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[Paolo Cesarini, Christophe Leclercq, Maria Joao Rodrigues] Europe needs a democracy commissioner

By Korea Herald

Published : June 7, 2024 - 05:30

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When European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen took office in December 2019, she established a “new push for European democracy” as one of her six policy priorities. After the European Parliament elections on June 6-9, one of the biggest threats to democracy still needs to be adequately addressed: the risks confronting Europe’s media sector.

To be sure, EU lawmakers have taken important steps that will help safeguard media. The Digital Markets Act, limiting the power of the largest digital platforms as “gatekeepers,” and the Digital Services Act, making them more transparent and accountable, entered into force in 2022. The Artificial Intelligence Act, focusing on the development of “trustworthy” AI, and the Media Freedom Act, designed to protect media from political or economic interference, have now also been passed.

But the challenges media face remain formidable. Business models were upended by the internet, causing publishers to slash the total number of journalists; for example, 60 percent of US newspaper jobs have vanished since 1990. At the same time, online media have not fully compensated for such cuts. With the advent of AI, this trend could go into overdrive, with most journalists outside of public broadcasting thrown out of work. Meanwhile, oligarchs rule over the media landscape in many countries, and disinformation spreads like wildfire.

Bold action to safeguard and strengthen free, independent media has become urgent. A strong media sector is a pillar of any democracy -- as the EU’s Democracy Action Plan recognizes. But, for the EU mandate in 2024-29, implementing enacted legislation is not enough. The rule of law and AI guidelines do not feed journalists. The EU’s leaders must signal that they take the sustainability of news media seriously. To this end, the next European Commission should mandate a “media industrial policy,” and regroup related resources toward a directorate-general for democracy and media, overseen by a dedicated “Democracy Commissioner.”

Industrial policy does not equal state control, and it need not cost a lot. It should be viewed as the coordination of public-sector efforts to enable a strategic domain to transform itself. Europe has done this for many industries, often to great effect. A successful media industrial policy would emphasize five priorities.

First, it would foster regulation that maximizes the impact of legislation. While the recent acts are crucial, and should be transposed into national laws, it is up to regulators – including telecommunications and competition authorities -- to nurture an information ecosystem that reflects a better balance between media organizations and digital platforms.

For example, platforms should be forced to incorporate “trustworthiness indicators” into their algorithms – a step they agreed to, in principle, six years ago. This would slow the spread of fake news and boost audiences of quality content, in turn leading to higher advertising and subscription revenue for publishers and broadcasters.

Second, while research and development related to AI is relatively well-funded, the media industry will require targeted, creative thinking from all sides. The EU’s Media and Audiovisual Action Plan, still in the early stages of implementation, aims explicitly to foster more innovation in the industry. It includes the NEWS initiative, which bundles together EU actions to strengthen the news-media sector. Taking these efforts further would not necessarily cost more.

For example, the EU issues a yearly call for “Journalism Partnerships,” which are cross-border collaborations between news-media organizations, focusing on innovative business models or newsroom transformations. But this program -- which is significantly oversubscribed -- receives just 6 million euros ($6.5 million) in annual funding. In the future, funding procedures in other European Commission directorates-general should include co-labeling all EU proposals relevant to news media “NEWS.”

Third, the media industry today relies essentially on ads and subscriptions. What we need is more diverse financing, including public support for innovation, but not subsidizing journalists’ salaries, which would distort media ethics.

In supporting the media sector’s transformation, public procurement, philanthropy, and new forms of investment also have a role to play. Public agencies should shift their advertising budgets toward quality media. Philanthropy can correct market failures and complement EU programs. As for investment, reducing the cost of capital via sovereign funds could attract impact investors and help safeguard media from oligarchs. The InvestEU program should include a dedicated NEWS track.

The fourth priority is structural transformation. Within the EU and beyond, a few large platforms dominate the information and advertising ecosystem. By comparison, news publishers – which tend to confine their operations to a single country or even locality -- are tiny. An uncoordinated army of dwarfs battling an oligopoly is not sustainable.

A better approach would entail organizations sharing some costs -- especially as they shift from variable costs (like printing and physical distribution) to fixed expenses (like editors’ salaries, IT, and product launches). This can be done through cooperation, or even consolidation. While mergers within a national or local context can raise risks for pluralism and jobs, cross-border deals can strengthen all brands involved, preserve jobs, and reduce the influence of national governments. To facilitate this process, competition regulators could set targets related to pluralism (for example, preserving diverse brands as conditions for merger approvals) and encourage newsroom transformation (when allowing state aid).

Lastly, both individual and collective skills must be upgraded. Journalists must be able not only to deal with AI, but also to make the most of innovations in information-technology and marketing. Cross-border cooperation also requires institutional skills, including expertise in crucial areas of change (not least AI). Since these imperatives lie at the crossroads of education and research, public support is appropriate.

During the next EU mandate, most independent media will die or shrink, one way or another. But, if EU leaders do their jobs right, plenty can be reborn in a more resilient form.

Paolo Cesarini, Christophe Leclercq and Maria João Rodrigues

Paolo Cesarini is the director of the European Digital Media Observatory. Christophe Leclercq, a founder of Euractiv Media Network, is the chair of Europe MediaLab. Maria Joao Rodrigues, a former member of the European Parliament, is the president of the Foundation for European Progressive Studies. The views expressed here are the writers‘ own. -- Ed.

(Project Syndicate)