EU parliament hosts battle on future of public broadcasting
While the pendulum in the financial world may have swung toward the importance of government and regulation, in the realm of European broadcasting and online content, a free-market versus public-service dust-up is just getting going in Brussels.
The players in the epic contest are, in one corner, public broadcasters such as the BBC or Germany's ZDF, and, in the other corner, commercial broadcasters tag-teaming with private print and online publishers.
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The field of battle is a consultation, launched last November, on a draft revision of the 2001 European Commission communication on state aid to public broadcasters. The communication is to set out how the commission will interpret state aid rules to public broadcasting.
On Thursday (5 March), the two sides gathered in the European Parliament in Brussels to put their case to MEPs in the culture committee.
Private broadcasters have long complained that their public counterparts are producing little more than imitations of commercial content, and are hoping that the communication will see public broadcasters reined in at the EU level back to production of what they claim is their raison d'etre - "quality programming."
The Association of Commercial Television in Europe, representing the private sector channels, says that the public broadcasting remit "must insist on distinctive content" and that to ensure this, "long-established EU Treaty rules on state aid should be applied."
There is a "huge structural advantage of one party receiving guaranteed state financing on a multi-annual perspective," Ross Biggam, the director-general of the ACT, told the MEPs.
"There is a funding gap in favour of the publicly-funded sector," he added.
Under the "current economic conditions ...it is disingenous for [public broadcasters] to argue ...that the private sector wishes to have the digital future all for itself at a time when the publicly-funded model is so much more secure than the commercial sector."
Publishers meanwhile are horrified that with the advent of the internet, there has been "an increasing tendency of public broadcasters to migrate to the internet."
With their news webpages and dozens of themed websites, the BBC and their colleagues are, according to the European Publishers' Council, "becoming in many cases publicly funded online newspaper or magazine publishers in direct competition with our own web-based services."
Raising the spectre of Pravda or Izvestia - organs of Soviet-era propaganda - they warn that governments have no mandate to produce newspapers or magazines, whether in print or online.
Public broadcasters however rubbish the idea that something like BBC online is any more a mouthpiece for the UK government than its television or radio stations are, and say that the division between television, print and online is disappearing. To restrict their online activities is to leave them in an "analogue ghetto" as more and more citizens - particularly young people - are accessing their media via the internet.
"The new broadcasting communication should avoid any distinction between 'old' and 'new' media," said the European Broadcasting Union in a statement. "Instead, it should apply the principle of technological neutrality."
Underscoring that public service broadcasting is needed to deliver quality journalism, "original European fiction" and ensure audiovisual access to major sporting events for all citizens, not just those that can afford to watch them, the public broadcasters say their mission "should be defined in relation to the needs of society and not in relation to the market."
The public defenders are not confident they will win this contest, however.
"It's not so much the private broadcasters, but the publishers that are the real enemy of public broadcasting," Marit Ingves, of the Nordic Public Broadcasters, told EUobserver. "The private broadcasters don't have a problem with all online activities, they just want it restricted somewhat."
"But the publishers want to kill off entirely everything we do online," she said. "And it looks like [information society commissioner] Reding has really come down on their side."
"I'm not optimistic, but it is just shocking that they are still sticking to this free-market mantra after everything that's happened in the financial world these last few months," she said.
Nevertheless, the member states have largely taken the side of the public broadcasters, who argue that a one-size-fits-all approach does not work for every EU country, particularly smaller nations, where per capita funding of culture and information is much more expensive than in the larger countries.