OPEN LETTER | Beyond Brussels policies: leadership for Europe’s News Media sector

Beyond Brussels policies: leadership for Europe’s News Media sector

EU initiatives from last December may help renew the news media sector, if implemented fast and jointly. This Open Letter calls for leadership from Berlin, Paris and the Council, and from the press leaders themselves.

Founder of the EURACTIV Media Network, Christophe Leclercq chairs Europe’s MediaLab. He  also advises EDMO (European Digital Media Observatory), and was with Marc Sundermann
on the High-Level Expert group on Disinformation. Mr Sundermann was Bertelsmann’s EU Representative, and is now Director of Europe’s MediaLab. Paolo Cesarini is a former EU official.

Frau Kanzlerin Merkel, M. le Président Macron, M. le Président Michel,

Leveraging recent, upcoming and continuing EU Presidencies, and together with media leaders, you can help upgrade our democracy infrastructure. This is relevant for forthcoming elections: Germany soon in 2021, then France in 2022, and EU in 2024.

Today’s democracies depend on the sustainability and credibility of the information ecosystem: a new form of public space emerging from the past symbiosis between politics and press. As you know, deep unbalances in this ecosystem facilitate disinformation, populism and riots. The success of the ‘1992’ internal market took both political leadership and a change of mindset within companies. Much overdue, the industrial transformation of the media landscape will need a similar engagement.

A European strategy for the News Media sector

Good new policies are in process, so this open letter advocates concerted actions and speed, to overcome silo-thinking and fragmentation. Dr. Ursula von der Leyen stated at her Strasbourg confirmation that she would preside over a ‘geopolitical Commission’ and put Europe’s democracy among her top six priorities. The last French-German Summit following-up on the Aachen Treaty focused on ‘strategic autonomy’. British reluctance should no longer get in the way. Putting together these three notions, you could now convey one of Europe’s urge: an autonomous and open information ecosystem, grounded on European values.

Indeed, US platforms dominate our public space, maintaining disinformation (and tax elusion). On the other hand, quality media actors gained trust and readership in Covid times, but still struggle economically. The journalism landscape is made chiefly of two subsectors, with different needs.  Broadcasters, mainly public, try to juggle financial support and independence, while getting most politicians’ attention. The News Media, mainly private, loses most of its advertising, subscriptions… and journalists. 

Disinformation is a symptom, not the cause. Censorship is not the solution and legal action is too slow. Indeed, the related retreat of the media is due to weakened business models: gatekeepers do not allocate to quality content fair payments and fair visibility. 

The real cure is sector-wide rebalancing of the News Media ecosystem. A European strategy for the media sector may be called Medien-Industriepolitik in Berlin and politique industrielle des médias in Paris, or even media sovereignty. This happened for other branches of Europe’s economy  thanks to  a smart mix of proactive policies, funding to uptake technologies and upgrade skills, competition enforcement, and players’ visions on their future structure. In the case of media, this also involves  tackling disinformation through market-based regulation of dominant players, building on existing  self-regulation

Just before Christmas, the European Commission published what one could call the ‘Information package’. Complementing recent copyright and audiovisual legislation, this is composed of draft directives on digital markets and services, plus action plans regarding democracy and media. These texts contain useful concepts, defining ‘gatekeepers (not to say US platform giants) and paving the way for a dynamic use of competition rules, to avoid ‘coming after the battle’. Also, innovation funding is planned under the NEWS action: this is inspired by the MEDIA programme, which helped save Europe’s film industry.

From the four EU ‘Info package’ documents, the two legislative drafts risk taking years, like the copyright directive. The two action plans can be enacted faster, if properly funded under Creative Europe and Horizon Europe of the EU’s final long-term budget, and possibly including some of the recovery finance at national level. Chiefly, existing competition rules are the hammer of the tool-box: to be used forcefully, now. 

Creating momentum: engagement and speed

Beyond clearer policies, five points will help rebalance the bargaining power between gatepeekers and the press. First, cooperation or even cross-border mergers between news media companies should be encouraged by competition guidelines, not slowed down. Second, the proposed News Media Forum is not enough: publishers should unite their scattered advocacy representations. Third, media marketplaces and building blocks such as AI-aided translation may facilitate content sharing, and support prices for content re-use. Fourth, gatekeepers made commitments to reflect trustworthiness of information sources in their algorithms: they should finally do it. Finally, future media leaders should gain new skills to cooperate across borders.

Rebalancing the ecosystem will trigger a virtuous circle: more visibility for quality content, hence more advertising, more royalty payments, therefore money for journalists and technology. If investors stop selling out to governments and oligarchs, democracy wins.

However, there is still a lack of  attention to Europe-wide media strategies, 

On the Institutions’ side, what is required is policy speed and efficient disbursing of funds.In the past, R&D-inspired funding focused on large projects, with long lead times, often managed by EU agencies. But even larger news outlets are typically medium-sized organisations, with no Brussels representation, no tendering team, nor a strong balance sheet allowing patience. In line with journalists’ or researchers’ independence, several tendered EU projects do work with their own juries. They allocate ‘media-sized’ funds subject to EU principles and audits, with lighter paperwork and timelines. Building on this, one wide NEWS call for proposals could be issued, triggering competition from journalism partnership projects, not only large organisations’ consortia.

On their side, publishers and editors are often attracted by GAFA’s investments in media innovation, outpacing public funding. Also, some News Media leaders were worried about ‘Brussels’ impeding some commercial actions, never offering a strategy for the sector, and privileging broadcasters for the little money made available. But major players are seeing the light: many publishers joined Microsoft  in calling for a fair system for content payment. 

Leadership: both political and industrial

Based on promising EU policy initiatives, where is the umbrella document explaining an overall vision for the News Media sector? Cross references within the December package, plus public relations and consultations are not enough. The NEWS bundle should be filled with life and supported under the programmes Creative Europe and Horizon Europe.

Lessons can also be drawn from national initiatives. For example, the Aachen Treaty provides for audiovisual cooperation. But so far the main French-German contribution is ARTE, now with a European outlook. Meanwhile, the control of Euronews was lost to an Egyptian investor, and there are few joint ventures between national news media. Belgium is also a telling case: it suffers from separate public spaces without ‘cross-border’ media. 

There is a Group of Commissioners dealing with media, but a dedicated, clear and comprehensive strategy for News Media is still lacking. Commission services are currently reflecting on industrial policy overall: why not use News Media as a new example?  Given the existential importance of quality media for democracy, the European Council could ask the Commission for an overall Communication on News Media strategy and competition, and encourage Member States to think along. 

Kanzlerin Merkel, Président Macron, Président Michel: you have the political and personal credibility to create this momentum, among other leaders, and press publishers.

Back in Strasbourg, for the State of the Union speech of January 2022, President von der Leyen could claim visible impact, and not only draft legislation and action plans. For a healthy News Media, and for democracy.

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  • Readers’ comments are welcome before adapted versions of this OpEd are published in Germany, France, Italy, Spain: @LeclercqEU