Report of the European Conference on Public Broadcasting

<CENTER>Public Service Values in the Information Age:

European Models for Broadcasting

Brussels, European Parliament, 10 October 2003

Report of the Conference

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Aidan White, General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, opened the Conference and welcomed participants.

Session 1 : Public Broadcasting in the Global Economy.

Mr Jacques Briquemont, Head of public affairs at the European Broadcasting Union, chaired the session and introduced the key speaker and panellists.

Mr Phil Harding, Director of BBC World Service English Networks and News, made a presentation entitled “Re-connecting a disconnected World”.

Mr Harding declared that in an increasingly interdependent world, mistrust and fear are increasing. The numerous commercial channels provide a wide range of viewpoints, but the global media landscape makes public broadcasting still as relevant as previously, for various reasons:

- the world is full of information, though ignorance and propaganda still exist;

- there is a continuous lack of understanding and tolerance between people;

- the complexity of the world is often reported in a simplistic way by media

Mr Harding presented the global news division of the BBC, broadcast in 43 languages to a worldwide audience of 150 million people. Quoting the BBC World Affairs correspond John Simpson, he insisted on the fact that on major issues such as the war in Iraq, the pressure put by the British government or anyone else on the BBC becomes a problem “only if the BBC caves in”.

The key values for the BBC are accuracy, impartiality, fairness and editorial independence. These values are non-negotiable. New technologies brought a new dimension to the work of the BBC, with interactive means of discussion and debate. During the first three weeks of the war in Iraq, the BBC world service received over 360,000 e-mails. This interactivity is increasingly important in a context of extreme fragmentation of the market, where the audience is able to watch and listen to precise broadcasters that expose views with which the public is comfortable. The very aim of public broadcasting is to be open to different points of view and let the audience have access to the unexpected or the uncomfortable.

Click here to download Mr Harding’s intervention (WORD).

Ms Arancha Gonzalez, Spokesperson of EU Commissioner for Trade Pascal Lamy, reminded that the official policy of the Commission is to defend and promote cultural diversity. The Commission receives the mandate for negotiations at the WTO –including on GATS- from the Council of the Ministers, and the European Union does not want to open trade discussions in culture at global level. There is a consensus on this issue among the 15 member states and the 10 new members. She mentioned the "Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament - Towards an international instrument on cultural diversity (COM/2003/0520 final)", that would give a mandate to the Commission for the defence of cultural diversity at international level.

Mr Robert Zaccaria, said that there is nothing comparable with the situation of the media in Italy, especially concerning the level of concentration. It is normal that politicians try to control the media, but in Italy Mr Berlusconi first controlled a majority of the media in order to achieve political objectives. In the current situation, Mr Berlusconi literally controls 50% of the film market, over 50% of the advertisement market, all Mediaset channels, and tries to control public broadcaster RAI. This situation is very dangerous for democracy. If the current draft law on communication (Gasparri Law) is adopted, the situation becomes fatal : it would even allow more advertisement for Mediaset, as well as privatisation of RAI and cross-ownership in the media. The law would literally eliminate the little what is left of media pluralism in Italy.

Mr Zaccaria proposed to organise a new General Media “Assise” in Europe in order to deal with media pluralism, ownership concentration and public service mission.

Mr Ahmed Kamel, Brussels correspondent of Al Jazeera, said that public broadcasting has been a total failure in the Arab world so far. The creation and the emergence of Al Jazeera in 1996 changed the media landscape in the Arabic speaking world. Al Jazeera is the most independent broadcast media in the region, though it is under high pressure, such as from the U.S. government when it broadcast Bin Laden tapes, and from Arab groups when it broadcasts Sharon’s speeches. Its independence will even increase with the creation of a new press agency specific to the Arabic world, competing with Reuters, AP and AFP, all based in the “West”. New competitors have emerged, like Al Arabya, and it is rather a good sign and a positive change for the audience, as long as genuine public broadcasters fail to exist in the Arab countries.

The discussion raised the following issues:

- the failure of the European Union to respond to the Italian media crisis and to set-up a coherent and coercive policy in terms of media concentration and pluralism. Participants wondered if Italy would fulfil the “Copenhagen criteria” if were an applicant country. The current rules on media ownership are defined at national level, whereas the market is transnational;

- The Italian crisis is also partly due to a previous system of political allocation of the television stations that has not been properly reformed;

- Editorial independence is still very weak in Eastern European countries (Mr Hardy, Hungary);

- The model of the BBC is not appropriate for all countries, for many reasons. Mainly because some countries lack the “public broadcasting” culture and also because the economic model is not adapted to small countries;

- Most journalists in the commercial sector have similar aspirations regarding independence and quality.

Follow-up :

The idea of setting-up of a new “European Assise on media” was retained by the members of the pannel as initiative to consider for the future;

The EFJ/IFJ is going to undertake a mission in Italy to evaluate the situation of media concentration and its impact on journalists.

Session 2 : New Broadcasting Values for New Democracies.

Mr Gustl Glattfelder, Chairman of the European Federation of Journalists, chaired the session and introduced the key speakers and panellists.

Mr Boris Bergant, Vice-President of the EBU and Deputy Director General of RTV Slovenia, said that the inheritage of former political regimes in Central and Eastern Europe is still present in the media landscape. The old mentality is present among part of the public and part of the journalists: that is, they believe that public broadcasting is by definition a tool of ruling politicians.

The media laws that have been adopted in the 90’s have sometimes been badly implemented and to this extend, public broadcasting is handicapped compared with commercial broadcasters since it is more difficult to transform an old and rigid structure than start something new from scratch.

Civil society, also, was a major element of the transition towards public broadcasting, but many activists joined political parties, and thus integrated political structures that became ruling parties in some cases.

Mr Bergant regretted that public broadcasting, and in particular the legal status of public broadcasters and their ways of financing, was not part of the formal negotiation process for the EU accession.

In conclusion, Mr Bergant said that the most important for the time being is to make the public –who pays the fee- aware of the difference between public and commercial broadcasting.

Ms Jaguda Vukusic, Croatian Ambassador to Norway, former member of the EFJ Steering Committee and journalist, said that the example of the third channel of the Croatian public television, which has been sold to the media giant RTL, was an illustration of the general trend in the region.

She recalled that in the early nineties, international organisations and NGOs estimated that former Yugoslav countries would need “six years to transform the economy and sixty years for civil society”. The reality showed that the estimation was wrong, that the economy needs more time but civil society certainly less. In relation with public broadcasting, a main concern should be whether the public really wants public broadcasting. The opening of media to international private media companies has been a test for the Croatian society, it is the moment of truth when the public has the choice between news and soap opera at the same time, for example. Experience in other countries proved that foreign programmes are very successful in the beginning of their release, but that the success is rapidly declining after a period of curiosity of the public.

Ms Vukusic said the Central and Eastern European societies have a long tradition of passivity, and it still is a main obstacle for the development of public broadcasting. She suggested that the European institutions could help establishing better relations between the public and the media, for example through programmes aimed at children and young people.

Mr Andrzej Krajewski, Director of the Press Freedom Monitoring Centre of the Polish Journalists Association (SDP), said that in appearance the Polish public television is very strong, with 60% market share. However, this apparent health hides more negative aspects such as a predominance of foreign soap operas and entertainment programmes, a strong political interference and internal scandals such as wrong declarations of a supposed EBU award. In reality, journalists are leaving the public television and the public also loses its interest.

Mr Krajewski mentioned the story of the attempt of corruption concerning the television licences last year. A commission of inquiry has been set-up and its work has been broadcast live on the third channel of the Polish public television as well as on “Info TV”. The transparency helped in establishing back a minimum level of trust in media and politics among the public.

The current concern is the financing of the Polish television. The disposition of the Media law was not adequate, and experts are now proposing to take shares out of the advertisement shares of the commercial televisions. This may be the “end of the tunnel” for Polish TV, according to Mr Krajewski.

Click here to download Mr Krajewski’s intervention (WORD).

The discussion raised the following issues:

- Public broadcasting needs both the audience and the market to survive. The commercial broadcasters have been fashionable when they were launched, but the market will certainly be more balanced between imported fictions and domestic programmes in the long term ;

- In the context of the Central and Eastern European countries, the participation of civil society in the public broadcasting system is essential. For example, journalists organisations and unions need to be represented at the broadcasting council and the programmes board ;

- Laws can solve basic issues such as the financing or the conflict of interest, but they are not sufficient to guarantee quality programmes and a clear distinction of content between the public and the private channels is needed;

- Public broadcaster, whether good or bad, are always the most popular media for news in case of domestic or international crisis, especially the radio, because commercial stations do not the have the same image of seriousness for the public;

- A basic prerequisite is the guarantee of secure and sufficient funding for public broadcasters in the region.

Aidan White regretted that there is no general structure for the future of public broadcasting in Europe. He said that there is a strong need for public support through campaigns such as the one that organised the protest against the Federal Communications Commission in the U.S, where millions of citizens sent e-mails of protest to the Congress.

Follow-up :

The group of persons present at the Conference should keep in contact and try to organise a lobbying campaign targeted at the EU institutions with all possible allies;

Efforts should be undertaken for a better monitoring of the situation of the media in the region;

The e-mails addresses of the participants will be circulated.