29 Jan 2008, Posted by Eric Karstens in Media Policy, 0 Comments

Risk management in media policy (5): Balancing stakeholders

When the EU’s Directorate-General for Information Society and Media commissioned a study to explore a risk-based approach to media pluralism, they have put into motion a process that could thoroughly upset the media policies and media regulation measures to which we are accustomed.

As discussed in previous articles, the risk-based approach has, at least in theory, a lot of interesting features:

  • It remains open for new developments and innovative solutions in spite of its fundamentally normative character;
  • It has the potential to adapt itself to very different sets of circumstances, i.e., the media landscapes of 27 EU member states;
  • It aims to take the complexity of factors contributing to media pluralism (or lack thereof) into account;
  • It seeks to involve all stakeholders in the negotiation of rules to be laid down and procedures to be followed and;
  • It may be the common political denominator the three EU institutions – Council, Parliament, and Commission – can agree upon.

While the respective goals are quite hard to achieve, the rationale behind the first three points is clearly innovative. If implemented sensibly, they can go far beyond the rather one-dimensional pluralism regulations of today. Most of the currently existing rules still tend to probe in a relatively simplistic way into concentration of ownership or audience shares. Many also focus on single media categories such as linear television or daily newspapers – if only for reasons such as that they can be easily monitored or that everybody is used to them. Clear-sighted, media-minded politicians have consequently been calling for a fundamental reform (see my article from November 12), and the risk-based approach might turn out to be just the way to go.

What raises more concerns are the last two points, particularly the involvement of stakeholders in both the definition and the enforcement of pluralism regulation. Of course, stakeholders know best how things work or should be working. But commercial television executives will, for instance, quite probably never even voluntarily consider whether a programme under development or consideration enhances pluralism of opinion, but rather look for its potential in terms of audience reach and profitability – except when they are compelled to take part in a “public value test” as suggested for public service broadcasting (see my article from October 25). Furthermore, the criteria under which regulation compliance reports must be compiled are often not very well defined, thus leaving latitude for interpretation at a later stage. In real life, stakeholders often try and work around regulatory frameworks regardless of how well-meaning the underlying intentions may have been.

Therefore, some observers have expressed concerns as to whether co- and self-regulation in areas of commercial value are sufficient to enforce even minimum standards. It is not enough to merely involve stakeholders with the lawmaking process and then let things go their course, because the power of such parties can be very different. The economy-friendly, competition-oriented European Commission is per se inclined to listen to business lobbyists more closely than to arguments which have nothing to do with economy. But even if this is not the case, big businesses (or governments, for that matter) have many more resources to influence public opinion than organisations promoting human rights, freedom of the media, art, or minority concerns.

A recent example for this is the discussion about surreptitious advertising and product placement with regard to the amendment of the Audio-Visual Media Services Directive: Although from the lawmaker’s point of view, product placement is now generally banned with certain exceptions, television channel operators, producers, and advertisers rather appreciate that practices which previously took place in a legal grey area are now officially permissible in more cases than not. Looking at the debate about these new rules, it seems apparent that business interests took precedence over content and audience-related concerns. The motivation was to give a legal framework to a practice that had become common among broadcasters already, and to adapt European legislation to media globalisation, i.e., allow Europeans to capitalise on their own productions in the same way imported movies and TV programmes (mainly from the United States) were doing anyway.

There are a lot of good arguments for this, to be sure, and today’s audiences have actually grown to be quite savvy with regard to veiled forms of advertising. Maybe they do not need the government to take them by the hand and protect them from potentially manipulative commercial messages anymore. But what this example illustrates is how commercial interests have come to dominate media policy. Measuring pluralism by economy-based criteria runs the risk of falling short of what is desirable from the perspective of political culture, art and science, minority opinions, and cultural identity. Paying only lip service to these values and assuming that free competition will take care of them anyway may not do justice to Europe’s cultural tradition and, indeed, competitive advantage.

It is therefore important that the European Parliament asserts itself as a forum for a broader debate (and, of course, decision making) on media issues, and that a future risk-based regulation develops a mechanism to relativise the influence of stakeholders according to their respective power and to the value of their positions for the common good.