AUTHORISATION WITHOUT OVERSIGHT:
THE NEED FOR A CITIZEN-ORIENTED REGULATORY FRAMEWORK FOR EUROPE’S PUBLIC SERVICE BROADCASTERS IN THE DIGITAL AGE
Contribution made by Professor Vincent Porter, President of the European Alliance of Listeners’ and Viewers’ Associations, to the EBU/MTV Conference From Secret Service to Public Service, Budapest, 3 November 2006
As Europe enters the age of digital broadcasting, the theme of this conference; From Secret Service to Public Service, is especially timely. It is timely, not just because the former European states of the Soviet block are emerging from a period of rapid economic and political change, but also because the former hegemony of public service broadcasters in Western Europe is increasingly being challenged by commercial competition in the audiovisual marketplace.
EURALVA is an alliance of independent groups who all share the view that the market place alone is not the right mechanism to regulate the audiovisual media. The Council of Europe and the European Union have already acknowledged this by creating a privileged role for public service broadcasting. The paradox, however, is that although Europe has willed the means, it has failed to ensure a citizen-oriented outcome. For EURALVA, this meeting in Budapest provides the opportunity to turn the fine words of the Prague Resolution on Public Service Broadcasting, and the privileged status afforded to it in the Amsterdam Treaty, into editorial reality.
In 1994 – some 12 years ago at its meeting in Prague - the Fourth European Ministerial Conference on Mass Media Policy of the Council of Europe unanimously adopted a nine point mission statement for public service broadcasters [Resolution No: 1: the Future of Public Service Broadcasting]; and two years later they adopted a further Recommendation guaranteeing the independence of public service broadcasting [R (96) 10]. In particular, that Recommendation proposed that the national legal framework governing each public service broadcasting organisation should clearly stipulate that it should ensure that its news programmes fairly presented facts and events, and should encourage the free formation of opinions. But regrettably, this latter encomium was not mandatory. Many European states have therefore chosen to ignore it.
Five years later, the European Union also highlighted the democratic, social and cultural importance of public service broadcasting when it included in the Amsterdam Treaty a protocol which recognised that public service broadcasting was a service of general economic interest, which could legitimately benefit from state aid. And in 2001 the European Commission issued a formal communication to Member States on the application of state aid rules to public service broadcasting. But the Commission was forced to accept that editorial policy was an issue of subsidiarity, which therefore had to be left to each individual state to implement as it thought best. [2001/C 320/04, Official Journal C 320/5, 15.11.2001] Once again, no steps were taken to ensure that public service broadcasters did indeed serve its citizens.
The European regulatory framework for public service broadcasting therefore wills the financial means for public service broadcasting, without ensuring a citizen-oriented outcome. Although both the Council of Europe and the European Union have recognised its democratic, social and cultural importance, and indeed the European Union has even authorised special arrangements for funding it, neither body has yet put in place any legal mechanism which ensures that Europe’s public service broadcasters do indeed serve their citizens. Ten years after the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe formally recommended that the legal framework for every public service broadcaster should clearly stipulate that news programmes shall present facts and events fairly, and encourage the free formation of opinions, the Committee has still not ascertained whether every state has followed its advice. Nor has the Commission of the European Union made any attempt to ascertain whether the public service broadcaster in each European state is genuinely fulfilling the democratic, social and cultural needs of the citizens, which originally justified its privileged funding.
There is clearly an urgent need for Europe to ensure that the high sounding rhetoric which underpinned the Prague Resolution and the protocol to the Amsterdam Treaty which privileged public service broadcasting have been translated into editorial practice. It is not enough simply to will the financial resources. There must be a citizen-oriented regulatory framework which ensures that the citizens of Europe are properly informed by their national public service broadcasters.
What EURALVA and the citizens of Europe seek, is not just editorial freedom, but a regulatory framework which is designed to ensure responsible citizen-oriented editorial policies.
The way forward could be through European regulation, national regulation, or more probably by co-regulation involving the EBU, or even possibly by self-regulation. But a new citizen-oriented framework must be established for two reasons. First, Europe’s citizens must be assured that their public service broadcasters will provide them with the political information and intellectual nourishment that they will need in Europe’s emerging information society. But second, if they are to retain their financially-privileged position in an increasingly competitive digital marketplace, Europe’s public service broadcasters must be able to demonstrate that their services are qualitatively different from those of their commercial rivals.
EURALVA is well aware, as are the citizens of this city, what unnecessary or misconceived regulation can mean for human choice, diversity and dignity. We want to encourage the creative enterprise which accompanies economic pluralism, which since 1989 has become the European norm - what you call here, I believe rendszervaltas. But we must also ensure that economic freedom benefits the 400 million citizens of our great continent, not just a few media moguls.
There are no easy solutions. What is needed is a combination of determination and goodwill. But in our view, a new initiative of this nature will be absolutely essential if Europe’s public service broadcasters are to retain their legitimacy in the digital age. Moreover, it is precisely because EURALVA recognises the central importance of national public service broadcasters to Europe’s emerging information society, that we will work with anyone to achieve this goal.