Who Should Control Europe’s Media?

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This is a reposting of M. Poiares Maduro’s comment first appeared on the web site http://www.project-syndicate.org/online-commentary/the-eu-s-role-in-promoting-media-freedom-and-pluralism-by-miguel-p–maduro

Last month, the independent High-Level Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism (of which I was a part) presented to the European Commission its recommendations for the protection, support, and promotion of media pluralism and freedom in Europe. Since its release, the report has attracted considerable attention – but not the kind for which the group had hoped. Ironically, the way in which some media have portrayed the report supports some of the group’s findings

It has been asserted that the report advocates giving the European Union the power to regulate independent national media. But, far from recommending that the EU should control the operation of, or reporting by, the media, the report simply suggests that the EU should play a role in guaranteeing media freedom – crucial for European democracy – in all member countries.

The group acknowledges that the major responsibility for maintaining media freedom and pluralism lies with member states. Given this, it recommends that, beyond safeguarding media freedom, EU intervention be limited to regulating cross-border issues – such as libel “forum shopping” (when litigants choose the court to which to take their case based on the likelihood of a favorable judgment) – and promoting a European public sphere.

The report asserts that the media should retain the fundamental responsibility for press regulation. But no industry can be trusted entirely to regulate itself. Indeed, as recent phone-hacking scandals involving Rupert Murdoch’s defunct News of the World newspaper demonstrated, unchecked self-regulation risks inviting abuse. To minimize this risk, the report advocates two forms of limited supervision.

First, it calls for measures aimed at enforcing transparency. These include obliging each media outlet to publicize the editorial, ethical, and corporate rules to which it adheres, and implementing stricter rules governing conflicts of interest in media ownership.

Second, echoing the major recommendation of Lord Justice Levenson’s report on British press standards, the report advocates creating, in those countries that do not already have one, an independent regulator whose sole responsibility is to protect against potential abuse to oversee press freedom and pluralism. Creating a large, diverse group of stakeholders – such as by establishing politically and culturally pluralist national media councils – would significantly bolster accountability, while leaving the media free from political pressure.

Given that providing the state with any amount of authority over the media also carries risks, the group advocates EU oversight over national authorities – regulation of the regulators. In other words, some degree of regulation would occur at all levels, creating a system of countervailing forces in which all parties are held accountable.

In this system, the EU’s role – defending the European values of media freedom and pluralism – is further justified by the need to protect its own representative democracy. After all, free and democratic European parliamentary elections could be called into question if some of the member states in which they are held lack media freedom and pluralism.

The fact that the group’s recommendations do not align with much of the media’s reporting on them suggests either that the group’s report overstates its intentions, or that the reading of some media outlets has been skewed. Reports that the group’s recommendations would empower the EU to protect media freedom, not to regulate the media – and even criticism that the recommendations leave too much to national authorities – support the latter interpretation. They also raise questions about why some in the media read so much EU control into the report; maybe the fact that it was an EU report meant more than its content.

The group does not attempt to predict the future trajectory of traditional or new media. It simply presents a series of sometimes unorthodox, and even controversial, proposals aimed at sparking a serious, constructive debate about the challenges facing news media. But, so far, this important discussion has been largely overshadowed by what the report does not propose: EU control over independent media.

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