Member states seek to water down media rules

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The European Commission is coming under intense pressure from member states to soften its stance on state aid to public service TV channels ahead of the publication of an updated communication on state-funded broadcasting.

At a briefing in Brussels today (24 February), representatives of the European media industry came together to urge the Commission to resist growing pressure from national governments to water down proposals which could limit publicly-funded activity on new media platforms. 

The Association of Commercial Television in Europe (ACT), the Association of European Radios (AER), the European Publishers’ Council (EPC) and the German Association of Commercial Radio and Telecommunications Providers (VPTR) expressed support for the content of the EU executive’s proposal. 

In particular, the private sector is keen to see the introduction of a new test that would be used to justify new public-sector broadcasting activity. 

Public broadcasters’ ventures into new markets may be permissible, ACT Director General Ross Biggam said, but only if they correspond to the “democratic, cultural and societal needs of the population”. 

However, he stressed that publicly-funded media must not be allowed “to distort the competition existing in those markets”. 

European Publishers' Council Executive Director Angela Mills Wade warned that member states were in danger of effectively funding online newspapers with taxpayers' money. 

"Public broadcasters have not only been migrating to digital TV platforms but also to the Internet, and in many cases, morphing into online newspaper and magazine publishers – funded by the public purse – and competing head on with commercial publishers," she said. 

This distorts competition and undermines the national press, she declared, adding that it is neither in line with competition policy nor the European treaties. 

The European Broadcasting Union opposes the introduction of new rules on funding for public service broadcasters (PSBs), which it says could lead to harmonisation of PSB regulations. 

It says the current version of the communication published by the Commission is so detailed that it could "reduce the scope for member states to grant public service broadcasters a significant role in the information society". 

"The EBU strongly supports member states in their refusal to accept Commission measures which indirectly leads to a de facto European harmonisation of PSB regulations," said EBU Director General Jean Réveillon. He said the Commission's approach ignores the views of a large majority of member states, which were expressed in writing to EU Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes. 

Tobias Schmid, vice president of the German Association of Commercial Radio and Telecommunications Providers, welcomed elements of the Commission's communication, but saw scope for changes. 

"While we clearly see points which require improvement in the text, especially regarding transparency of costs, we welcome the guidance given for member states in particular with regard to ex ante scrutiny and the independent regulation. Only those will ensure that the interests of Europe's consumers will be best protected by thriving, competitive markets." 

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Trust welcomed the general spirit of the draft, but described it as "more detailed and prescriptive than necessary".

The European Commission published a draft Communication on the application of state aid rules to public service broadcasting in November 2008, in a bid to update previous rules dating from 2001. 

Private media operators are concerned that publicly-funded media are using their competitive advantage to branch out into new online and mobile media. 

Member states expressed reservations about the draft during a public consultation period, which ran until 15 January 2009. Public service broadcasters and culture ministries urged the Commission to adopt a more general approach, rather than laying down specific guidelines. 

Governments are stressing the importance of subsidiarity, but supporters of the EU executive's draft say the issue is adequately catered for in the document. 

Groups representing commercial companies broadly welcomed the Commission's proposed update of the 2001 communication, but have asked for clarity on a number of points, including the definition and scope of public service broadcasting. State aid to broadcasters is worth €22 billion per year, according to industry estimates. 

  • 5 March 2009: Public hearing on the role of public broadcasters, hosted by the European Parliament's culture and education committee.

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