How to get journalists off their behinds www.freepress.net
Some journalists see their journalistic freedom in danger.

One afternoon last week, the Facebook news feed and Twitter suddenly became red hot. That is especially, if you have many connections that are journalists.

As a reporter, under normal circumstances, in the name of being professional, you are obliged to stay neutral and objective. You might have your opinions about the stuff you write about, but it is usually a good idea to keep them to yourself – at least in public.

The same day, the so-called High Level Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism, a four-man subcommittee under the responsibility of European Commission Vice-President and Digital Affairs Commissioner Neelie Kroes, released their report “A free and pluralistic media to sustain European democracy”.

The report contains a number of recommendations for a supranational policy for increasing freedom and pluralism in the European media landscape. All in all, there are 30 fairly concrete recommendations to be found in the report. The ones that got the most attention on Facebook and Twitter that afternoon suggest that:

  • All EU countries should have independent media councils.
  • Media councils should have real enforcement powers, such as the imposition of fines, orders for printed or broadcast apologies, or removal of journalistic status.
  • The national media councils should follow a set of European-wide standards and be monitored by the Commission to ensure that they comply with European values.

That should already be pretty clear, but drawing the bottom line from these three statements, you would, in simple terms, end up with: The European Commission should be able to sack journalists who they think do not follow their rules.

Objectivity/Off

For the majority of journalists, the report suggested just the opposite of freedom and pluralism. If there is anything that can get journalists off their behinds so fast, that in the process they drop both objectivity and neutrality on the floor, it is a potential decrease of their freedom.

Naturally, they were worried how these national media councils will work in countries that do not have strong tradition of media freedom; and they were worried that countries with existing media councils will feel forced by the Commission to intervene against journalists in a stricter way than necessary, under their own specific media circumstances.

Looking around the national journalist unions’ website the general concern seemed to be the same. The European Federation of Journalists expressed scepticism towards this exact part of the conclusions of the report. On their website, they wrote:

They call for media compliance with "European values", which are not defined either in EU or in national legislation, and the right of reply could be obtained by "simple request of citizens [and] published with the same relevance as the original coverage". These are sensitive and controversial points that may not be accepted by many journalists' organisation in Europe.

In the same statement, they claim that they have been asking for ideas to secure more freedom and pluralism in the European media sphere for a long time.

Adding to this criticism, one of European politics’ leading online news media, EurActiv, reported on the recommendations with thinly disguised irony, writing that the European Commission sees itself as a “moral compass” - referring to a passage in the report.

“A shower of good ideas”

However, it was not the entire profession of journalists that went straight into the red zone last week. Some stayed calmer; for instance Member of the European Parliament, Morten Løkkegaard. Being a former journalist, he was elected in 2009 with one primary declared goal, namely to increase journalism and communication about the EU.

In the process of achieving that, he has been part of initiating the work on this particular report. So he does not understand why journalists are reacting as defensively as they are. You need to look at the report as a whole instead of nitpicking single points, he states.

It is about looking at the overall picture. There is quite a shower of right proposals. The basic idea is right. We need to have an active political position as to how we ensure media freedom across Europe. 

What I notice, and what I am very positive about, is that we now finally have an independent body’s recommendations on what needs to be done on European level to ensure media freedom and media pluralism. 

Løkkegaard is not generally known to be someone dancing to the Commissions’ tune. During his mandate, he has been having fierce debates with especially Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding, concerning a common and clear communication strategy for the EU. But in this case, he is on the line with the subcommittee and encourages journalists to calm down:

“I would like to ask journalists to take this seriously and do not burrow into the trenches, simply because it is the Commission that has taken this initiative…” he said, but admits that:

The tone of the report is sharp, it is clear, and it is also a bit pompous. 

But I agree with the conclusion that there is a need for a more proactive European policy in this area. For far too many years, there has been too little awareness of how important this is for the cohesion in Europe.

The British make their own rules

As part of the work on the report, the EC subcommittee has been looking to the work of the Leveson inquiry in Great Britain, which in November presented its conclusions on the phone hacking scandal involving the now former British tabloid News of the World, and its owner Rupert Murdoch.

The Leveson (named after the investigator in charge Lord Justice Leveson) inquiry report recommended introducing a new independent regulator with enhanced powers.

Upon presentation of their own report, Neelie Kroes’s subcommittee stated that they had been presented with “overwhelming evidence” by the Leveson report that the press regulating itself, could lead to “gross abuses of journalistic privileges, the breaking of elementary ethical standards, and even activities subject to the criminal code”.

In Britain, they now await a model for new regulatory rules for the press. However, little have the representatives of the press working on this specifically British model been aware of the parallel work in Brussels, which now leaves the question; should Britain let eventual new EU rules supersede their own future set of rules? According to The Independent , a spokesperson for the British Department of Culture Media & Sport said:

We have no intention of allowing Europe to regulate the British press. We have been clear, that, as set out in the Leveson report, we expect the British press industry to implement tough, independent, self-regulation, in adherence with the Leveson principles.

Whether this regulation will provoke Facebook and Twitter fume again, remains to be seen. What leaves very little doubt, however, is that if you want journalists to get off their chairs and speak their minds, you just have to propose tighter rules for them.