At the moment, the issue of protecting the principles of media freedom and media plurality is high on the political agenda in both individual Member States and at an EU level. The media is an essential part to a working democracy and can have enormous political power by shaping public opinion. With reports of abuse of this power coming from various Member States across Europe, a widespread debate has begun on whether we need to adapt current media laws.
At present, based on the principle of subsidiarity, all individual Member States are responsible for regulating their media sector. However, the EU will intervene in certain circumstances when there are questions of breaches to fundamental rights of citizens. Recently, we saw the European Commission intervening and threatening legal action as a result of a new controversial media law introduced in Hungary which was criticized heavily as incompatible with European Union standards on freedom of expression. In instances like these, when protecting respect for the fundamental media freedoms such as freedom of speech, the EU has a clear role.
What is not so clear however is the EU’s role in protecting media pluralism to ensure that citizens have access to a variety of information from different sources so that they will not be influenced by one dominant media source. The United Kingdom is in a unique position to provide other countries with guidance on how to protect media pluralism with the most comprehensive, current debate on media concentration ongoing with the Leveson inquiry. As this inquiry has developed in the UK, we are seeing more and more political unanimity in support of the idea of introducing clear limits on media ownership and defining exactly what media plurality means. Many commentators are already suggesting introducing a cap on media ownership as the way forward so that there is a clear limit on the share of all media revenues held by one company. What is certain is that the outcome of the Leveson inquiry will provide us with ground breaking guidelines on what actions need to taken to protect media plurality.
Given these recent events in both Hungary and in the UK commentators are debating as to whether the EU could play a greater role to protect these principles. In a recent event on media pluralism in the European Parliament, as part of his “Hacked Off” campaign for a public inquiry into phone hacking, Hugh Grant called for the EU to limit the influence of powerful media corporations like the Murdoch Empire by introducing EU media regulation measures.
However, we need to stress that the issue of media regulation is a deeply sensitive issue with much debate on what the EU’s role is in protecting media pluralism and whether this issue should be a purely Member State competence. Before we rush to regulation, there are other measures that the EU can take in order to support Member States in safeguarding media pluralism. The EU can ensure that there is strong EU-wide monitoring of the standards and the situation of media plurality in the EU which will help identify existing or future threats. The EU could play a role in promoting greater cooperation between national independent regulatory authorities in the media sector by ensuring they are independent, impartial and transparent. In addition, the EU could also offer individual European citizens protection from any breaches of their right to privacy with a press complaints commission at European level which would give citizens a one-stop-shop for their complaints and allow the EU to monitor any breaches simultaneously.
Maintaining diversity of ownership of media corporations should be a cornerstone of government’s media regulation policies. Freedom of media is paramount and cannot be jeopardised by EU intervention. What we need to discuss is what happens to that freedom when we have concentration of ownership or breaches of fundamental rights? In these circumstances we need to assess what the EU role is. It is quite a delicate task to get the content on media regulation right in order to ensure pluralism without overextending regulation into areas of press freedom and imposing restrictions that will prevent effective journalism. What is key is to ensure any discussions on media regulation should always be consistent with maintaining freedom of press and ensuring the highest ethical and professional standards.
Claude Moraes is a Labour MEP for London