Claims in the Sunday Telegraph on 14 April that the EU is “pouring millions into groups seeking state control of the press” and “seeking new national and Europe-wide regulatory powers over journalists”, are highly misleading. The Daily Mail’s suggestion the following day that “Brussels” is backing six initiatives to “increase its powers over the media” is equally wrong.
These articles make wild and inaccurate claims about the European Commission’s actions and motives. The Commission was not asked for a comment before publication. The comment in the Sunday Telegraph piece from a Commission spokesperson is an old one taken out of context.
In a nutshell
- – The EU supports media freedom, not state control of the press, and has shown this by its actions.
- – There is no question of the European Commission seeking “regulatory powers over journalists”.
- – Any regulation of media content is for individual Member States, provided that fundamental media freedoms guaranteed under the Lisbon Treaty are not restricted.
- – Where regulation does exist, regulators should be independent of government.
The Commission has a track record of acting to protect – not remove – media freedoms: this includes recent intervention in Hungary, as well as work in developing countries and in preparing new Member States to join the EU.
The Commission has said, in general terms, that where national press regulators are in place, they should be independent of government, as this is essential for genuine media freedom.
Such independence neither requires nor precludes statutory underpinning. Currently some EU Member States have statutory underpinning and others do not.
The Commission has repeatedly made clear that it takes no position on the follow up to the Leveson Inquiry.
The Commission does have a role in promoting exchange of information and best practice between Member States in all policy fields, including media.
Research projects referred to in the Sunday Telegraph and Mail articles are part of the European Union’s social science research programme, agreed by all Member States and bringing together researchers from a wide range of countries and institutions.
The Commission is under no obligation to follow policy recommendations that emerge from such projects.
What is more, it is legally precluded from following any recommendations that would restrict media freedoms guaranteed under the Lisbon Treaty.
The Mediadem and MediaAct projects referred to, which began in 2010, are based on comparing and learning from practices across a large number of Member States.
These projects have not at this stage made any recommendations to the Commission.
Mediadem has produced some policy recommendations for the UK, among several other Member States – these are addressed to the UK media itself and to the UK government, logically given that these matters are primarily national ones.
Obviously, research projects on all sorts of things, EU-funded or otherwise, produce policy recommendations on a plethora of issues more or less every day.
Those recommendations should not be confused with proposals or the point of view of the European Commission and still less with decisions by the EU as a whole.
The objective of another project mentioned, the Centre for Media Freedom and Media Pluralism at the University of Florence, is to “develop new ideas on how to ensure a highly diverse and free media.” Journalists play a leading role in this.
These projects were not “previously unpublicised” and are not funded “quietly” as the Sunday Telegraph alleges but in an entirely transparent manner – a comprehensive database with extensive details of all EU-funded research projects is available online.
Each of the projects concerned also has its own website and has published findings, some of which have been reported in various European media.
The MediaAct project has this week issued its own comprehensive rebuttal of each of the specific false accusations made about it in the Sunday Telegraph article.
More generally the Commission maintains a “financial transparency database” with details of all payments it makes to all organisations– the Sunday Telegraph article itself even refers to this database as a source.
Meanwhile, the “European Initiative for Media Pluralism” described in the article as “an EU-related project” is in fact an independent campaign, with partners including several journalists’ organisations, calling for EU level action to prevent government interference in the media and to restrict concentration of media ownership.
The Sunday Telegraph correctly says that the “High Level Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism” was set up by European Commission Vice-President Neelie Kroes and recently delivered a report to her.
The article is also correct to say that the Commission has launched a consultation on the Group’s report, as part of efforts to inspire a wide debate.
But the Commission has not made any proposals arising from this report and was careful to underline in its initial response that any proposals that it may make would be limited to areas covered by the Lisbon Treaty. Those include – in addition to protecting media freedom – single market and competition law, state aids, etc.
The High Level Group report itself does suggest that Member States should set up independent media councils and outlines some powers it believes they should have.
But the EU has no power to “force” them to do so.
The report advocates that national systems of media regulation should be monitored by the Commission to ensure that they do NOT restrict fundamental press freedoms and thus contravene the Lisbon Treaty.
In fact, the Commission, as “guardian of the treaties”, in effect already has that role.
To repeat, regulation of media content is a matter for Member States, which are required by the Lisbon Treaty to respect fundamental rights to free expression.
The Sunday Telegraph refers to the Common Purpose charity. This is a well-known independent charity that is funded by a very wide range of public sector entities – including UK government departments – private companies and voluntary organisations.
It receives a small proportion of its funding from the EU, for specific EU-related events and activities and after fully transparent and competitive application processes.
The Media Standards Trust (MST), on the other hand, has not received money from the European Social Fund (ESF), as the Sunday Telegraph states.
The Trust’s only link with the ESF is that a research student at Cardiff University, doing a research project on local news issues, has been awarded one of nearly 400 bursaries from a Welsh fund partly financed by the ESF. That student has chosen the MST as their “external enterprise partner”.
The student gets the funding – partners such as MST have to make financial and in-kind contributions to take part.