Just as the European Commission held a seminar in Brussels to exchange best practices on transparency of media ownership on 3 October, a new report found that in many European countries, citizens were unable to establish who owns or controls the media operating in their country. At the EC event and in the report a clear link is made between ownership transparency requirements and media pluralism, but this remains a tenuous relationship. Emma Goodman looks at the implications.
Relatively uncontroversial pre-requisite, but next step falls short
The new report, written by Rachael Craufurd Smith and Yolande Stolte, presents the results of a project by Access Info Europe and the Open Society Program on Independent Journalism that surveyed of media ownership transparency rules in 20 EU and neighbouring countries in 2012. The authors operated with the understanding that transparency of ownership is “an essential prerequisite for the meaningful exercise of freedom of expression and the right to receive and impart information”. They argue that “transparency underpins the democratic process” and “the public need to be able to ascertain who provides the information on which they rely.”
However, the report found that often, transparency rules were aimed more at providing information to the regulator than to the public. There seemed to be a missing link between being compliant with transparency requirements, and the public being informed and aware of media ownership.
The authors also stress that transparency is “essential for the introduction of effective measures to promote media plurality.” What such measures these might be is as yet unclear: in the UK, a House of Lords consultation was carried out into media plurality following the revelations about media power that emerged during the hacking scandal, but the government response and strategy focused on the need to come up with a measurement framework rather than action. The response’s timing and content seemed to push the issue into the long grass, and there is doubt that any framework will result in a new plurality regime. At a European level, the Commission has backed the Media Pluralism Monitor, an initiative concerned with how to identify risks to media pluralism in EU countries.
The necessity for transparency of ownership is in itself relatively uncontroversial (although it arguably indicates an innate suspicion of media proprietors). However, any steps that might be taken to act on this to prevent potentially unhealthy media concentration and seek media pluralism are controversial and contested: for example, the MPM project has met with protest from publishers, who resent EU involvement, and there are divisions even among those who favour increased regulatory intervention.
Challenges for Europe-wide transparency
The extent of cross border ownership in Europe is such that in order for transparency requirements to contribute to media pluralism they would need to operate at the European level. However, significant practical challenges face any effort to enforce transparency, particularly at a Europe-wide level. The AIE/OSF report addresses several of these, the first of which is what kind of disclosure requirements are necessary to ensure an appropriate degree of transparency in ownership. The kind of information to be gathered, the report recommends, should include “indirect and beneficial holdings, affiliated interests, linked holdings in other companies, and potentially significant commercial or political influences, for instance from public advertising or donations.” It also notes that states should require politicians to declare any media interests.
But how much would this cost, and who should pay? The report suggests that the burden could be largely placed on the industry, by requiring media organisations to publish information themselves through their own channels or in an official registry but some kind of organisational oversight body would be essential, particularly if a searchable database were to be created.
Considering the lack of public knowledge mentioned at the outset, a key challenge is how to make the information gathered sufficiently accessible to the public in a way that allows them to make informed choices and interpretations of sources of information. Increased transparency will only have an impact if people use the information provided, and for this, high levels of media literacy are crucial, as well as highly accessible distribution. Media ownership databases do exist in the US, established by journalism research organisations such as the Columbia Journalism Review’s Who Owns What. Could something like this be developed for European media?
The next question to consider is exactly which media outlets these requirements would apply to. In a landscape where new online products offering a wide range of content is being launched daily, it is not immediately clear where to draw the line. In Croatia, one of the cases discussed at the EC’s 3 October event, transparency requirements apply to all “media publishers,” which might be dangerously broad. As the AIM/OSF report notes, that there are cases when freedom of expression might be better served by allowing anonymity to smaller individual publishers such as bloggers, and the report suggests that this should be guaranteed in some cases.
One piece in the puzzle?
Questions remain as to the effectiveness of transparency of ownership measures in creating a better-informed public, particularly in an ever-expanding digital media landscape. Along with caps on ownership, transparency measures can contribute to a plural media environment, but some argue for a more positive approach based on promoting diversity. As Robert Picard, who spoke at the event in Brussels, has said before, there are “many other influences on plurality besides ownership,” including “how varieties of cultures and classes and varieties of ethnic groups in the country are covered,” stressing the need for the representation of sub-cultures. Transparency of ownership is important to ensuring that the public can trust its media, but what other steps could be taken?
This post gives the views of the author, and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics.