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Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda
Safeguarding Media Pluralism in the EU
"United in Diversity" Pan-European Forum on Media Pluralism & New Media, European Parliament
Brussels, 27 June 2012
As we stand in the Parliament, Europe's democratic chamber, it's a good time to remember what it is to be European. And to reflect on what Europe does best.
Many see Europe as an economic union, a single market to boost trade.
But for me it's more than that: it's a place where we come together and deliver for our citizens.
And that's about more than economic growth.
Here in Europe we're an organised "melting pot". We have many cultures and histories: and we have for each others' cultures awareness, curiosity, and respect.
That is how we find unity in diversity: that is something to be proud of.
Delivering for our citizens also means safeguarding freedom.
Including the freedom of speech: the right to express yourself, to dissent, and to hold the powerful to account.
Outside Europe, not far from our doorstep even, we can see what it means to lose that tolerance and respect, or to be deprived of those rights.
We rightly condemn when those freedoms are curtailed or quashed, from bloggers arrested in Syria, to journalists imprisoned in Azerbaijan.
But, on the international stage, we can do more than just make strongly-worded statements.
We should not just say: but show. We should show to the rest of the world what vibrant society prospers under these positive principles: liberty, tolerance, democracy.
Then we can not just offer those gifts to our own people: but we can light a beacon of hope to all oppressed peoples; and be the world's wellspring of freedom.
That needs a strong media sector. It is a free media, with professional and quality journalists, who often best inform electorates, challenge authority, and broadcast minority voices.
Thus a free media exercises a fundamental right — aids our mutual cultural understanding – and improves how people are governed.
Those principles offer an opportunity for our future.
And they are worth fighting for.
When they are threatened within the EU's own borders – as they have been in Hungary – we should indeed protect and defend them.
There are two points I'd like to make today.
The first point is that a strong media sector exists within an economy, and must take account of economic realities. As for so many things, pluralism cannot be guaranteed in isolation, but flourishes or withers according to the environment.
As with so many sectors, the Internet is radically changing that environment. Transforming the economics, transforming value chains, transforming the role of everyone from journalist to paperboy.
This digital revolution creates great opportunities for pluralism: but also some risks. On the one hand, it opens up a platform for every blogger , every Internet user, every citizen, to make their voice heard.
On the other, it may make it harder to invest in long-term, investigative journalism — as consumers increasingly expect immediate content and access at low cost, or none at all.
One thing is certain: we need to adapt. Carrying on and hoping digital realities go away is no solution. Such an approach would close down new online opportunities; it would damage the sector's competitiveness; and, yes, it would ultimately damage media pluralism.
Today I received the first part of the report of the Media Futures Forum chaired by Christian van Thillo. That Forum includes those from across the sector value chain. And their report is thorough and welcome.
In spite of different perspectives, they recognise very clearly that — in a digital age — the media sector needs to change, or lose out. I'll be studying it very closely: I hope others will too.
But already I can tell you I'm convinced about many of the solutions they propose.
Yes, we need more innovation; yes, we need more fast broadband.
And yes, we need the rules and mentality to try out new business models; models with the scale needed for pan-European success.
Because, in a tough global market, these technologies can give a much-needed boost to the media sector. And in fact to almost every other sector, too.
To get that boost, we need the right laws, we need the right technology, and we need the right mindsets and business models.
For example, look at e-books: still today I can't transfer my own e-books from one device to another; still today it's hard to buy an e-book from another EU country. And there are yet greater issues in the audiovisual world.
Yesterday we got together those active in the ebook market, and they agreed on a common declaration on these issues. This is a great result –and one example of the kind of change to mentality we need.
Like I say, one cannot ignore the economics when considering media pluralism. But in some cases, a free media faces challenges that go well beyond economics. And those situations can pose more explicit threats to liberty and democracy. I have already referred to the case of Hungary.
So that leads to my second question. It's well to talk of the importance of freedom and pluralism: but how, in detail, should we safeguard them?
Looking beyond the economics – what policy tools, what legal powers, what moral rights and responsibilities do we need?
And that is indeed complex.
Some say that governments should keep their hands off the media, full stop.
I have some sympathy. But in some cases, positive government action can aid media pluralism. For example, sometimes governments can ensure that ownership is not too concentrated, through competition policy.
And sometimes, indeed, I find that people do expect public authorities to act. Indeed recent threats to media freedom showed up a very strong general expectation that the Commission can act. But, as it stands, the legal framework won't let us meet that expectation. One or other needs to adjust.
This is a key question. I want to resolve it.
Currently the EU does not have the legal competence to act in this area as part of its normal business. In practice, our role involves naming and shaming countries ad hoc, as issues arise.
Year after year I return to this Parliament to deal with a different, often serious, case, in a different Member State. I am quite willing to continue to exercise that political pressure on Member States that risk violating our common values. But there's merit in a more principled way forward.
On the other hand, I don't want to rush to regulation. In some cases regulation can support freedom. But if our aim is to separate the media from governments or parliaments, then the risk is that regulation does exactly the opposite.
In recent cases, NGOs, journalists and Members of Parliament complained that we did not have sufficient power or that we did not intervene enough in this area. Well, they would be the first to complain if we ended up with too much power, or intervened too much. And rightly so.
So I have asked for advice. The report by the Media Futures Forum is the first step.
I am also looking forward to the advice of the High-Level Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism, led by Vaire Vike-Freiberga. To the ongoing work of Centre for Media Pluralism and Freedom in Florence. And, of course, to the debate on media freedom standards in this Parliament.
But they alone won't solve the problem. More generally I want a principled debate. I want all those involved – Member States, the European Parliament, NGOs, journalists and others – to contribute frankly about these issues.
Today's conference is an important step to start this debate.
Does more need to be done to safeguard media freedom and pluralism? Who should do it? And what are the best tools to use?
Some believe that the media market in Europe is too local, too fragmented, for the EU to have a role.
Others believe that, as the EU is grounded in common values like freedom of speech, it should also protect those values. If this latter is the conclusion of our debate, I'm ready to play my part.
But in any case I want to decide a way forward before the end of my mandate.
The issue of how to safeguard media freedom and pluralism is complex: it will involve reflection and hard choices: and it's too important to treat simplistically.
But to those who say it's too complex, too risky, too much of a headache to even think about, I could not disagree more. This is about democracy, it is about freedom, it is about Europe.
No cost is too high to secure those aims. No level of commitment too extravagant to ensure the beacon of a free and prosperous European media: one that continues to shine in the twenty-first century.