The concept of pluralism goes way beyond media ownership and includes many aspects ranging from merger control rules to content requirement in broadcasting licence systems, the establishment of editorial freedoms and the independence and status of public service broadcasters. Only a couple of weeks before the Forum, the European Court of Human Rights, in the case of Centro Europa 7 SRL and Di Stefano v Italy (Application no 38433/09) confirmed that Article 10 ECHR imposes a positive duty on States to guarantee a plural media environment as well as a negative duty not to repress speech.
The Court emphasised that:
“A situation whereby a powerful economic or political group in society is permitted to obtain a position of dominance over the audiovisual media and thereby exercise pressure on broadcasters and eventually curtail their editorial freedom undermines the fundamental role of freedom of expression in a democratic society as enshrined in Article 10 of the Convention, in particular where it serves to impart information and ideas of general interest, which the public is moreover entitled to receive... this is true also where the position of dominance is held by a State or public broadcaster.”
Traditional media companies face the most fundamental transformation in their history – a perfect storm of advertising migrating to the internet, a recession led decline in revenues, fragmenting audiences and new interactive technologies has conspired to make this a most uncertain time for news producers. For companies seeking to re-configure their business models and emerge from the structural crisis, consolidation into larger media entities is an obvious route to salvation. However, at this point, industrial pragmatism collides with the need for plurality and diversity of a voice in a democracy. The dilemma is not new. Governments have struggled to produce policies on media ownership which reconcile the competing demands of democratic pluralism on one hand and industrial expansion on the other. Now however, there is a growing recognition that perhaps Europe should be tackling these issues collectively.
There is also concern that the growing domination of the new big players such as Apple, Google, Twitter and Facebook need some degree of regulation to ensure a diversity of ownership, independence and protection of copyright for content generators.
The Plenary Chamber is ordinarily reserved for Parliamentary business, but on this occasion the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schultz, gave his permission for the Chamber to be used to engage in a Pan-European dialogue on media pluralism and the new media. The event was opened powerfully by Geoffrey Robertson QC who took us on a journey through the history of free speech and underlined how Europe has acted as a crucible in which ideas on media freedom and pluralism have been forged and tested over time.
Participants included the Vice President of the European Commission for the Digital Agenda in Europe, Mrs Neelie Kroes; Flemish media minister, Ingrid Lieten; the Human Rights Commissioner, Nils Muiznieks; film actor and media campaigner, Hugh Grant; Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason and the original Brit Girl Sandie Shaw, as well as media owners, editors and NGOs from across Europe. The panel sessions were chaired by Judges from the UK, Hungary and Italy including Sir Michael Burton, Treasurer of Gray’s Inn, who chaired the first session of the day with great skill and authority.
At the Forum three distinct threats to media pluralism were identified: undue State influence; excessive private power; and reduced investment in original content, particularly investigative journalism, consequent on changing business models.
Although the Forum recognised adequate levels of media pluralism in countries such as Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, concern was expressed over the situation in Hungary (where questions remain over the political independence of the powerful Hungarian media regulator), and in Russia, where the far reaching political implications of State control of the media were underlined by Russian journalist, Yvgenia Albats, editor of Russia’s New Times who noted that “A threat to our journalism is a threat to peaceful development in Europe.”
Given the difficulties inherent in addressing State influence domestically, action at the international level may be the only way to bring about change and prevent further contagion. The EU could play a more central role in ensuring that a threshold of pluralism is maintained in all States and possibly in monitoring conformity with basic standards more generally.
The film actor and press campaigner, Hugh Grant travelled to Brussels to relay to his European audience how excessive private power can also threaten media pluralism. He called for a Directive to be implemented within Member States to establish thresholds for media concentration.
There are also new configurations of media power, with internet service providers, social network sites, search engines and other intermediaries with the capacity to determine what information is made available or to influence the content individuals select. The ability of third parties to access these networks on a fair and non discriminatory basis and to receive payment for the use of their content remain key issues for media plurality. The open internet has “democratised” content and enriched the conversation with the reader but social media have also disrupted robust news gathering. In addition some news media are losing out in the “time war zone” when first is more important than being accurate.
As well as matters concerning the traditional media, the worlds of music and publishing were also on hand to discuss the way in which they have adapted to the challenges presented by the new media. Nick Mason of Pink Floyd, Sandie Shaw and Brian Message, co-manager of the rock band, Radiohead, highlighted the benefits of the internet for music delivery and the opportunities it offers for artists’ remuneration and the transformation of traditional business models, believing that music is in safer hands when the fan and the artist are closer together. In practical terms this means enabling anything that allows direct artist to fan business to flourish.
These are just some of the highlights of the event. A report is due to be published on the issues that arose at the Forum and a website has been set up at www.mediapluralism.eu to continue to monitor the need for diversity obligations in a rapidly changing digital world.
Siobhan Grey, Doughty Street Chambers.