the Commission. The next step, she tells us, is an EU-wide discussion and she gives a link as to where people can send their feed-back to. Here it is, in case anyone is interested: CNECT-TASKFORCE-MEDIA at ec dot europa dot eu. (Oh well, I suppose they want to be protected from difficult correspondents but it is not hard to deal with that.)
After recent events concerning media freedom and pluralism, for example in Hungary but really in quite a few Member States, many – including indeed many journalists – complained that the EU was not doing enough, and does not have sufficient powers to act to protect freedom and pluralism. On the other hand, I am also aware that there are risks to freedom and pluralism from having too much power, or acting too much. And that is exactly why I would like a political debate, with all stakeholders contributing.

The report contains recommendations for consideration by a number of Commissioners on matters such as appropriate EU powers in this field, regulator independence, competition and media pluralism, journalist codes of conduct and net neutrality.
I am afraid I can believe that even journalists have complained that the EU was not doing enough to preserve their freedom. They clearly do not know the numerous fables that tell of complaints against existing oppression to a higher power and what happens when the higher power takes it upon itself to deal with the situation. Actually, they simply do not know how regulatory capture works or think that, somehow, they are outside the rules.

Here is the link to the actual report, which I have not yet read through (not having the week-end at my disposal or the kind of income Commissar Kroes gets to read such things) but I object to the title: A Free and Pluralistic Media to Sustain European Democracy. How many times does one have to repeat this: there is no and there can be no European democracy? Some European countries have democracy (though even that needs definition), others not so much. The European Union as a whole has none. The fact that a report of this kind, commissioned by a Commissioner who is not only unelected but is unaccountable, would indicate a certain problem with one part of the process. The additional fact that the EU thinks it has some kind of a right to decide on how the media can or should operate would indicate that the concept of a free media is simply incomprehensible to these people.

Let us have a look at Section 5.2 European Coverage. [Scroll down in the index panel and click.] We have a problem, apparently.

In the context of the current economic and financial crisis and the steps the European Union has taken to address it, the need for democratic legitimacy at the EU level has become an even greater priority. The democratic legitimacy of the European Union is closely dependent, however, on the emergence of a public sphere which is informed about European issues and able to engage in debates about them. This requires, in turn, adequate media coverage of European issues and politics.

The political challenges the Union has faced in tackling the crisis have also highlighted the extent to which the European dimension of certain issues has been insufficiently internalised in the national public spheres. This insufficient Europeanisation of national politics has affected both national debates on EU issues and decision-making processes at the EU level. In the long run, it risks undermining both national democracy and European democracy as a whole.

The very idea of promoting a European public sphere, the possible emergence of European media, increased European awareness within the national public spheres, or increased national coverage of European affairs, is still controversial in many quarters. More importantly, there is a fear that policies to increase European coverage by the media would be guided by some particular conception of the value of European integration, rather than just encouraging broader discussions. This does not mean, however, that the Union and its Member States should abstain from any policy or action aimed at promoting increased media coverage of EU affairs. On the contrary, in the same way that EU and State actions (including funding) may be necessary to promote pluralism at the State level, it is equally appropriate for the Union and its Member States to undertake actions to promote pluralism in the form of increased coverage of EU affairs.

European coverage means more than just the coverage of European Council meetings or Commission activities. It requires a deeper understanding by media of the European dimension of multiple national policies, even when these are being covered at a national level. It also requires for genuinely European politics to be more closely followed and reported on, but this requires both human and infrastructure resources, including high-quality investigative journalism. In the case of small countries, or those particularly hard-hit by the prevailing financial and economic crisis, such resources may simply not be available.

Among possible concrete measures that might offer a partial remedy to this situation, the European Commission could explicitly and emphatically include journalism in the existing Jean Monnet Programme.Higher Journalism Schools, Universities with Journalism programmes and their Professors could then respond to the calls for proposals published every year by the Commission. This would be valuable in increasing their opportunities to address cross-border issues and broaden the pool of those with special competencies in EU affairs.
So there we have it. The problem is not that the EU appears to be messing up the areas it already controls but wants to control some others, not that the eurozone is an economic disaster area for most of its members, not that democratic structures are undermined or that national governments and legislatures are deprived or their rightful powers. Goodness me, no.

The problems is that the EU is not being discussed the way it should be in the national media and, therefore, the answer is to promote a European public sphere with the possible emergence of a European media, which would, obviously, be subsidized by the European tax payer or, at least, those Europeans who bother to pay tax.

I cannot quite understand why neither Bruno Waterfield, nor Toby Young, nor the FT journalists mentioned this. I suppose we have heard all this before but what if this time they really mean it and the sums that will be pumped into the "European media" and the training of "European journalists" will be quite substantial?

What these journos seem to have read (or one of them read and the others simply lifted the story as Toby Young admits to have done) is Section 4.4 Enforced Self-Regulation. The report suggests a list of desiderata that can be enforced on the media companies.
Because the trust that the general public places in the media is an asset to them, media organisations themselves should justify this trust by being more proactive in matters of selfregulation. Each media outlet should follow clearly identifiable codes of conduct and editorial lines, and it should be mandatory for them to publish these on their website or to state explicitly where the organisation follows common international codes of conduct and ethical guidelines. While there must be flexibility in the choice of the code of conduct an organisation decides to follow, a number of key domains can be identified in which the position of the organisation should be set out, including:

 A clear enunciation of the ethical principles it has decided to follow;

 An explicit affirmation of the principle of editorial independence;

 Transparency in divulging final ownership along with a listing of other media interests held by the same owners;

 Potential conflicts of interest between outlets belonging to the same owners should be noted;

 The general working terms and conditions for their journalists should be available for public scrutiny, including the proportion of full-time workers as against levels of freelancing;

 Any commitment to pay a ‘fair wage’ should be publicised;

 In case of a change in ownership, the rights of those journalists differing from the new editorial line should be stated;

 Policies on training and qualifications, if any, should be clearly enunciated;

 Adopted approaches to, and/or available statistics on, workplace diversity, including ethnicity (where appropriate) and gender should be available on demand.
That is quite a set of rules there with some of them being vague enough to catch out any media company that is deemed to be somewhat unreliable.

Some indication of this may be found in Section 2.1 EU competences in protecting media freedom and pluralism.

It goes through the various existing legal bases on which the EU is already entitled to interfering protecting media freedom and pluralism. There are four recommendations.
Recommendation 1: The EU should be considered competent to act to protect media freedom and pluralism at State level in order to guarantee the substance of the rights granted by the Treaties to EU citizens, in particular the rights of free movement and to representative democracy. The link between media freedom and pluralism and EU democracy, in particular, justifies a more extensive competence of the EU with respect to these fundamental rights than to others enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Recommendation 2: To reinforce European values of freedom and pluralism, the EU should designate, in the work programme and funding of the European fundamental rights agency, a monitoring role of national-level freedom and pluralism of the media. The agency would then issue regular reports about any risks to the freedom and pluralism of the media in any part of the EU. The European Parliament could then discuss the contents of these reports and adopt resolutions or make suggestions for measures to be taken.

Recommendation 3: As an alternative to the mechanism suggested in the previous recommendation, the EU could establish an independent monitoring centre, ideally as part of academia, which would be partially funded by the EU but would be fully independent in its activities.

Recommendation 4: All EU countries should have independent media councils with a politically and culturally balanced and socially diverse membership. Nominations to them should be transparent, with built-in checks and balances. Such bodies would have competences to investigate complaints, much like a media ombudsman, but would also check that media organisations have published a code of conduct and have revealed ownership details, declarations of conflicts of interest, etc. Media councils should have real enforcement powers, such as the imposition of fines, orders for printed or broadcast apologies, or removal of journalistic status. The national media councils should follow a set of European-wide standards and be monitored by the Commission to ensure that they comply with European values.
I am not sure any of it actually says that the EU will have powers to sack journalists but what it does say is quite ridiculous and dangerous enough. The purpose is quite clearly to create an overall structure that media outlets would have to adjust to or expect more stringent legislation as none of this can be enforced at the moment.

The concept of those European values is, this blog and EUReferendum have discussed on occasions too numerous to link to, is interesting. There is, according to this, something called European values (many of which are actually Anglospheric ones, but let that pass) that have nothing to do with European history, which, as every school boy and girl ought to know, has produced many values of varying attractiveness. In other words, the EU's duty is to use those nebulous European values to save Europeans from their own history for it is only European values that can prevent a repetition of the nasty events created by Europeans at various times.


  1. I wonder what Hans-Martin Tillack's opinion is.

  2. An interesting question. He does not seem to have been quoted by anyone.