Though some wonder if it is too little too late, the European Commission has announced it will introduce the European Media Freedom Act next year intended to help preserve pluralism in the local press as traditional media continue to struggle with online competition, often from dominant tech giants.
Long considered fundamental to Europe’s democracies, local newspapers continue to suffer from declining revenues, while many that have managed to survive this far are no longer able to fully fulfil their function of providing well-vetted stories for an informed population. The result is a polity left with possible fake online news or information lacking the depth needed in a complex world.
Thierry Breton is the EU commissioner whose portfolio tasks him with protecting the bloc’s small and medium-sized businesses, and that includes local media companies. He told the European News Media Forum held at the end of last month that the goal of the Media Freedom Act would be to ensure the integrity and independence of EU media and realistic access to the revenues needed to survive.
“We want to boost media pluralism and improve the resilience of the sector as a whole,” he said. “We want to act against all types of unjustified interferences in the activities of our media companies.”
A veteran opponent of Big Tech media dominance, Breton has been aggressive enough in his mission that Google once laid plans to discredit him, leading to an apology from the chief executive of Google’s parent company Alphabet last year.
After an internal memo was made public, CEO Sundar Pichai apologised and promised that such tactics are “not the way we operate”. He said he was never shown the plan and had not sanctioned it.
Today Breton is continuing his mission, saying the proposed new law “is a matter of European sovereignty – as you may have heard me say on multiple occasions, everything is geopolitical. Information, far from being an exception, is a textbook case”.
But with online giants taking up to 80 per cent of ad revenue in some markets, what can the EU do to help save its indigenous media?
The legislation intended to thwart political interference and prevent takeovers by a few large media groups is broadly welcomed by politicians, news outlets and NGOs but some wonder why it is taking so long and worry about implementation.
The challenge is not only competition in the market, or lack of it, but also how readership is changing. In Germany, just 37 per cent of people consulted printed news once a week in 2018. That number has now dropped to 26 per cent. More than half (54 per cent) of Europeans now get news from their smartphones.
As traditional readership declines, media are forced online and scramble to find a viable revenue stream. With enormous numbers of clicks needed to generate even modest income, many outlets can’t find a business model that works. The desperate bid to garner clicks can also lead to sensationalized “click bait” stories that might be spreading fake news.
And that could have even deadly consequences. As the need and appetite for reliable information became crucial during the Covid-19 pandemic, it was clear that well-resourced and funded media professionals were an absolute necessity. This is not the time for home remedies or sharing fear-driven exaggerations.
With questionable information sometimes shared online, it became clear Europeans place greater trust in traditional media, said Breton. In leading the recent forum on the issue, he said the EU has “to respond and ensure that citizens can access reliable, quality and independent information, including online”.
He announced that with financial backing from the EU, 16 national press agencies from across Europe would join under one roof to create the so-called European Newsroom.
The European Commission has also earmarked 75 million euros to support media freedom and pluralism projects until 2027, though how that can trickle down to smaller city and town newspapers is not clear.
Often in dealing with the giant EU bureaucracy, it is the larger institutions that have the staff and training that enables them to navigate. The smaller operations, the very definition of diversity, often walk away empty-handed or give up before even engaging the daunting EU behemoth. A great deal of available EU grant money goes unclaimed every year at many levels.
And it is a fine line to walk in a free capitalist system. Just where poor business habits end and legitimate needs begin could be a challenging threshold to find.
Yet Commissioner Breton and his colleagues should be lauded for their efforts. Online social media has indeed created a new world. Tech giants don’t want to be held accountable as media outlets, yet it is they who are siphoning of the revenue lifeblood of small media companies and it is they who often facilitate the spread of fake news.
In the early 20th century, the United States had to find a way to rein in predatory practices and so broke apart Standard Oil. Much later, Bell Telephone was deemed too dominant so it too was broken into smaller companies.
As well, the US allots and licences the limited number of radio and TV frequencies available, and makes license holders comply with fairness and ethics standards.
So governments have shown they can intervene when the situation is clearly out of balance. Many would argue we have reached that tipping point with online information as well. Self-policing will likely not be good enough.
Just as they have done with online privacy, it is time for the EU to set the standard in media diversity. In a world of “likes” and selfies, we also need curated, careful consideration of an increasingly complex world.
Let’s be sure to share that idea.
Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are veteran international journalists based in Milan
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