OPINION | Press Freedom and Europe: Wolves, vultures, trolls… plus knights and journalists

The media and the EU face similar dangers: Dark forces, impoverishment, and slow decisions. Press Freedom Day was on May 3rd, Europe Day on May 9th, and a key Council of Ministers for Culture and Media meeting takes place on May 19th.

Christophe Leclercq, who established Fondation EURACTIV and the EURACTIV media network,  creatively illustrates how characters could cooperate to avoid the worst.

Read the op-ed also in FrenchGermanSpanish, GreekBulgarian.

Winter has come. The plague has spread. Kinglets were caught unprepared.  Merchants have stopped trading. Villagers have taken refuge at home. Within closed borders, rumors abound.  Sorcerers offer wonder potions. Trolls spread confusion and curses. There are premature talks about the continent’s breakup.

Each town has its minstrels and messengers, spreading folklore and news. They depend on open cities, exchanging enlightenment for food.  Hence, some power-hungry Lords use the epidemic to clamp down on free thinking.

Two packs of wolves,  from far afield, encircle villages in ever smarter ways. Trolls join forces with them. Herds of sheep are not enough: the beasts go for human brains and gobble up messengers who cross boundaries.

Daring messengers seek to reestablish freedom and shed light in the darkness. But, like watchdogs for the dark lords, vultures are perched on forest edges: ready to pounce in the wake of wolves.

Spring is coming: freedom 

Finally alert to the dangers of these predators,  messengers regroup, their corporations stop infighting.  They get torches to fight the beasts, and seek to reestablish links. In May, for St Schuman, as the sun warms up before pentecost, couriers speak in tongues and start reaching out to their companions. They seek merchants to pay for the voyage, and villagers to nourish them on the way. Encouraged by councillorswhite knights from all lands protect them.

Europe’s wise kings send emissaries to meet white knights in Bruocsella. They issue an edict to keep wolves, vultures and trolls at bay. Europe’s treasury is small, but given the starvation and need to inform the people, messengers get passports and some stipends.

Meanwhile, learned physicians find cures for the plague. Surviving messengers are trusted by the people, and spread the good news. There is no holy grail: as each and everyone is well informed and makes major efforts, the plague comes under control. Freedom is re-established..

The messengers herald a new social and environmental conscience. In the cities, culture thrives, good values are respected, peace reigns. Europe is strengthened by common values, a renaissance is underway.

Back to policies for the media sector’s health

MEPs have written about the essential role of the press, and the need to help its survival. Journalists have elaborated wider demands. Stakeholders are encouraged by signals given but some warn about mere statements of intent.

Fittingly, this week highlighting both Press Freedom and Europe ushers into decisive times. The Culture Committee of the European Parliament exchanges on Monday, May 4th with Commissioners Breton and Gabriel. The Commission could specify its proposals in more detail at its Wednesday meeting. On May 19th, meeting as Council, Ministers for culture and media could welcome and emulate at national level a Coronavirus Plan for the Media.

You could read the fable above again, replacing minstrels with culture, messengers  with journalists, councillors with parliamentarians, corporations with media associations and networks, white knights with Commissioners and Ministers. Packs of wolves stand for dominant platforms, and vultures for oligarchs.

You do not want to be a sheep, then are you a helpful villager or merchant? Or perhaps a white knight or lady?

Key steps out of dark ages, and clear attributions

The main roles are local and national, but let’s look at the EU level too:

. Commissioner Thierry Breton is well placed for the media’s industrial strategy, starting with emergency funding. He could also deliver the Media Action Plan this year, as promised.

. Commissioner Mariya Gabriel knows the media portfolio, and has two key funding levers: skills and innovation. She could help create a NEWS programme under ‘Creative Europe’.

. EVP Margrethe Vestager leads the promising digital agenda, pointing to regulation of platforms, more ‘systemic’ than ever. To rebalance the ecosystem, she could refuse to delay policy-making, and use competition powers now.

. VP Vera Jourova stands for fundamental rights, the raison d’être of the media. She chairs the Project Group of Commissioners for media, including the above; it met only once since its set-up six months ago.

As for Commission President von der Leyen, she declared democracy one of only six priorities for her mandate. She could still answer the questions put six weeks ago by 28 MEPs and stakeholders

Who is in charge?” “Where is the Coronavirus media action plan?”.

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