Neelie Kroes, with Prof Herta Daubler-Gmelin (left) and Prof Vaire Vike Freiberga

The EU High Level Group on Media Pluralism and Freedom has published a report “A free and pluralistic media to sustain European democracy”.   This makes recommendations for the respect, protection, support and  promotion of pluralism and freedom of the media in Europe.  It expresses concern over the “rejection out of hand” of the Leveson recommendations by “some politicians in high office”.

The group was chaired by Professor Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga (the former President of Latvia) and included Professor Herta Däubler-Gmelin, Professor Luís Miguel Poiares Pessoa Maduro and Ben Hammersley.

The report’s authors believe that the EU can, and should, have a bigger role in supporting media freedom and pluralism in the EU and beyond. The recommendations which it makes are intended as an encouragement to develop the overall EU framework, ensuring that high quality media can continue to contribute to European democracy across the EU.

The report notes that there are currently a number of challenges which can potentially restrict journalistic freedom or reduce pluralism, whether through political influence, undue commercial pressures, the changing media landscape with new business models, or the rise of the new media.  At the same time, the misconduct of some journalists, which has recently come to light, also has the potential to undermine the sector’s credibility and, as a consequence, long term viability.

It also notes the role of the EU in upholding the fundamental rights of EU citizens and argues that the EU must act to protect the democratic sphere necessary for the functioning of EU democracy, in case this might be threatened by restrictions on media freedom and pluralism in one of the member states. It recommends further harmonisation of EU legislation in this area, including in particular the adoption of minimum harmonisation rules covering cross-border media activities on areas such as libel laws or data protection..

The report makes important recommendations on relation to plurality, including that

  • European and national competition authorities should take into account the specific value of media pluralism in the enforcement of competition rules.
  • National competition authorities need to make (or commission) pro-active regular assessments of individual countries’ media environments and markets, highlighting potential threats to pluralism.
  • The EU should have a monitoring role of national-level freedom and pluralism of the media.

In relation to regulation, any new regulatory frameworks must be brought into line with the new reality of a fluid media environment, covering all types of journalistic activities, regardless of the transmission medium.  It says that journalist and media organisations should adapt their codes of conduct and journalistic standards to the challenges posed by a rapidly changing media environment. In particular, they should clearly address questions of source verification and fact checking, as well  as transparently regulating their relationship with external sources of news.

There should be streamlining and coordination of support and funding for quality journalism, as already exists in several EU countries. There should be a study of possible new forms of funding for quality and investigative journalism, including making use of new technologies such as crowdfunding.

In relation to media regulation, the report says that media organisations themselves must show clearly how self-regulation is applied in their organisation.To ensure that all media organisations follow clearly identifiable codes of conduct and editorial lines, and apply the principles of editorial independence, it should be mandatory for them to make them publicly available, including by publication on their website.

Recommendation 4 concerns “media self-regulation” and the powers of such regulators

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.

This has led to adverse comment in some English newspapers – the “Daily Telegraph” has the doubly misleading headline “Leveson: EU wants power to sack journalists” – this has nothing to do with Leveson and there is no suggestion of an “EU power to sack journalists”.  This did not stop Nigel Farage comparing the report to “Orwell’s 1984”.

In relation to media self-regulation and Leveson, the report notes

There is an understandable preference in media organisations for some form of self-regulation as opposed to regulation from outside, because of the ever-present danger of censorship interfering with the democratic principle of the freedom of the press. The recently released Leveson report in Great Britain, however, has offered overwhelming evidence as to the multiple ways in which this “self-regulation” has not just been interpreted as “no regulation”, but has led to gross abuses of journalistic privileges, the breaking of elementary ethical standards, and even activities subject to the criminal code.

It recommends that 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.

The Report recommends that member States should ensure that appropriate instruments are put in place for identifying those responsible for harming others through the media, even in the online space. Any internet user-data collection necessary for this purpose, however, should be kept confidential and made available only by a court order.

In relation to the responsibilities of journalists, the report notes

A crucial part of the responsibility of journalists and media organisations is to provide a right of reply in situations where unverified and incorrect information has been published or broadcast. Where such information has been defamatory in addition to being misleading, there needs to be an apology and a public reversal of accusations, presented in precisely the same format, size and positioning as the original misinformation or defamation. Media should abandon the deplorable practice of a page one “splash” headline providing the libel and a page eighteen “news in brief” story providing the apology. In addition to reacting to court decisions, responsible media should also adopt, as part of their code of best practice, the voluntary retraction of incorrect, unverified, misleading and potentially damaging information simply at the request of individuals providing credible information to the contrary.

It recommends that, judgments following court cases should include orders for

an apology and retraction of accusations printed with equal positioning and size of the original defamation, or presented in the same time slot in the case of radio or TV programmes. (Recommendation 24)

The report was welcomed by the Vice-President of the European Commission, Neelie Kroes.  On her blog she describes it as

“an essential round of evidence gathering and thought leadership, the appropriate next step is a very serious and EU-wide political debate, including public consultation. I want to hear what you think! Send your feedback to CNECT-TASKFORCE-MEDIA@ec.europa.eu”