Broadcasting and Citizenship

 

in the European Information Society

 

 

 An Address given by

 

Professor Vincent Porter

 

President of the European Alliance of Listeners’ and Viewers’ Associations

 

on 9 October 2007

 

At the EURALVA/SLS Conference:

 

Broadcasters and Citizens

 

Held at the Co-op House, Reventlowsgade 14, Copenhagen

 

 

 

 Good morning, everybody.  This has been an eventful year for broadcasting in Europe. We have seen three key developments in the field, all of which affect our lives and listeners and viewers.

 

 

Today, I want to look briefly at the potential impact of all three developments on the lives of listeners, viewers, and citizens.

 

The Dangers of Free-market Competition

Consider first, the recent developments of a free market in electronic communications services. This has sharply demonstrated the fundamental difference between commercial broadcasting services and state-subsidised public service broadcasters. One upon a time, when there was a limited number of analogue broadcasting channels, listeners and viewers could rely on commercial broadcasters to provide them with an alternative service, many of which espoused public service broadcasting principles. But as the number of digital channels has multiplied, economic competition has intensified, and it has become abundantly clear that the main task of commercial channels is no longer to provide an alternative public service.

 

Their new commercial imperative is to satisfy the needs of their advertisers and their advertising agencies, their programme sponsors, and the purveyors of corporate communications generally. This is totally different from the purpose of public service broadcasters, which is – or more precisely should be – to serve the public in each Member State.

 

The free market has brought advertisers - and commercial communicators generally - a plethora of digital channels by which they can reach the public. Today, in order to market their products and services, they can use the Internet and the socially-interactive telecommunication networks, as well as radio and television services. At the end of last year, Europe boasted 1,763 television channels, at least thirty of which were new commercial channels launched during 2006. 

 

Moreover, the pace of technological change is relentless. Developments in High Definition Television, Mobile TV, Broadband delivery and Video-on-Demand are all following in their wake. We are moving into an age when a television service will be waiting to greet us everywhere we look. Most will be stuffed full of advertisements and commercially-sponsored programmes. Others will be subscription services attempting to lure us into signing long-term contracts, which offer us no way out, even if we dislike the programmes on offer. At the end of last year, television advertising provided over three quarters of the revenues of seven of Europe’s eleven largest commercial broadcasters. While for the other four, a similar proportion came from subscriptions. 

 

Another growing trend among the major broadcasting companies is brand diversification. The leading proponent of diversification is M6 in France, which has already diversified into home shopping, mobile TV, web-based activities including video-on-demand, the part ownership of the Girondins de Bordeaux football club, and the social networking site youtribe.com.  Its competitors have also launched ventures into other fields, including cinema production, the promotion and management of musical events, and book publishing. For many commercial companies, television is now but one arm of a multimedia strategy

 

The social purposes of good broadcasting have traditionally been to inform, to educate and to entertain the public. But regrettably we now have evidence that during the first decade of the twenty-first century, the commercial purposes of the new conglomerates may also be to misinform, to seduce, and even to deceive their audiences. The so-called reality shows are normally edited and “managed” in order to keep their audiences entertained, while game shows and quiz shows are steadily morphing into gambling shows.

 

Moreover, the broadcasting industry is now awash with unscrupulous and dodgy subcontractors. Consider the potent cocktail of fixed quiz shows, and invitations to audiences to make irrelevant premium rate telephone calls, which were recently exposed in the United Kingdom. The Voice of the Listener and Viewer, EURALVA’s member organisation in the UK, described the scandals as a disgraceful episode in the history of broadcasting, but it is by no means clear whether scams of this nature can ever be eradicated from Europe’s new information society, for they often involve collusions and subcontracting arrangements between broadcasters and production or telecommunications companies. In the United Kingdom, broadcasters and premium-rate telecommunication companies are regulated by two different bodies. The editorial policies of broadcasters are lightly regulated by a statutory body, Ofcom, whereas premium-rate telephone services are only responsible to ICSTIS, a self-regulatory body established by the premium-rate telephone industry itself.

 

In one of the worst of the recent cases of quiz-fixing, the UK’s breakfast-time TV service, GMTV, which is jointly-owned by ITV and Disney, aided and abetted by its premium-rated telephone service Opera Telecom Ltd., fleeced British television viewers of an estimated £20 million by persuading them to dial premium-rate telephone calls in order to enter a competition which they had no chance of winning. The scam continued undetected by the regulators for over 21 months, until it was finally exposed by investigative journalists working for the BBC’s television programme Panorama. Yet Ofcom only fined GMTV £2 million - a mere 4 per cent. of its £49.2 million annual profits - while ICSTIS fined Opera Telecom a paltry £250,000. Thus the total fines for this long-running scam, which both regulators had failed to detect on their own, amounted to only about eleven per cent of the total money which the perpetrators had picked from the pockets of naïve British viewers – most of whom were housewives.

 

Even worse, those viewers who were deceived by this corrupt scam will receive nothing from the regulators in the way of compensation. The fines levied will simply boost the coffers of the regulators who had failed to notice the scam until it was brought to the public’s attention by the UK’s only genuine public service broadcaster.

 

It is now clear that thieves, pickpockets and gangsters can all lurk in the highways and byways of Europe’s bright new information society, and that in future every listener and viewer will be expected to venture unprotected down these mean streets of commercial greed, protected only by the ‘light touch’ of the new generation of regulators.

 

The hidden hand of the so-called free market has been totally ineffective in protecting television viewers from these thieves. And the light regulatory touch of a modest fine and a rap on the knuckles does nothing to compensate those viewers who were fleeced by those who were guilty of dishonest practices. Listeners and viewers would have more respect for this new generation of regulators if they were to rescind the broadcasting licences of the offending companies, and redistribute their assets to all the viewers that were fleeced?

 

Let me make this clear, therefore. While we recognise the past strengths of commercial media organisations, especially those broadcasting to citizens in central and eastern Europe, in providing listeners and viewers with an alternative choice of programmes to those of state-run broadcasting monopolies, we also reject the predominant, but naïve, view which is dominant within the European Union that free market competition in a converged digitalised marketplace, accompanied by light touch regulation, can provide Europe’s citizens with the broadcasting services that they need.

 

In future therefore, a key task of everybody in Europe who seeks to represent the interests of listeners and viewers must be to ensure that there is genuinely user-oriented regulation in the EU’s much-vaunted Information Society. It must be the viewers, not just the coffers of the regulators, who benefit from regulatory intervention.

 

The Advent of Product Placement and the Need for Genuine Media Literacy

The future opportunities to abuse the viewers’ traditional trust in commercial television broadcasters will be even greater when the recently-agreed provisions of the EU’s Audiovisual Media Services Directive enter into force.

 

In the Television without Frontiers Directive, which the new directive replaces, viewers are protected from abuses by the advertising industry in three main ways. There are quantitative restrictions on the volume of advertising allowed on television, but more importantly any advertisements have both to be broadcast separately from the programmes, and clearly signalled to viewers as advertisements by optical or acoustic means.

 

Regrettably, the new Audiovisual Media Services Directive has undermined the protections which television viewers currently enjoy in four key ways.

The proponents of increased liberalisation for advertisers, broadcasters and programme producers, argue that improvements in media literacy will equip Europe’s new generation of television viewers and users of audiovisual services to recognise the advertising that will be hidden in our programmes.

 

Fat chance!  No state in Europe has developed a proper syllabus for media literacy, nor has sufficient space been made available for it in the national curriculum. Moreover, the 27 different national laws and regulatory practices, which will be put in place when the provisions of this Directive are fully implemented, will require the truly media-literate viewer to have a postgraduate qualification in European media regulation. What chance will there be, therefore, for the ordinary listener or viewer to avoid being duped?

 

Every member of EURALVA will therefore need to play their part in establishing adequate arrangements for media literacy in Europe. But I predict that they will face an uphill task to ensure that the syllabus in their own country is adequate to the task of educating a future generation of listeners and viewers about the digital media of the twenty first century.

 

The Implementation of the European Reform Treaty

The one ray of hope for Europe’s listeners and viewers lies in the implementation of the European Reform Treaty which was agreed at the EU’s recent Presidential Summit. As the current restrictions on the commercial freedoms of advertisers and broadcasters are rolled back, Europe’s citizens will increasingly have to rely on the alternative mode of regulating broadcasters in the Europe, namely that of establishing positive programming requirements which will ensure their rights to receive the information and the ideas that are necessary if they are to be able to be active and well-informed citizens. 

 

The principal means by which the European Union could achieve this, was recognised in a protocol to the Amsterdam Treaty. This was to allow Member States to give state aid to assist public service broadcasters in delivering to their citizens the democratic, social and cultural contributions that good broadcasting can make to civic society. But regrettably when the European Union put the provisions of the Amsterdam protocol into practice, it allowed each Member State to decide for itself how it wanted to regulate its own domestic public service broadcaster. In Eurospeak, public service broadcasting became a subsidiarity issue.

 

As a result, the editorial quality of the service offered to listeners and viewers varies widely from country to country. Viewers in some countries enjoy a genuine public service, whereas those in others are subject to what is effectively a government propaganda service. Despite the high-flown rhetoric in the Amsterdam Protocol about the democratic, social and cultural contributions which public service broadcasters can make to civic society, the European Union has signally failed to establish either

 

Moreover, there is

 

In short, although public service broadcasting in many Member States can make a real contribution to civic life, in other countries it can be negligible.

 

Fortunately, in that glad bright morning after the fall of Soviet Communism, the Council of Europe adopted a different – and in my view a better – approach towards broadcasting. In December 1994, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe all sat down in Prague to sign a Ministerial Resolution which sought to lay out a common political, financial and programming framework for all of Europe’s public service broadcasters, from both East and West. It established a citizen-oriented baseline against which the political independence and the programming missions against of all of Europe’s public service broadcasters could be judged.

 

But regrettably the Council of Europe has achieved little concrete progress since that time. For unlike the European Union, the Council of Europe has to work by inter-governmental co-operation, rather than by supranational coercion, and today there is little evidence that many national governments have ever taken seriously the civic and democratic rhetoric of the Ministerial Resolution which was so optimistically agreed in Prague nearly thirteen years ago.

 

Paradoxically however, the European Reform Treaty, which was recently agreed by the EU Presidential Council, offers Europe’s citizens a degree of hope - indeed their only hope - that the provisions of the Prague Resolution may at last be taken seriously. For the European Reform Treaty intends to incorporate into EU law the fundamental rights and freedoms which are enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, and thus, by extension, a new European acquis.

 

Just as the European Union requires every new Member State to adopt the corpus of all EU Directives, Regulations, and Judgements handed down by the European Court of Justice, so, in like manner, the citizens of Europe will expect the reformed European Union to adopt the corpus of Ministerial Resolutions of the Council of Europe, the various European Conventions, and the Judgements handed down by the European Court of Human Rights.

 

 It is not certain however, that the reformed European Union will do so, for as yet we have not seen the final text of the Reform Treaty. But if the reformed European Union does not ensure good quality public service broadcasting in every Member State, then the citizens of Europe will regard the proposed incorporation into the reformed European Union of a Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms as little more than a political sham.

 

A third challenge for the future, therefore, is for bodies which seek to represent listeners and viewers, to consider carefully, how to persuade the European Union to ensure that  state aid for public service broadcasters only goes to those public service broadcasters which actually deliver to listeners and viewers  the democratic, social and cultural benefits of public service broadcasting for which the most illustrious public service broadcasters are renowned.

 

Conclusion

To conclude, therefore, Europe’s citizens of tomorrow will need three things: