Media recovery beyond regulation: a NEWS bundle across Creative Europe and Horizon, like MEDIA

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The current EU budget negotiations risk squeezing programmes like Creative Europe, with the same crumbs as before for the struggling press. In addition to GAFA regulation, and learning from MEDIA dedicated to audiovisual and film, bundling scattered efforts under NEWS could sustain the media sector’s transformation, write a group of MEPs and media experts and Christophe Leclercq.

MEPs from several political groups, plus media stakeholders and experts, write ahead of the Commission’s Digital Services Act (DSA), and the Media and Audiovisual Action Plan (MAAP).

Building on an April call by MEPs, and reflecting on debates since, help to news media clearly could be better structured. This was again underlined on October 14 at the Media4Europe event, which also attributed 5 Stars4Media Prizes for media innovations (stars4media).

The media sector is essential for democracy. It has lost one-third of its journalists since 2008, and – apart from public broadcasting – more are at risk. Media companies are “dwarfs” confronting online giants.

What they wish from Europe is firstly re-balancing the ecosystem and secondly speeding up transformation, which is called ‘capacity building’: skills and innovation.

Integrated strategy: policy and budget

The DSA will be mainly about regulating platforms, which undermine both democracy and their competitors. Fully legislating DSA will take several years (like for copyright). Disinformation is an urgent threat, despite efforts of self-governance.

Dependent on the internet, news media is doubly hit: squeezed by dominant platforms, and further weakened by the virus downturn. Change should be kick-started with existing tools: both policy and budget.

On the policy front, this is chiefly about competition law, which even US giants have to respect. Necessary concepts already come from case law and soft law, like ecosystems and sector enquiries, like gatekeepers or ‘systemic platforms’, like dynamic analysis ahead of extended dominance, and like transparency under Trust Indicators. Using them now is the duty of the Executive, already mandated by Parliament.

As for budgets, the media sector is not asking for bank-like huge bailouts. The ability to monetize, plus transformation help – on top of patchy national aids – is needed. EU funding could first learn from existing programmes, fine-tuning priorities, and bundle projects better.

Support news media like audiovisual MEDIA and platforms

Creative Europe is a flagship among the 15 Parliament priorities for the 2021-2027 budgets. It currently has three legs: culture, audiovisual, and ‘cross-sectoral’. The Commission and Parliament would like to substantially increase it. Now reflecting the news media needs would justify this.

The MEDIA programme was created in the 90’s as ‘Mesures pour Encourager le Développement de L’Industrie Audiovisuelle’. Indeed, it is – so far – not about news media, but about films and audiovisual (not even TV news), promoting European films facing Hollywood majors.

Quality information in diverse languages should be as important as culture, and a key plank of ‘rule of law’ efforts.

Google and Facebook invest in media projects a small part of the revenue they took away from the sector. This is worthwhile: each around $300 million (around half in Europe). Platforms have ulterior motives: to resist taxation and copyright. Still, they show the way: not relying on them, Europe should more than match them, over time.

NEWS bundles projects for impact and independence

Now is the time to emulate the success of MEDIA for the news media. NEWS could stand for ‘News in Europe Working Sustainably’ or ‘News in Europe Working for Society’.

Every year, the Parliament triggers up to a dozen media-related ‘pilot projects’, for a total of €5 to €15 million (2021 EP draft budget). Topics range from innovation exchanges to local press and minority languages.

In addition, Commission-triggered calls develop, from media literacy to data journalism, media ownership and tools for content sharing, fact-checking and investigations.

These projects, and a few larger ones under the R&D framework, deserve greater visibility, hence appeal and impact. They could leverage a NEWS ‘family brand’ and a NEWS strategy committee. Projects would keep their ‘first names’ and focus on light handling of medium-sized transformation grants, lowering the burden via independent selection boards.

In this cash-poor sector, equity funding via InvestEU could also play a role (as pointed out by DG CONNECT). But financial applications will remain complex to prepare, priorities in this area could be set as follow-up to NEWS projects.

So, here is the ‘political packaging’ idea initially proposed by 42 MEPs in April: bundling news-related projects into a ‘NEWS bundle’, inspired by the audiovisual MEDIA programme.

This would include Parliament-triggered pilots, plus Creative Europe’s cross-sectoral funding for independent journalism (at least €61 million over 7 years), plus news-related small parts of Horizon Europe, and InvestEU once it fully starts.

The amounts are not huge, but co-branded, they would reach a critical mass, and attract national and local media companies open for change. Based on merits, amounts could rise at the expected 2023 review point, before the next EU elections.

Creative Europe and NEWS are key under the Media Action Plan

Commissioner Breton committed to a Media and Audiovisual Action Plan (MAAP) at his Hearing, and Mrs Jourova to a Democracy Plan at her’s: they should reinforce each other.

We hope that MAAP will handle news media specifically, not only focusing on audiovisual.

Meanwhile, this NEWS approach was suggested by 42 MEPs already back in April.

A strong signal would be for MAAP to recommend the NEWS family bundle. To be more than words and small projects, MAAP should also re-set overall figures for Creative Europe (not reducing funding for film and audiovisual), and indicate industrial goals for DSA.

What we should avoid is just slow legislation for the next three years, plus scattered small projects, and then a nasty wake up in 2024. If the ecosystem is rebalanced and NEWS projects are established by then, disinformation would not dominate the next EU elections.

Co-signatories:

  • MEP Andrus Ansip (Renew Europe, ES)
  • MEP Dace Melbarde (ECR, LV)
  • MEP Damian Boeselager (Greens, DE)
  • MEP Niklas Nienaß (Greens, DE)
  • MEP Victor Negrescu (S&D, RO)
  • MEP Andris Ameriks (S&D, LV)
  • MEP Ivars Ijabs (Renew Europe, LV)
  • MEP Irena Joveva (Renew Europe, SL)
  • MEP Laurence Farreng (Renew Europe, FR)
  • Maria João Rodrigues, Chair of FEPS, former MEP
  • Luciano Morganti, Prof. at VUB University
  • Marc Sundermann, Senior Fellow at Europe’s MediaLab (Fondation EURACTIV) and former EU representative at Bertelsmann
  • Guillaume Klossa, former European Broadcasting Union director, author EC Report “Towards European media sovereignty”
  • Francesca Ratti, co-présidente CIVICO-Europa
  • Bart Becks, Executive Chairman, EURACTIV Media Network
  • Helga Trüpel, former MEP
  • Christophe Leclercq, Chair of Europe’s MediaLab (Fondation EURACTIV, contact for further signatories: fondateur@euractiv.com, @LeclercqEU)

Related link: European Commission daily news (15 October 2020): “Liberté et pluralisme des médias : l’UE finance des projets de soutien à la coopération transfrontalière dans le domaine des médias”

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