European governments have addressed the issue of media concentration at several points during the latter half of this century. Following World War II, the press underwent a very turbulent period as most Western European democracies experienced a radical reduction in the number of daily newspapers. Deep concern about the concentration of power in the media led individual states and the Council of Europe to seek remedies to this situation in the 1970s. Some countries adopted regulations to curb this development - or at least to give the impression of curbing it. In most cases, however, these initiatives did little to alter the situation substantially, although a few countries, such as Sweden, Norway and Finland, were, in fact, able to maintain the status quo for two more decades.
As the overall circulation of newspapers had risen, the concern was not one of a shrinking readership but, rather, the shrinking number of hands in which the control of the media lay. Gradually, however, attention to this issue faded away as universities and research institutions turned to other fields of research. For example, while the late 1970s saw fierce controversies in Unesco regarding the dominance of the Western media in the Third World - resulting in the withdrawal of the US and UK from this organisation - political manoeuvring soon buried the debate. The non-democratic regimes in the Third World and the Communist countries exploited the criticism of Western media dominance for their own political aims - clearly to justify their disregard for the right to freedom of expression. The 1980s, in contrast, saw the rise of commercial, market-oriented tendencies and an increased emphasis on free trade and national deregulation in all spheres, including the media.
By the end of the 1980s, the explosive commercialisation of the mass media sector - resulting in a drastic growth of output in the electronic media - provoked a new wave of concern. The increasing globalisation of media company operations and rapid technological changes in media distribution brought the concern over the concentration of the media back into focus. The appearance of "media tycoons" - some with international ambitions and working in several media sectors - caused great debate about the concentration of power. In 1989 the Council of Europe undertook a series of studies to monitor these new developments.
Ironically, 1989 was a year of widespread de-concentration in the mass media: the liberation and gradual democratisation of Eastern and Central Europe was in part a result of greater access to information undermining the Communist regimes. This liberalisation led to a pluralism of views expressed in new independent media in those regions. Despite bloody backlashes, such as the Yugoslav War, pluralism was established in most countries in this part of Europe.
Within Western Europe, however, the situation was very different. After a period of privatisation and the launch of many new media outlets in both radio and television, the already dominant actors in the field consolidated their power and some remarkable mergers took place. Nevertheless, European governments continued to worry about the concentration of ownership, despite the recognition that strong ownership can have a positive effect on pluralism in the media.
The majority of European states have, to date, adopted legislation in favour of protection, and in some cases, promotion, of media pluralism. As described in Part 3, a number of other policy measures are either still in force or scheduled to be enacted.
2. Conceptual issues
Before turning to the overview of policies and regulations, it is necessary first to address some of the conceptual issues involved.
Dissent and controversy have accompanied every step of the debate on media concentration - beginning with the very definition of the notions themselves. It is more the rule than the exception that, after lengthy debate on details and proposals regarding media ownership and its consequences for pluralism, the discussion breaks down. This is due to different parties in the discussion employing quite different, and incompatible, understandings of the central concepts of media, pluralism, concentration, information, freedom of expression etc.
While no definitive meanings will be agreed upon by everyone, I would like to propose at least some terminology for the purposes of this essay.
Media concentration can be defined in a number of different ways. Perhaps the best brief definition, as opposed to a lengthier description, is the "working definition" suggested by the Council of Europe:
In relation to media concentrations, the notion of pluralism is understood to mean the scope for a wide range of social, political and cultural values, opinions, information and interests to find expression through the media.
Pluralism may be internal in nature, with a wide range of social, political and cultural values, opinions, information and interests finding expression within one media organisation, or external in nature, through a number of such organisations, each expressing a particular point of view.
This definition of pluralism views media concentration as being in opposition to pluralism. This makes the definition of media concentration "negative", which is a rather common method in scientific contexts and logic.
The Council of Europe later adopted another more detailed definition based on a number of criteria regarding the supply of media content.
"The Soviet criterion" of pluralism
In the definition quoted above, concentration pertains to the content of the media, not to the structure of companies, organisations etc. To a certain degree, this represents a deviation from current understanding of the concept. There is good reason for this deviation, however, since definitions that focus on media structures themselves also run the risk of claiming the opposite: that media companies that are not part of a concentrated structure are, therefore, pluralistic. Abundant evidence for this is to be found in the media structures of recent European dictatorial regimes. In the Soviet Union, for example, many organisations and companies were allowed to produce newspapers, magazines etc. But, of course, any claim to "pluralism" was not remotely authentic according to the common understanding of human rights as defined by the European convention of Human Rights. The mechanisms and structures of the Soviet state concentrated real media power within one single entity, the Communist Party. Some citizens, particularly those with sufficient knowledge of foreign languages, were able to access channels for information beyond the official channels.
Without going into too much detail of the nuances of terminology, there is one important distinction to highlight: the distinction between external and internal pluralism suggested in the working definition of the Council of Europe. Of course, other uses of this conceptual pairing are legitimate, yet experience has shown that considerable confusion arises from different uses of these notions.
The working definition suggests that pluralism should, in this context, only relate to content. Therefore, external pluralism is also defined in relation to a pluralism of content. Applying this usage of terms, it is advisable to qualify all other uses of the term ”pluralism” or vice versa concentration: pluralism as regards companies, owners, actors, channels, outlets etc. would then be harmless to use, but not without the particular specification. Defining pluralism "as such" in the media by one of these specific pluralisms is, at least potentially, devastating to a serious analysis - since all of them are liable to break against the "Soviet criterion" described above.
2.2. Media power and abuse of power
The definition of media pluralism as based on content in the media does not solve another conceptual issue crucial in the choice of policy approaches to media concentration. It is often claimed that strong media companies, and even the reduction of the number of outlets or media companies, may well be favourable to pluralism in terms of content. It has been argued that only actual and proven abuse of positions of power call for media policy measures. This is consonant with the attitude in competition legislation that it is the abuse of a dominant position - not simply having a dominant position - that should be the target of such interventions. More often than not, those in positions of power within the media tend to emphasise their liberal attitudes and broad perspectives and to downplay the role of ownership in general, arguing that the real power belongs to the content producers (the journalists) or the "market" (the advertisers).
This view is mistaken - and remarkably difficult to dispel - as it fails to distinguish between power as a potential to perform an action, and the exercise, whether laudable or reproachable, of power. It is the common view that while abuse of power should obviously be contravened, power in itself is not considered a bad thing. This may be true generally, but in terms of democracy and pluralism, as well as freedom of expression and opinion, it is crucial to note this distinction as such seemingly theoretical definitions of terminology may guide the entire approach to governmental regulations and interventions.
This hinges upon the circumstance that, in a political structure where different actors in a society should be given equal opportunity to exercise influence, the power itself is at the centre of political life.
If a group occupies a position of power, one that allows it to control sources of communication and therefore the dissemination of information and knowledge, this power would become increasingly concentrated in a way that a broader and more democratic division of control would not. Of course, one cannot assume that all powerful players abuse their power. The problem is one of potential and risk, not necessarily a problem of actual abuse. But this does not make the problem of abuse of power more theoretical or hypothetical. On the contrary, most discussions on constitutional matters, human rights and other principles for governing society deal with the construction of systems for distribution of power and the opening up of possibilities for individuals and groups to exert influence within society. It is clear, therefore, that it is the structure underlying the distribution of power that requires examination rather than the solely the allegations of abuses of such power.
The problem of media concentration is thus more constructively analysed as an issue of risk assessment and risk prevention rather than a problem of finding fault in the specific exercise of power. The big media owners are successful in market terms and this leads to the assumption that they are skilful and broad-minded in the handling of their businesses. Their success is also often justified by the quality of their products, both in terms of content and consumer response.
The problems arising from a concentration of the media are not black-and-white; they are, like most complex situations, a matter of degree. A demand for "proof" of the evils of media concentration will inevitably lead to a simplistic approach. Such an approach will - despite its desire for rationality - beg the question: is it ever possible to present proof that is uncontroversial or even remotely objective?
Now, if the problem of media concentration is a problem of risk, or power, is not the above-mentioned definition of the problem as a problem of content obfuscated?
It does complicate the problem, that is true, but basically it does not change the question. If media concentration concerns the organisation of content-provision, organisational or structural matters come in the foreground from either perspective as organisation informs power structures. Many aspects of a company’s structure can influence content: ownership, internal organisations, supply relationships, other kinds of economic relations and even, of course, personal relations.
As analysis has clearly demonstrated, the relationships between these kinds of power and media concentration in terms of content are very complex: it is extremely difficult to predict the consequences of any kind of change in the power structure for the content. As in all human contexts, the consequences of actions are by definition unpredictable, due to the existence of choice.
What needs to be addressed, therefore, is how the structure of power in the media is related to the goal of plurality of views and perspectives. Again, the goal is not to identify malevolent media-owners, but rather to develop and implement safeguards to protect the exercise of human right of freedom of expression.
3. European efforts towards a common approach to media concentration
3.1. The Council of Europe
Monitoring and analysis
The Council of Europe bases its work in the media field on Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which deals with freedom of expression and information. Media thus come into a fundamentally political framework: it is the adoption and practice of human rights - under the supervision of an international system of sanctions - which is the basis of a democratic society. Today, the mass media are an integral part of this system of freedom of expression, and unless freedom of expression is a reality in each Member State of the Council, the democratic ideals of the organisation are in jeopardy.
The Council of Europe has played a role in achieving a certain level of common European legislation through a set of conventions adopted by the Member States. Within the media field there are also certain conventions - the best known is probably the Convention on Transfrontier Television adopted slightly before (and in essence a model for) the European Community Directive, Television without Frontiers.
The ambition of the Council of Europe - notably its Secretariat - is to serve as a vehicle for European harmonisation of legislation. This is rather unrealistic in light of the much stronger machinery and ambitions of the European Union. The Council seems, instead, to be increasingly functioning as an agency for policy discussions, analyses, and research. In terms of the issues addressed here, this role might turn out to be equally, or even more, important than the formal legislative activities.
The Council began its current round of deliberations on media concentration in 1989. The ambition was, as in the case of transfrontier television, to arrive at some political agreements, which would hopefully lead to common regulatory initiatives. This was obviously a motivating factor in both the Secretariat and some of the most active countries in the Council's standing media committee (CDMM).
Initially, the plan was more modest: to examine through a common framework the developments and consequences of changes in media structure and ownership within individual countries in relation to the goal of pluralism.
A series of questionnaires addressing both legal and structural issues was distributed to a number of Member States and two consultants were engaged to analyse and report the outcome of the responses to this questionnaire. A working party was set up to monitor the work and prepare the reports.
It turned out, however, that the plans to present a detailed and factual report were overly ambitious. Although the consultants presented voluminous texts, analyses, and surveys of legislation, several Member States expressed doubts about the methodology and withdrew their support for the project. Also, political resistance against any deeper investigation grew - notably the UK government constantly drew the project into doubt, denying the very existence of a media concentration problem. Thus, the comprehensive and analytic report was never published, although large manuscripts were presented to the Committee on various occasions.
The outcome of the story, thus far, is that the Council of Europe has produced studies, data and overviews pertaining to various aspects of the media concentration issue. In only one instance was a regulatory text adopted - the 1994 Recommendation on transparency. It is likely that a document on the advisability of adopting measures to deal with the negative consequences of concentration of ownership in the media will be presented in 1998.
More important, perhaps, is the construction of a monitoring mechanism within the Council. This consists of a network of national correspondents in each Member State that reports, in a standardised framework, on media structure and media regulation of relevance to the media concentration issue. A Committee of Experts of the Council analyses and develops the material supplied by the national correspondents. The Committee is commissioned to suggest possible measures to the standing media committee and other bodies of the Council, including the Conferences of Ministers, which is responsible for media policies. The Conference of Ministers has met every three years since 1988 (the last meeting was in Thessaloniki in December 1997). It is, however, a temporary body and, as such, can be abolished at any time should other issues be deemed more important.
It seems quite clear - despite concerns over the lack of "concrete results" in terms of proposals for international regulations (as if they are concrete!) - that the results of the work undertaken to date demonstrates a need for a more permanent mechanism in this field.
Though a large amount of material has been produced within this machinery already, little is accessible to the general public or to researchers, due to the tradition of restricted circulation of Council documents. Considering the great value of the material, this is regrettable. If the much needed common basis of knowledge of media structure and regulations is to be realised, the Council of Europe would likely be a very important partner, provided it was willing to sacrifice some of its outdated diplomatic traditions of secrecy. There are, however, some recent signs of a shift towards greater openness. It is difficult to understand why the Council - which enjoys much prestige through a permanent body, the European Court of Human Rights - is so hesitant to permanently engage in the monitoring of mass media pluralism, which is of central importance within democratic societies today. A comparison with another international body might be useful: the OECD regards the monitoring of issues of economic importance its core activity and devotes the major part of its resources to this work.
3.2. The European Union
The European Community, later the European Union, approaches media issues from a different perspective than the Council of Europe: the EC views it from a position of economic integration and the establishment of a European internal market. This, however, does not preclude rivalry between the two organisations, as demonstrated in the case of transfrontier television regulation.
The European Parliament, since the end of the 1980s, called for initiatives to curtail the growing concentration of ownership in the media. This originally came from German Social Democrats and printers’ trade unions. The Commission responded to these initiatives by issuing, at the end of 1992, a "Green Paper" on Pluralism and Media Concentration in the Internal Market. After a lengthy period of consultations, debates and considerable lobbying from major transnational and national media groups (European Publishers Council, EPC), Commissioner Mario Monti was prepared in July 1996 to present the text for a directive to his colleagues.
The text was widely, though unofficially, made known both to Member States and journalists. At a 4 September 1996 meeting, however, the Commissioners turned the project down, asking for amendments. Subsequent versions became known in the spring of 1997. Since then, the discussion has continued and no agreement has been reached, although some versions of Mr Monti's project were supported by the powerful German Commissioner Bangemann.
In August 1997 the process took a new course as German Chancellor Helmut Kohl dispatched a letter to the Chairman of the Commission expressing his resistance to the entire project of common regulation, arguing that it is a matter for national legislation. Pressure from media industry lobbying groups has also continued. At present, the prospect of a common European agreement looks rather bleak, although the Commission continues to work on the project, and its officials continue to express optimism regarding adoption of such an initiative, despite frequent rumours, possibly disseminated by lobby groups, to the contrary. If a draft directive is proposed, years of negotiation will inevitably follow. The adoption of legal texts in Member States is not likely to take place less than ten years following the introduction of initiatives. (In the case of Sweden, any adoption of restrictions on press, cable radio and television ownership will likely require an amendment to the constitutional laws on freedom of the press and freedom of expression before any special legislation could be adopted.)
The Commission claims that the existing texts are irrelevant to today’s media environment although they still contain many options for regulations developed in the intra-commission talks. They were constructed upon two rather simple principles:
1. The maximum share of audience permitted to a single media organisation in radio or television should be 30 %.
2. The amalgamated share of radio, television and newspaper audience/readership should not exceed 10 %.
A general clause of exemption should apply to media companies exceeding the thresholds only in one country, thus catering to the interests of nationally dominant, but not Europe-wide, participants. For brevity, I do not intend to provide details here.
One alternative to a directive on ownership might be to promote transparency of media ownership, rather than regulating maximum shares. The "common position" on a directive regarding a transparency mechanism for Information Society services reached at the 27 November 1997 Council of Internal Market Ministers might serve as a model for a similar development in relation to the media concentration issue.
Then, once again, the EU would effectively be following in the footsteps of its weaker rival in European co-operation, the Council of Europe. Although the outcome might seem rather modest as compared to the initial ambitions, one should not be too dismissive: the limited success of formal legislation in this field to date may demonstrate that other means of tackling the issue are more effective.
4. Overview of European policies and regulations on media concentration and pluralism
Political debates on media concentration have mostly centred on introducing statutory measures, legislative regulations or other kinds of prescriptions adopted by public bodies.
It is, however, crucial to any realistic perspective on the policies and regulations of media concentration that the definition of regulation be broadened. It is true that "land shall be governed by law", and it is true that interventions in the media sector should be permitted only on a basis of equitable treatment of the media, without regard to political affiliations or tendencies. It is also true that in most democratic states the adoption of legislation is the usual method of establishing procedures of public governance.
But this should not be taken to imply that the adoption of regulations is the only, or even the most effective, way of coming to grips with problems of media concentration. Quite the opposite might in fact be the case: it is crucial to analyse and evaluate the actual function of legislation in this context without prejudice. Indeed, the German media researcher Gerd Kopper's rather cynical description of the relationship between the political sphere, legislation and the media as a "drama of expectations" might to a great degree be confirmed by the experience of existing legislation in some European countries. Laws are enacted for a number of reasons other than those stated. They serve the purpose of demonstrating action in the political sphere in order to persuade voters or dissatisfied groups that something has been done even when a law does nothing to alter existing oligopolistic or even monopolistic structures.
The creation of European Union has led to widespread belief in regulations, precisely address new situations resulting from liberalisation, privatisation and international economic integration. The primary instrument of the Union is, of course, regulation, either harmonising national laws through directives or in some cases implementing direct regulations. Although the Union has far-reaching ambitions to influence the economic structure through new regulations, this is possible only to a limited extent. Other factors might easily overtake regulations adopted after a pain-staking process of negotiation in the EU framework.
Therefore, it is crucial to consider alternatives to regulatory action. Governments also govern by creating organising authorities, by making various decisions on a day-to-day basis, by allocating money and other resources, by devising taxation systems, by simply monitoring developments and by influencing public opinion. Private actors might on the other hand also choose to adapt themselves to demands which are not only of an economic nature. For example, they may withhold from action on some occasions, collectively or individually.
Policies on media concentration could be categorised as follows:
3. Economic interventions
4. Transparency measures
5. Organizational measures
These categories cannot be kept completely distinct: restrictions, in terms of regulations, might, for example, play a part in most of the other categories, and any kind of political measure, including regulations, requires some degree of organisational follow-up.
Restrictions might be of two distinct categories: statutory (regulations) or voluntary. Theoretically, all kinds of regulations laid down by public authorities might be replaced by restrictions agreed upon by the actors or competitors in the particular sector (all things being equal). In practice, however, restrictions tend mostly to be of a statutory nature. One reason is that competition regulations normally presuppose that actors in the market do not attempt to make agreements that restrict full-fledged competition. The legislative [??] motivation may be very noble, such as the aspiration to develop pluralism in the media sector.
Most countries’ constitutions include references to freedom of expression and of information and, at least indirectly, the necessity to uphold pluralism in the mass media. Some constitutions also include an obligation for the state to supply a basic amount of information to their citizens (the German Grundversorgungspflicht).
Most countries apply competition legislation to the media sector. Some exceptions are, however, to be noted. US legislation authorises certain kinds of co-operation between newspapers. The EU Merger Regulation provides an exemption for reasons of the "plurality of the media" from the exclusive right of Community institutions to regulate mergers between companies, which has reached a "European" dimension.
Sweden's special constitutional laws of freedom of the press and of expression have generally been interpreted as prohibiting any interference in the freedom of establishment - including acquisitions of companies - in the press and cable sectors.
A number of countries have quantitative restrictions to media control based on the number of channels (Italy, Portugal, Spain, Sweden), the share of audience (UK, Germany, France), the share of circulation or absolute circulation in the press sector (France, UK), the share of foreign holdings (Poland), and the shares held in one channel (Norway), or the right to vote (Sweden). These types of restrictions may pertain to one kind of media outlet or may be constructed as restrictions of certain combinations of ownership (e.g. Italy, UK, Sweden).
Some countries have general clauses regarding media holdings (Norway), others allow considerations of a general nature (the "public interest") to influence decisions in licensing procedures (Germany, UK).
4.2.2. Voluntary agreements
In the field of media ownership and structure it is rare to have voluntary agreements between the actors regarding mergers of companies. In the Netherlands national press, however, an agreement has been made among media owners not to exceed a maximum share of one third in the national press. Of course, various tacit agreements on market division might be included in this kind of restriction. However, the decision not to compete to the bitter end - though it deeply affects media structure - is not usually regarded as a means of promoting pluralism but rather the opposite since it cements the local monopolies. Systems for reducing costs of distribution by co-operation between competitors also exist - in Sweden this kind of distribution is subsidised by the state.
It might also be worth mentioning that the tradition of establishing an agreement between the owner and the journalists on the independence of the editorial staff from the owner exists in several countries (such as Austria, Belgium, Germany, Norway). This limits the margin of action of the owner to some degree and helps to promote a kind of pluralism within a specific organisation. In some cases (such as Belgium), when a newspaper or magazine is purchased the new owner negotiates with the staff.
This term may not be the happiest choice of words; it is meant to cover efforts and systems that provide the public with alternatives to the free-market or commercial media outlets.
4.3.1. Public service radio and television
The early model of radio and television monopolies in Europe was consciously designed as a counterweight to commercial systems in the US and the prevailing free market in the press. Authorities and politicians generally did not trust the commercial sector to provide news that was reasonably free from bias. It is clear, also, that states felt a certain reluctance to give free reign to the new media, which were felt to have a much stronger impact than the older media, such as the press and books.
Since the resources (frequencies) for broadcasting were scarce until rather recently, there were other good reasons for introducing general licensing systems and public financing (licence fees) for radio and television. In authoritarian or dictatorial regimes much effort was, for obvious reasons, expended in arguing that pluralism was not important. As a whole, however, pluralism in these media was not really an issue until the expansion of media outlets and broadcasting after World War II. Mostly, the state monopolies were of an official or semi-official nature and for this reason were not permitted to be bias in their perspectives. Following the development of new media resources (the FM-band, more television frequencies etc.), public regulation gradually emphasised an obligation to reflect different opinions and views. As private operators were let into most European radio and television sectors in the 1970s and, abundantly, in the 1980s, the objective of pluralism, catering to universal access, minority opinions and groups and independence of private financing (i.e., non-profit principles) became overriding. It was at this point that the need for ”counterweights” was fully recognised.
"Counterweight" does not, in most countries, mean independent of commercial financing: in most public service systems advertising was judged to be a legitimate source of income - thus, of course, establishing direct competition between public and private operators in the advertising market. The additional income from licence fees, regulations prescribing unbiased reporting of news, diversified programme content and a genuine independence from political and private interests are the pillars upon which the public service system rests.
Generally speaking, the meaning of public service broadcasting has changed from an early "classic" (British) conception, where it was understood as a framework for the entire system of broadcasting, involving different assignments, sources of financing, owners etc. - all viewed from the position of the "public interest". Today, public service broadcasting is instead regarded as one particular media sector, differentiated from the commercial, privately owned sector. Moreover, public service broadcasting (no one talks of other kinds of public service media - so far) is today linked to specific companies, institutions or channels, not to the intervention of public authorities to promote a certain kind of programme content independently of the broadcaster. Despite some proposals here and there to emphasise content rather than the institutional aspects of the public responsibility for broadcasting and the promotion of independent productions, the general attitude toward public service broadcasting has not changed.
All countries in Europe have - though following different forms in nearly all aspects of operation (ownership, financing, regulation, supervision, independence from public authorities) - some kind of broadcasting that falls under the heading of public service. The model example is, of course, the BBC, despite its being rather exceptional in a number of ways, i.e., it is nearly entirely financed by licence fees. A kind of ultimate blessing of the idea of public broadcasting is part of both the "protocol" to the Amsterdam Treaty (constituting the revised Treaty of Rome of the European Union), and in a declaration of the media ministers of the Council of Europe at the Prague conference in December 1994.
4.3.2. Non-profit (community) radio and television
In addition to the public service sector (in the narrower sense described above), there is non-profit community radio and television, which is sometimes also regarded as a counterweight to the commercial structure. Available radio frequencies are sometimes set aside for this sector (e.g. in France and Sweden), consequently offering a smaller number of frequencies for the commercial and public service sectors. Conditions and regulations vary considerably in this sector in a number of respects other than just frequency allocations.
4.3.3. Internet facilities
Although "public service" normally refers only to broadcasting, basic Internet services, such as those offered by many countries through the educational system, might be considered a new field for a public service media intervention. These kinds of services do, in effect, often involve an element of public subsidy, thereby marking the Internet as some kind of public domain. This will likely change as the Internet gradually becomes more of a distributor of commercial services and, therefore, a marketplace itself.
4.3.4. Cultural policies
Cultural policies may also be viewed as remedies for "market failures" and therefore fall under the heading of "counterweights". Obviously, cultural institutions play an important role for the media sector by supplying productions, facilities, training etc. Conversely, media policies as such might also be included in a wider notion of cultural policies; one common aim for these policies in a democratic society is to ensure a broad range of expression of values, opinions, criticism etc.
4.4. Economic promotion
In international discussions indirect and general subsidies are generally looked upon more favourably than direct and selective ones. The reasoning behind this is rather simple: selective and direct subsidies are often judged to be subject to political and other kinds of manipulation.
Actually the picture is more complex, and the balance of "pluralism profit" between these approaches is not easy to establish. The general subsidies approach normally means that the major share of the money goes to those who are already strong on the market, therefore having negative repercussions for the goal of pluralism.
In fact, cases where subventions have a proven effect on pluralism - at least by the preservation of some competition in the press sector (Norway and Sweden) - seem to be characterised by a strategy of direct and selective (though based on general criteria) subsidies.
4.4.1. Indirect support
Indirect subventions to the media sector are also primarily of a general nature, awarded to an entire category of media companies or products. Most European countries provide some kind of tax breaks to the mass media sector, such as reduced VAT rates for books or dailies. In France, there is tax relief for journalists. In countries where postal and telecommunication tariffs are still under control of the state (Belgium, Switzerland), there are reductions of relevant tariffs.
4.4.2. Direct subventions
Direct and selective support to the production of daily newspapers exists in Finland, Norway and Sweden and, on a smaller scale, Austria, France and Italy. Selectivity is normally regulated by way of general criteria, such as the level of market share in an area, profitability of the product etc.
A direct, but not selective, subvention is given for the distribution of the daily subscription press in Sweden and France.
Development contributions are often considered a more "neutral" way of subsidising media companies. Such contributions exist in several countries (for example, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden).
A somewhat original system of supporting, by subvention, co-operation between the daily newspapers was recently proposed in Sweden. This kind of support might prima facie seem in direct opposition to pluralism since it aims at eliminating some elements of competition. However, the idea was to facilitate co-operation in all fields of activities, except the central core of editorial material. Obviously, competition in advertising, distribution or in other important economic aspects might force a media outlet out of business. Competition, therefore, can be seen as detrimental to pluralism. In Sweden, the state subventions to newspapers presuppose co-operation between competing newspapers in terms of distribution. On the regulatory level, US legislation tolerates some exemptions from competition legislation, for our purposes, to press companies.
Transparency is sometimes viewed as goal in and of itself and sometimes as a means to achieve the aim of pluralism in the media.
Transparency is conceptually related to the notion of power or control, because to a certain degree power rests on some superiority of information, which must not be transmitted to competitors. Complete openness can mean a lack of power, for any person in any social context.
The link between the concepts of transparency and control was studied in a report to the European Commission in the course of the preparation of a project for a directive on media ownership. The outcome of that study was a generalised approach to the control of media companies, taking into consideration not only formal ownership of the media but also other aspects of power. Accordingly, transparency of control in the media should include a whole spectrum of factors of influence, such as agreements, financial dependence, programme supply relations etc.
From the point of view of an "ideal" market economy, transparency, or complete knowledge, strengthens the power of the consumer in relation to the supplier: only when consumers know exactly what the supplier is offering can they make the best or most ”rational” choice.
4.5.1. Why transparency?
In general terms, this question has already been answered: the consumer - also a consumer of the mass media - has an interest in knowing as much as possible about the product, including the background and interests of the producer or supplier, in order to make the most informed choice. But there are also other reasons of a more political nature. They might be broken down into the following two subcategories:
Basis for regulation
The public interest, pointing in some cases to a need for some intervention in the media market, must be linked to an assessment of power, in real terms. It is pointless, for example, to regulate or intervene in the practices of a company or group of companies if it is not based on a genuine knowledge of who is actually in control.
General requirement of public information regarding the exercise of power in a democratic society
Since the media are, in most contemporary democracies, instruments for the exercise of and struggles for power, the public must have at least a minimum of information regarding the underlying interests that are inevitably expressed in the media that influences it.
4.5.2. Methods of promoting transparency
Just as in other cases of intervention in the media sector, there are both voluntary (e.g., agreements on statistics and other data on audience shares) and statutory regulatory methods of intervention.
Both of these methods are subject to either a more "passive-prohibitive" or a more active-researching approach. Also, any method can be more general, applicable to all businesses or associations, or more specific, applicable only within the media sector.
The recommendation of the Council of Europe on transparency in the media sector (1994) specifies a framework for transparency in terms of possible methods. Generally speaking, however, it is clear that the degree and scope of transparency depends largely on the political will of the authorities within individual countries.
General statutory transparency regulations
Most countries prescribe some degree of disclosure of ownership of all publicly held companies. Some restrict this openness to companies registered on a stock exchange; others apply a more general approach to all companies. The transparency can be geared to the needs of public authorities or to the general public at large. Media companies are, as a rule, included in this general regulation. Effectively, however, the degree of transparency varies considerably, and the difficulties might be classified under a rather small set of categories.
Special rules for the media
A number of special rules apply to media companies in Europe, such as a requirement in the newspaper industry to publish the name of the owner, the editor-in-chief, the executive director etc. Though many countries mandate that the name of the editing company be provided in newspapers, for example, this does not always establish genuine transparency. Company names might, in many cases, reveal little about the real interests behind the product and might require considerable effort to gain such knowledge. Some countries also require the inclusion of data on the circulation or reach of a particular media product within the product itself.
A special case is the award of concessions or licences in radio and television. Normally, the government or some subordinate agency is responsible for such decisions. It goes without saying that in these cases transparency is much easier to establish than in a free market situation where no licence conditions prevail. Most European countries enforce licence systems for radio and television, irrespective of their forms of distribution. There are, however, exceptions. One interesting example is that in Sweden, licensing is the exception rather than the rule (although it nonetheless has a vast influence on the market).
A variety of difficulties may also arise in structures based on concessions. One case would be a company that is, by agreement or economic dependence, linked to a group organising a network (Slovenia's "Pop TV" is referred to as an example) controlled by a non-concession holder. The change of ownership might be differently regulated and sanctioned. The Swedish case of change of control over the - thus far - single terrestrial commercial television channel (TV 4) may illustrate another kind of difficulty. In the end, neither sanctions in law nor licence conditions prevented the major Swedish media group from taking control of the channel - and less than one year after the new licence was awarded to another constellation of owners!
As a whole, the system of concessions - in light of the development of new forms of distribution by digital means (Internet, digital terrestrial and/or satellite, other kinds of networks) - might not be viable much longer. These developments might cause the notion of a ”channel” as we now know to become obsolete and also to radically transform transparency conditions.
"Active" means of promoting transparency
If transparency is a means of assessing power and also influencing power structures, no interested party can rely solely on formal rules obliging companies to disclose information. Information must be actively sought and retrieved, and a number of methods will need to be utilised. Research is one such means, both scientific research and other ways of systematically collecting data and documentation. Such investigation would result in the creation of databases, registers, statistics, various publications, schemes of comparison etc. It is noteworthy that the EU, in its preparatory work for a directive, presupposes that each member state should be capable of assessing and monitoring issues of media ownership within its own borders.
A number of countries have editorial statutes that guarantee some knowledge among editorial staff of the interests and ownership issues within a particular company. To my knowledge, Norway is the only country where such a statute does not yet exist although such a law is currently pending in the legislature.
Representation of the editorial staff on boards of media companies is rather common in European countries. This access to information may, in some cases, lead to a leakage of information to certain portions of the public, but it rarely provides real transparency to the public at large or even to the relevant authorities. Also, matters of critical importance will, obviously, often be addressed behind closed doors.
4.5.3. Difficulties for transparency
Some types of difficulties regarding the issue of transparency occur within all sectors of the business community. For example:
• The general secrecy of business partners' internal agreements in a company: though ownership may give certain information on the control in a company, agreements might result in quite different actual relations of power and strategic decision-making.
Others are more specific for the media sector:
• It might be difficult to determine, with an acceptable degree of impartiality, who effectively controls a company as media companies are often involved in complex partnerships, alliances etc. The German legislation and prescriptions on minimal shares in television companies when calculating audience shares - determining maximum number of licences - is illustrative in its complications. This may be one of the stumbling blocks for the passage of an EU directive.
• Similarly, statistics on audience share are notoriously complex and unreliable, and therefore transparency regulation built on such data will be correspondingly problematic.
4.6. Monitoring and authorities
The monitoring of the media, looking at issues of encouraging pluralism and media concentration, by an institution or authority, might be considered an ”active” method by which to promote transparency as described above. It might, however, constitute a mechanism itself, as it will be a key component within many other approaches.
Competition authorities in most countries are also responsible for the media sector. Sweden is an interesting exception due a legal conflict between the constitutional freedom of expression - which includes absolute freedom to establish a media company (press or cable) and publish anything legally permitted - on the one hand, and the desire to prevent monopolisation, on the other.
Competition regulation is viewed quite differently within countries that not only include the media within the scope of their regulatory responsibilities, but also have introduced specifically strict regulations for this industry. The majority of European states have introduced regulatory bodies and some restrictions on ownership in order to promote competition and/or pluralism in radio and television. Some of these countries are: Belgium, Germany (with the recently established KEK), France, Italy (which is in the course of establishing a new authority that also supervises telecom companies), Norway (which is also setting up its media pluralism authority), Portugal (with its Alta Autoritade), and the UK (with its strong institutions). Most Eastern and Central European states have radio and television "councils" responsible for the allocation of licences.
Regulations for the press are normally supervised by other public agencies (as in the case of France and the UK), while other countries (Norway and Italy) adopt industry-wide policies.
International organisations have played an important role in the monitoring process for some time. In fact, national measures have often been inspired by international discussions in this field. As described above, the Council of Europe - in accordance with its remit in the field of human rights - has long felt an obligation to examine, analyse and discuss measures to counter monopolistic tendencies in the media. The European Commission has clearly also demonstrated a desire to act as a monitoring agency in this field, by promoting analysis and resistance to monopolisation, although its broader goals of implementing regulations have been, to date, unrealised.
On the global level, Unesco has taken steps to monitor developments, although this organisation still suffers from the consequences of the political controversy over the mass media in the 1970s and 80s, which led to the withdrawal of the US and UK from the organisation as mentioned earlier.
Non-governmental bodies such as the European Institute for the Media and various bodies within the university sector also participate in what could develop into a kind of monitoring network.
5. Conclusion: Nationalistic media policies at the end of the 1990s
Trends and developments in the era of convergence
Professor Karl Erik Gustafsson of Göteborg University has observed that media policies of the last decade have taken a somewhat ironic, albeit not unpredictable, turn. During a time when Europe is seeking to integrate its economic activities - as a basis for a union in a vast number of fields - when global economic integration makes national frontiers less and less important and states gradually less powerful in economic terms, national media policies seem to emphasise the role of national media companies. "Our" companies become subject to protection and oversight by national governments - even at the cost of pluralism on the national level. There are two consequences, observable in a number of legal contexts and international forums, to this attitude.
First, the national tolerance of concentration of already powerful actors increases: in some countries (UK, Germany, France), maximum market shares have increased, and generally the attentiveness to the concerns of the major players in the media field also has expanded. Effectively, this might lead to shrinking pluralism in the media on a national level or at least to a reduced number of controllers of media companies. Whether this will be accompanied by requests for a higher level of "internal pluralism" in the media remains to be seen.
Second, resistance to international regulation of media concentration, after a period of consideration, has grown. Some have argued that this kind of regulation (notably in the EU) might only serve the interests of the already dominant individuals. Conversely, some argue - as Chancellor Kohl did in the letter to the President of the European Commission - that international regulations would obstruct the natural growth and consolidation of successful and profitable media corporations, to the detriment of European competitiveness (in relation to the US and Japan).
Reports produced by the Swedish Council for Pluralism in the Media 1995-1997 (Available in Swedish on http://www.regeringen.se/info_rosenbad/departement/kultur/mangfald/).
The following titles (given in English translation) are available:
1 What is media concentration?
2 Media concentration - a bibliography
3 Swedish media owners
4 Private local radio
5 Freedom of expression, constitutional legislation and media concentration
6 Swedish journalists on pluralism and media
7 DN Debatt
8 Television in Sweden
9 Music, Mass media and Pluralism
Official report to the Government on ownership in the Swedish media 1997 (SOU 1997:92).
Gustafsson, Karl Erik (Ed.): Media Structure and the State. Concepts, Issues, Measures. Göteborg 1995.
Sanchez Tabernero, A. et al.: Media concentration in Europe. Commercial enterprise and the Public Interest. European Institute for the Media, Manchester 1993.
Van Loon, A: International synthesis on the economic, political and legal aspects of media pluralism, concentration and competition. (Includes bibliography) IViR and Unesco 1993.
Council of Europe documents
Study on media concentrations in Europe. Consultant report containing a legal and an economic analysis. (Unfinished working paper - one version numbered CDMM (92)8)
Documents from the Prague Ministerial Conference 1994 MCM 94 (1-25) in particular the report on media concentration which also contains a list of working documents prepared for the Committee.
Report on media concentrations and pluralism in Europe. MM-CM (97) 6
Compilation of national reports on media concentrations (provisional version). MM-CM (97) 10 rev
European Union Documents
Pluralism and Media Concentrations in the Internal Market COM (92) 480 final, Dec. 23 1992. "The Green Paper".
La transparence dans le contrôle des médias (rédigé par Philippe Mounier and Serge Robillard). Report submitted to the European Commission by the European Institute for the Media, Düsseldorf 1994.