EU press needs public support too, says media expert

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Traditional media companies have suffered from the financial crisis and the emergence of the Internet, while the EU press in Brussels must also keep on its toes and needs public support "now more than ever," according to Aidan White, former head of the International Federation of Journalists.

Media firms covering Brussels are faced with a difficult dilemma as they attempt to adapt to the realities of the 21st Century, says White, a long-time campaigner for journalistic freedom and secretary-general of the International Federation of Journalists from 1987 until April.  

In an exclusive interview with EURACTIV, he argued that while the digital revolution has provided huge gains for freedom of expression, it has also posed serious challenges to the media.

In particular the migration of advertising to the Internet and the convergence of written, broadcast and audiovisual media were "overwhelming traditional media industry," he said.

As a result, the capacity of news media, particularly newspapers, to remain profitable has been hit hard, he argued, adding that newspaper circulation was "in very steady decline" and had in fact been falling for many years.

"So we are in a moment of transition, there's no doubt about that," he said.

White stressed that this 'transition' had heralded the closure of "hundreds if not thousands of titles" in Europe and North America, more redundancies and precarious freelance employment for journalists, and reduced investment in training, investigative journalism and foreign correspondents.

This, he argued, had resulted in lower-quality journalism, more sensationalism and superficial coverage of complex issues.

White said there was "a real question mark over whether or not the private sector can any longer deliver pluralism of information and reliable information that is useful for democracy".

Journalism must be recognised as 'essential public good'

The former head of the International Federation of Journalists claims that as a result of these, public support for media is more necessary than ever. Europe has a long tradition of public broadcasters and even in the US, "where they like to think the private sector reigns supreme," in his words $1 billion in subsidies would be given to the media this year.

The situation is particularly difficult for papers covering Brussels given cutbacks affecting foreign desks and the EU's fragmented media market, he stressed.

White believes that Brussels media coverage is "overwhelmingly dominated by the elephant in the room, which [is] the institutions of the European Union". He warned that there are "less people in Brussels who provide plurality of opinions and views".

As a result, he argued, Brussels-based media needed to "create distance between themselves and the European Union".

News organisations seeking public support face a dilemma, he said. On the positive side, White cited the success of pan-European television station Euronews, which since 2005 has been subsidised by the European Commission to the tune of €5 million per year, or about 10% of the channel's budget.

"But that's unusual," White added, adding that journalists and media were "very resistant" to the perception that they were being paid for from the public purse. He argued this needed to change and that society needed to recognise that "journalism is an essential public good" and as such, there was "nothing wrong with it having public money".

White recognised the dangers this poses to editorial independence of media and left some questions open.

"Now the question is: how can this be done in an open and democratic manner? But also how can it be done without compromising the essential independence that the media needs to have?" he asked.

To read the interview in full, please click here.

The 2010 Press Freedom Index, published by 'Reporters Without Borders', hails Finland, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland as "the engines of press freedom" in Europe.

But the NGO noted as "disturbing" the fact that several EU countries were continuing to fall in the index. "If it does not pull itself together, the European Union risks losing its position as a world leader in respect for human rights," it warned.

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