Mr Juncker: pick one Commissioner for communications, another for the media sector
In the coming weeks, Jean-Claude Juncker faces the challenge to match profiles, portfolios and country ambitions with the needs of EU citizens. One is to communicate the EU message better; another is to ensure a sustainable industry strategy for the fragile media sector. Mr Juncker shouldn’t confuse these two, writes Christophe Leclercq.
Christophe Leclercq is founder of EurActiv, and has actively defended a strong and independent media sector across Europe since EurActiv’s launch. He writes in personal capacity.
Dear Mr Juncker, dear President-designate of the European Commission 2014-2019,
You have to allocate portfolios to Commissioners-designate, during summer weeks, building a cohesive team ready for greater public impact. Communication at large will remain a challenge, as always, and the EU elections campaigns have shown limited progress there.
In line with the Council's five strategic priorities, you consider clustering main EU policies under some vice-presidents. To support your mandate, to engage national public opinions, you could improve the organisation of the Commission services for EU communication, while re-grouping separately the policies sustaining an independent media sector.
The EU needs a healthier media sector, firstly at national level
The media sector, for all its economic weaknesses and shortcomings, is indispensable for Europe. No democratic setup ever survived without a healthy press. The EU is no different, but its 'fourth estate' is fragile. As channels to and from countries’ public debate, Europe needs sustainable and independent media that is able to challenge and engage, not just snipe or neglect. California-based social media or Anglo-Saxon agencies or titles could help, but are not sufficient. So: how can we sustain the media debate on EU policies that national governments experience?
Rather than Brussels ex-nihilo creations, existing national and regional media should first and foremost be networked, more than is the case today. Given the sector's dual (technological and financial) crisis, further concentration is inevitable, also across borders. Let's anticipate and accompany this change, rather than lose to others yet another European sector. The last thing we want is fully subsidized media or, worse, official EU media. Diversified revenue models ensure independence, and therefore credibility, with citizens. Corporate clients have a major role to play, and non-profit organisations can fill in ‘market gaps’ like less fashionable topics or smaller languages.
In addition to outreach services interacting with journalists every day, there are two ways to encourage greater media involvement in the EU. Targetted policies will help independent media survive in Europe, such as acceptable conditions for marketing, taxes, venture capital, plus cutting red tape. Secondly, but only when appropriate, partial public support or simply better procurement strategies will help. The former is handled by the media department of the Directorate-General (DG) CONNECT (Network, Content & Technology) and related units of other DGs like Internal Market (MARKT) or Education & Culture (EAC). Altogether, six DGs deal with the media sector, compounding the ‘silo thinking’ that your Commission rightly intends to tackle. The latter, however useful funding would be, will always be slightly controversial, just like state-owned media or national press support schemes. What is required, combining elements of both, is an overall EU media industrial policy. A ‘media sector strategy’ for paranoiacs fearing state-planning undertones.
What are the main outreach 'building blocks'?
Obviously, the spokesperson's service deals with short term press relations; the DG Communications (COMM) with its 'Rep Offices' prepares the ground in 28 countries. Other organisations support EU debates in the national public spheres: the governments and the European Parliament. To give them a less legalistic sense of purpose, one could add the joint Transparency and Citizen Initiatives or the Commission's language services (Translation and Interpretation). Overall, media ‘spin’ and positive selling (dubbed ‘propaganda’ by critics) will not convey a new course or get citizens interested before 2019.
Pool short and medium term: Commissioners' press presence, and communications
Mr Juncker, a fellow Member should represent the Commission, not just an official: why not pick an articulate and multilingual Commissioner to be your media star, and also to supervise DG COMM? One temptation may be for you and your own cabinet to lead this, but would you have the time and focus required? Your collège must be a team, and there should be one Commissioner that you trust for this, even more than others.
Combining press representation and communications would also help overcome the usual tensions between the publicity urges of your colleagues, Brussels communicators, and country offices. Also, DG COMM would no longer feel like an orphan lumped with unrelated departments. Moreover, rather than keeping the numerous translators and interpreters as staff functions to you as president, bring them all into a horizontal family of departments. For example, call all these function the 'Citizens cluster'.
Media policies and funded projects independent from communications
For several years, central and sector communicators have tried to compensate media deficiencies by creating their own channels. Some of these EU-owned media projects are dead or challenged, like Presseurop, which DG COMM could not renew while respecting media independence, and EuroparlTV, the Parliament’s web TV that will likely phase out after 2014 (See: page 16 of 2011 annual discharge or Mediapart: 'European media: the maze of public financing'). Other EU-supported media serve a purpose, but could do with more open evaluations and stricter independence (beyond 'editorial charters'), therefore more interest from the public. My recommendation is to move such projects and contracts to a sectorial DG, not a functional one. Just as the MEDIA programme (supporting Europe's film industry) is not managed by DG COMM.
Funding is available and could be re-purposed
EU institutions do spend vast amounts on communication consultancies, mostly under various unrelated policies, contracted without thinking of the media industry's structure: many PR consultants pursuing few under-funded journalists... Institutional websites and ad campaigns trying to reach citizens from Brussels are also expensive, more than decentralized media campaigns would be, if led by the ‘Rep Offices’. At the same time, EU officials lament the lack of media attention, starting from the dwindling Brussels press corps. Let's not throw out the baby with the bath water. Ask yourself: couldn’t some of this money be better spent? Some guidelines, tool boxes, framework contracts and independent boards could improve value-for-money while respecting media ethics.
What is more, funds are available under the Research & Innovation Framework Programme, to help media (and others) harness social media and finally cope with language barriers. This tendering is highly competitive, and used to respecting autonomy of the consortia, while evaluating impact: would fit media projects well.
A Commissioner for the media sector, as part of a normal cluster
Mr Juncker, DG COMM and the spokesperson's service will have plenty on their plate during your presidency. Your colleagues also use phones, planes and cars to reach citizens: are these sectors' policies supported by communications officials? Recent initiatives like the High Level Group on media pluralism and the EU Media Futures Forum were well intentioned, but did they lead to action?
The EU media sector deserves its own industry strategy, based mainly on policies plus more efficient procurement and co-funding in certain cases. This cannot be achieved by DG COMM and its contracts, plus few inter-service and inter-institutional meetings. This could be led by either the CONNECT or the EAC Commissioner, probably the former given the digitalization challenge, as part of a wider group of Commissioners. Separate from the 'Citizens cluster' on communications, this industrial strategy for the media sector would fit perfectly in your new policy clusters.
 Note for the sake of transparency: EurActiv's 12 country network has benefited from such R&D co-funding, among others, based on competitive calls for proposals.