Backing pluralism and diversity in the media

Malta Independent, Malta
March 26 2004

Backing pluralism and diversity in the media

Staff Reporter

Pluralism and diversity of media are a basic element of democracy.
That is why the European Bishops Media committee, CEEM , meeting in
Rome on 12 and 13 March, was happy to endorse the Recommendation
adopted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe,
concerning public radio and television broadcasting.

We need `a strong and vibrant independent public broadcasting
service’ in Europe, at the service of cultural diversity, social
cohesion and citizenship. This public radio and television service is
`typically universal in terms of content and access’. It responds to
the needs of the various social groups, including religious

While hoping for coexistence and complementarity of the public sector
with commercial media, we should like to reaffirm that the media
should not have a merely commercial logic: public broadcasting and
associative media need to be given the place they deserve.

Public service broadcasting

1. Public service broadcasting, a vital element of democracy in
Europe, is under threat. It is challenged by political and economic
interests, by increasing competition from commercial media, by media
concentrations and by financial difficulties. It is also faced with
the challenge of adapting to globalisation and the new technologies.

2. Public service broadcasting, whether run by public organisations
or privately-owned companies, differs from broadcasting for purely
commercial or political reasons because of its specific remit, which
is essentially to operate independently of those holding economic and
political power. It provides the whole of society with information,
culture, education and entertainment; it enhances social, political
and cultural citizenship and promotes social cohesion. To that end,
it is typically universal in terms of content and access; it
guarantees editorial independence and impartiality; it provides a
benchmark of quality; it offers a variety of programmes and services
catering for the needs of all groups in society and it is publicly
accountable. These principles apply, whatever changes may have to be
introduced to meet the requirements of the twenty-first century.

3. It is a matter of concern that many European countries have so far
failed to meet the commitment that their governments undertook, at
the 4th European Ministerial Conference on Mass Media Policy held in
Prague in 1994, to maintain and develop a strong public broadcasting
system. It is also worrying that the fundamental principle of the
independence of public service broadcasting contained in
Recommendation No. R (96) 10 of the Committee of Ministers is still
not firmly established in a number of member states. Moreover,
governments across the continent are in the process of reorienting
their media policies in the light of the development of digital
technology and are in danger of leaving public service broadcasting
without enough support.

4. Public service broadcasting was born in western Europe and has
evolved by adapting itself naturally to the needs of a mature
democracy. In central and eastern Europe it is not yet socially
embedded, since it was `transplanted’ into an environment that lacked
the necessary political and management culture, and in which civil
society is still weak, has inadequate resources and little dedication
to public service values.

5. The situation varies across Europe. At one extreme national
broadcasting continues to be under strict governmental control and
there is little prospect of introducing public service broadcasting
by legislation in the foreseeable future. In the Russian Federation,
for instance, the lack of independent public service broadcasting was
a major contributing factor to the absence of balanced political
debate in the lead-up to the recent parliamentary elections, as
mentioned by the international election observation mission. Hardly
any progress has been made in adopting the necessary public service
broadcasting legislation that might meet Council of Europe standards
in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine.

6. In Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Kosovo public service
broadcasting still only operates under regulations imposed from
outside by the international community. Adoption of a proper law has
been delayed in Bosnia and Herzegovina as a result of internal
resistance to structural change and in Kosovo because of attempts to
undermine the funding of public service broadcasting.

7. In other countries laws on public service broadcasting have been
adopted, but certain provisions and practices contradict European
standards. In Armenia all the members of the Council for Public Radio
and Television are appointed by the President. It remains to be seen
whether the day-to-day operation of TeleRadio Moldova will be able to
be independent after two changes made to the law in 2003. The
appointment of a Serbian broadcasting agency has been marred by
scandals that have yet to be resolved.

8. More substantial progress has been made in other countries,
although problems still remain. Changes to broadcasting laws, making
broadcasting corporations more politically independent and
financially viable, have been recommended by the Council of Europe in
Bulgaria and `the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’. There are
still attempts to change laws in order to make them more suitable for
a ruling majority, as with the new Croatian Law on Radio and
Television. Severe financial difficulties are experienced with public
service broadcasting in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia.

9. There is political pressure on public service broadcasting in
western Europe too. The BBC was attacked by the British Government
over its coverage of the war in Iraq. In Greece, Italy, Portugal and
Spain, situations variously defined as `political clientelism’,
`state paternalism’ and `partitocrazia’ have prevented the full
emancipation of public service broadcasters from direct, `hands-on’
political control. Manipulation of information under political
influence led to the unprecedented sentencing of TVE for its coverage
of the general strike in Spain in June 2002. The politicisation of
RAI caused by a unique division of the three Italian channels between
the main political parties has been further aggravated by the current

10. There is a growing tendency to go beyond hitherto existing forms
of public service broadcasting regulation and define its obligations
more precisely, often by contracts backed up by accountability
reports to the parliament, the government and/or a regulatory agency.
Increasing attention is paid to the financial aspects of the
operation of the public service broadcaster. While such moves are to
be welcomed in so far as they give public service broadcasting
organisations greater stability, it should be ensured that they are
not used by governments to undermine the financial and statutory
situation of these organisations. Recent government decisions in the
Netherlands and France have seriously affected the funding of their
public service broadcasters.

11. Governments have been examining possible structural changes that
would affect the very nature of public service broadcasting.
Privatisation plans have been discussed in Denmark and Portugal, and
in Italy with the recently proposed broadcasting legislation (the
`Gasparri Law’), which has since then been referred back to
Parliament by the President. In the United Kingdom, there is growing
concern at the government’s attitude to the renewal of the charter of
the BBC, fuelled by the very public row between the corporation and
the government.

12. In a large majority of countries, digital channels have not yet
been defined in broadcasting legislation. There is also a clear
absence of legal provisions concerning Internet activities by public
service broadcasters in most countries. This might affect their
ability to expand to new platforms.

13. The coexistence of public and commercial media has largely
contributed to innovating and diversifying the supply of content and
has had a positive impact on quality. However, commercial interests
are trying to reduce competition from the public sector to a minimum.
European Union competition law is often used to attack the funding
systems for public service broadcasting. In this respect, the
Assembly welcomes the judgment of the European Court of Justice in
the Altmark case, regarding compensation for discharging public
service obligations, and urges that the situation concerning public
service broadcasting be further clarified on the basis of this
judgment. Commercial broadcasters also challenge the possibility of
public service broadcasting expanding into new areas and new
services. Recent examples include the BBC’s Internet activities and
the plans of the German ARD to turn the Internet into its `third
pillar’, which had to be abandoned under commercial pressure.

14. Commercial broadcasters also claim that the shift to the
multi-channel, on-demand broadcasting offered by digitalisation will
enable the market to cater for all needs and therefore also fulfil
the public service obligations currently assigned to public
broadcasting institutions. However, there is no guarantee about the
quality and independence of such provision, or that it would be
free-to-air, universally accessible and constant over time.

15. It is recognised that there can be an overlap with commercial
broadcasting in popular genres. However, the growing
commercialisation and concentration of the media sector with the
resulting `dumbing-down’ of general quality vindicates, when this
concerns public service broadcasters, those who criticise the use of
public money for such purposes. Public service broadcasting is
suffering an identity crisis, as it is in many instances striving to
combine its public service obligations with chasing ratings and the
need to secure an audience to justify its `public’ character or
simply to attract advertising revenue.

16. European countries and the international community in general
must become more actively involved in efforts to develop general
standards and good practice as guidelines for national policies in
this area.

17. Therefore the Parliamentary Assembly recommends that the
Committee of Ministers:

i. adopt a new major policy document on public service broadcasting,
taking stock of developments since the Prague ministerial conference
and defining standards and mechanisms of accountability for future
public service broadcasting. The forthcoming Ministerial Conference
on Mass Media Policy in Kyiv could include the preparation of such a
document in its plan of action;

ii. mobilise the relevant structures of the Council of Europe to
ensure proper and transparent monitoring, assistance and, where
necessary, pressure, so that member states undertake the appropriate
legislative, political and practical measures in support of public
service broadcasting;

iii. consider specific measures to ensure that a legislation in this
area in line with European standards is adopted as soon as possible
in Azerbaijan, Georgia, the Russian Federation and Ukraine;

iv. ensure close co-operation with other international organisations
in maintaining its standards regarding freedom of expression;

v. continue to press for audiovisual services to be regarded as more
than simply a commodity in the negotiations of the World Trade
Organization (WTO) and the General Agreement on Trade in Services

vi. endeavour to ensure that the World Summit on the Information
Society gives proper recognition to public service broadcasting as an
important element in developing the information society and at the
same time easing the shock of the rapid changes this development will

vii. call on the governments of member states to:

a. reaffirm their commitment to maintaining a strong and vibrant
independent public broadcasting service, whilst adapting it to the
requirements of the digital age, for instance, on the occasion of the
next European Ministerial Conference on Mass Media Policy in 2004,
taking concrete steps to implement this policy objective and refrain
from any interference with the editorial independence and
institutional autonomy of public service broadcasters;

b. define an appropriate legal, institutional and financial framework
for the functioning of public service broadcasting and its adaptation
and modernisation to suit the needs of the audience and the
requirements of the digital era;

c. design education and training programmes, adapted to the digital
media environment, for journalists.