paulaThe European Commission’s competence to regulate media plurality is still an open question, and now a new Citizens Initiative has entered the discussion in favour of harmonized EU regulation. LSE’s Maria Paula Brito sets the stage for the European Initiative for Media Pluralism’s upcoming UK launch, noting some of the previous progress and pitfalls in seeking a uniform European approach.

 

A new European Citizens Initiative entitled the European Initiative for Media Pluralism (EIMP) will hold its UK launch on 21 March at 11.00 in the House of Lords.  The initiative is being introduced by more than 100 organizations from the Pan-European civil society and calls on the European Commission to take a step forward in legislation to address problems of media ownership, pluralism and freedom of the press.

In order for the EIMP to be considered by the European Commission, it must collect one million signatures within one year. That countdown started on 7 February 2013, and so far, nine European countries are supporting it:  Bulgaria, Belgium, France, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, and the United Kingdom. All of these member states must gather a percentage of the million signature threshold, in proportion to each state’s population. So far, organizers have collected 1,881 signatures, but hope to mobilize many more citizens.

The minimum amount of signatures needed from the UK is 54,750, but the campaigners’ goal is higher. UK Coordinator Granville Williams says they aim for 150,000. So far, institutions such as the National Union of Journalists, BECTU and the Trades Union Congress, have been joining the front.  But are British nationals interested? Justin Schlosberg says they should care about media reform, especially after the controversy that surrounded News Corp’s attempted takeover of BskyB.  Likewise, the Leveson Inquiry—although it did not confront media pluralism directly—provided evidence of the need to advocate for a more pluralistic press.

But if the initiative moves forward, is the European Commission likely to support a normative stance on the matter? Peggy Valcke, Director of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Law & ICT (ICRI) at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, reminds us about the difficulty of attempting to regulate media pluralism in the EU. In 1989 the then-called “Television Without Frontiers Directive” constituted the first attempt to regulate based on a normative goal of pluralism, but the challenge was whether harmonizing media policy amongst EU countries was viable amongst heterogeneous media landscapes. Valcke points out that the central and eastern European countries had very young media markets, and taking a uniform approach was difficult at that time. But has that changed? Should the European Commission still maintain its hands-off approach?

The Report of the European Commission’s “High Level Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism” published in January 2013 was to a certain extent a step in alignment with the EIMP’s goal of harmonized rules on pluralism and ownership. On one hand, the Group recommended that the EU should be considered competent to protect media pluralism at the state level in order to guarantee the rights of EU citizens and to safeguard the European market. On the other hand, although it peripherally makes reference to the issue of competition (as Mark Thompson analyses in a previous post) it makes no overt claim about the problem of ownership and says nothing of the media ownership and pluralism indicators unveiled in 2009.

Valcke states that media pluralism can be theoretically approached in one of two ways: 1) from the “perspective of the neoliberal marketplace of ideas” predominated by arguments for freedom of choice and minimal regulation of free market, or 2) from a “Habermassian public sphere” approach, where active media policies guarantee that media outlets serve the whole of society.

In light of the controversies involving media corporations and government intervention in countries like the UK and Hungary, it is important to discuss now more than ever whether the EU should opt for plurality seen from a hands-off marketplace perspective, or from a public sphere perspective that utilizes protective media policies. On which side of the debate do you fall?

To view the EIMP petition: http://www.mediapetition.eu/Site_2/Media_Petition_EU.html