The spectre of a global economic crash may have motivated world leaders at the G20 summit in London to seek new rules to replace a postwar system that failed. What about the great information system built by the world’s traditional news media? That too enjoyed its long heyday in the same period, but now face what looks increasingly like self-destruction, brought on by the Internet revolution, the collapse of demand from the global public, and the credit crunch.
Who will save the media – or is it already too late?
The Open Society Institute has published a massive and alarming report — “Television across Europe: more channels, less independence”. It chronicles the retreat of freedom of thought and impartiality of information in post Cold War Europe, and most of all it blames governments for seeking to manipulate the most potent medium of all: broadcasting.
So should the world’s elected leaders really be concerned to shore up democracy’s defences by reviving the health of television as a guardian of freedom of expression? That is what Jean Seaton, in her foreword to the OSI Report, says they need to do. This eye-opening study should be on the desk of every politician and international agency concerned about Europe’s future, she says.
The OSI examines just nine countries, from Poland to Italy. But the now-familiar patterns of political interference and control, rank populism and declining revenues have betrayed the hopes of people on both sides of the Berlin Wall when it fell, that a new era of free choice and accountable politics, kept clean by inquiring and dynamic media, was about to begin.
The Soros-funded report says the crisis of public broadcast funding across Central and Eastern Europe may also be prophetic for Western Europe. Indeed, with French broadcasters scarred by their dispute with the government over what they allege is a political power grab, that shadow is already darkening the landscape all the way from the Atlantic to Moscow and beyond.
Europe’s representative journalist organisations are also sounding the alarm, The European Federation of Journalists, with over 260,000 members, has written to the Commission President and the heads of the political parties in the European Parliament with an unprecedented warning that media markets are “collapsing”, with a dramatic and negatiive impact on the democratic life of Europe.
The EFJ asserts that private and public media are also at acute risk in the UK, Germany and the Nordic countries. It calls on the political leaders, as well as civil society organisations and the media themselves, to engage in an urgent debate in order to revive commitments to public service values in media and to ethical journalism.
It seems to be asking a hell of a lot for governments to come to the aid of the big creatures of the media jungle, especially now when they are hardly any more beloved by ordinary people than investment bankers.
It has indeed become commonplace for government leaders to treat the press openly as an enemy. The Slovak prime minister Robert Fico openly insulted journalists as “hyenas”. Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has urged his supporters to boycott newspapers that write critically about him. And less than two years ago Tony Blair, before leaving office in the UK, famously attacked the media as “feral beasts”.
But Europe’s politicians should curb any instincts they may have to gloat or to join in the weakening of their troublesome and inquisitive media. Serious surveys such as those by the OSI, Freedom House, Reporters Without Borders and the Association of European Journalists all provide evidence that the fourth estate is at risk of losing the ability to hold the powerful to account.
Instead elected politicians could do as they have been asked by the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, and start treating the condition of their media as a key indicator of the health of each nation’s democracy. Its proposal is that every parliament in Europe should conduct a regular independent audit of the media, supporting media professionalism and diversity and the independence of public broadcasting.
CFOM came into being this year, bringing together senior journalists and editors with leading media researchers at the University of Sheffield, because we recognised the urgent need for all countries to comprehend the dangers that this haemorraging of mainstream news media presents for the values of open societies and for the post Cold War system of rules-based international relations.
The OSI Report and the EFJ’s warning point to the same sources of danger. One is the dramatic attrition of established media of all kinds caused by the economic downturn and the flight of advertising to the Internet. The other is a pervasive climate of neglect and seeming indifference regarding media freedom and independence which has been described as a “meltdown of OSCE commitments”.
That phrase was coined by Miklos Haraszti, the respected Representative on Freedom of the Media of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
At CFOM’s founding conference at Chatham House in London on February 3 Miklos Haraszti publicly called for public figures and journalists everywhere to show their commitment to the OSCE values of real democracy and freedom of expression, by speaking out against harsh political pressures and the murders of journalists and human rights campaigners in Russia and elsewhere.
His demand was backed up by Lionel Barber, the editor of the Financial Times, who described as “shameful” the silence of many leading European politicians over the cold-blooded killing of the Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006.
Jens Reich, a co-leader of the New Forum pro-democracy movement in the former communist East Germany, expressed dismay at the “state of terror” in which other journalists in Russia have also faced intimidation, violence or death when they have challenged powerful interests.
He reminded the audience of diplomats, public figures and journalists that the fall of totalitarian communism in 1989 was made possible by the people’s determination then not to accept political propaganda in place of truth.
Today two things are evident: first, that the explosion of free information on the Internet has not so far led to a better system of holding political leaders to account. Freedom of information laws and the blogosphere have breached some old taboos about privilege and secrecy, but in many countries a new threat has grownup — what Julian Petley aptly calls the “fusion of political and media power”.
Secondly, the high-minded international mechanisms that were supposed to guarantee media freedoms and human rights across the whole of Europe have fallen into disrepair or even, unfortunately, into disrespect. They are principally the OSCE, which grew out of the Helsinki accords concerning European security and human rights in the 1970s; and the Council of Europe, whose European Convention on Human Rights was first signed sixty years ago this May.
So yes, it is high time for Europe’s leading media and its top political leaders — including those meeting in London’s ExCeL Centre in April — to concern themselves with the consequences of the neglect of those high ideals in the two decades since the collapse of communism.
A broad coalition of media professionals and concerned groups is now working to raise awareness about the crisis for media independence in Europe and beyond, and to encourage political authorities to play a constructive part in repairing the damage. Prof Jackie Harrison and I from CFOM took part in a timely conference in London on April 7 examining the growing pressures on Freedom of Expression in the Media. It was organised through the Clemens Nathan Research Centre; more details on that wesbite and this CFOM site soon.
On May 1 I shall be chairing a public debate marking World Press Freedom Day at the Frontline Club in London, sponsored by the UK National Commission for UNESCO and the UK Press Freedom Network. The topic for debate is “Governments at War are winning the Battle of controlling the international Media.
And later this year (date TBA) CFOM will hold an inaugural lecture event at the University of Sheffield, as a follow-up to our launch conference on February 3 which took the theme “Twenty Years after the Fall of the Wall: What Became of Press and Political Freedoms?”
Transcripts of the presentations at the CFOM-Chatham House conference in February can be read on this website.