Consolidation and user-generated content have raised concerns about media quality and the dwindling variety of political perspectives
In January of this year, a professor at the University of Brighton made headlines for banning her students from using Google and Wikipedia.
Fed up with the banal and shallow work her students were handing in, she told them in their first year, they would only be able to base their essays on peer-reviewed journals and actual printed-out paper-using books.
Some greying and grumpy luddite? A blinkered digital refusenik?
Hardly. Tara Brabazon is a thirtysomething media studies prof that began her stint in academia at the dawn of the new media age.
"I've taught all through the digitisation of education. It's fascinating to see how students have changed," she told the Times of London earlier this year when the media got wind of her unusual prohibition.
"Students live in an age of information, but what they lack is correct information. They turn to Wikipedia unquestioningly for information."
"Google offers easy answers to difficult questions. But students do not know how to tell if they come from serious, refereed work or are merely composed of shallow ideas, superficial surfing and fleeting commitments," she said.
She believes Google may well be filling, but it does not offer up much nutritional content—a position reflected in the title of a recent public lecture on her concerns: "Google: White Bread for the Mind".
And Prof. Brabazon is far from alone. Last year, another UK professor and Silicon Valley veteran, Andrew Keen, raised an enormous digital stink with the publication of his book, The Cult of the Amateur on how the internet—far from being the great democratising multi-noded public conversation it has been hyped to be—was in fact producing a great heap of truly awful amateur writing, film and music that at the same time was destroying quality content.
User-generated content "worships the creative amateur," he wrote in conservative news magazine the Weekly Standard: "the self-taught filmmaker, the dorm-room musician, the unpublished writer. It suggests that everyone — even the most poorly educated and inarticulate amongst us — can and should use digital media to express and realise themselves."
Although Mr Keen was excoriated in chat-rooms and on blogs for sloppy errors found in his own professionally edited and fact-checked hard-copy work, as well as his conservative elitism, even his arch enemy, digital civil liberties advocate and critic of copyright Lawrence Lessig in a scathing review of the book said: "There's much in [it] that even we amateur-o-philes should think about.
"How can we build trust into the structures of knowledge the Internet is enabling (Wikipedia, blogs, etc.)? How can make sure the contribution adds to understanding rather than confuses it?
"These are hard questions. And as is true of Wikipedia at each moment of every day—there is more work to be done."
Meanwhile, in March, Nick Davies, a veteran investigative journalist with the Guardian and the Observer dropped a bombshell on the downsizing, multi-media converging, foreign-bureau-closing anglophone media. His bestseller, Flat Earth News, resulted in reams of column inches of soul-searching in the British press exploring how they had allowed their industry to decline.
In the book, he takes the biggest non-story of the last decade, the 'Y2K' crisis that wasn't, and asks how it was that media outlets all over the world pumped out article after article about a computer bug that was supposed to deliver the end of civilisation that in the end had no effect whatever.
Mr Davies, using research from Cardiff University, analysed the contents and sources of the major 'quality' newpapers in the UK. He found most reporters most of the time have little time to dig up stories or check their facts, but increasingly depend on press releases from public relations outfits or simply cut-and-paste from news agencies such as the Press Association, Reuters, or the AP. With no time to check facts, he argues, Y2K or indeed weapons of mass destruction or any number of other wil-o'-the-wisp stories without substance, get endlessly repeated by what he calls the 'churnalism' factory.
The 21st Century media landscape looks nothing like its incarnation of just 15 years ago, let alone thirty years ago. Advances in technology together with the liberalisation of legislation governing the media since the 1980s have radically changed the structures of the media in Europe. While there has been a proliferation of new commercial outlets—particularly within broadcasting and on the internet—ongoing mergers and acquisitions have sharply narrowed the number of companies in the media business to the point where the majority of outlets are owned by just a few major conglomerates, such as Bertelsmann, Vivendi, News Corp, Viacom and Time Warner.
In one European example, we see that Germany-based Axel Springer AG, one of the largest newspaper publishers in Europe, owns over 150 newspapers and magazines in 30 countries on the continent. In the UK, the newspaper industry both national and regional is largely split between just two firms—Rupert Murdoch's News Corp and the Daily Mail and General Trust.
Media critics worry that these conglomerates lean toward a single centre-right political perspective, crowding out other views.
In Italy, the same critics worry how the conservative prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is the major shareholder of Mediaset—the country's largest TV firm, Mondadori—the country's largest magazine publisher, and Publitalia—the country's largest advertising company.
Aidan White, the chairperson of the International Federation of Journalists, while not busy fighting the ever-increasing targetting of journalists in undemocratic parts of the world, focusses much of his attention on the targetting of democracy through the undermining of quality journalism in the West.
He told the EUobserver: "Media concentration has been gathering pace as traditional media outlets try to pool resources, expand into all sectors and, at the same time, keep costs down. And it's that last bit that has hit journalism like a sledgehammer.
"Media companies have been slashing spending on editorial to reduce their costs. Massive cuts in jobs, training, investigative journalism—these have all had their impact on quality. There is greater reliance on public relations material."
"Additionally, the pressure for 24-hour news delivery and the expansion of outlets means there is more space to fill. Meanwhile, the advertising spread is ever thinner across a vastly increased information market.
He's not optimistic: "Despite the proliferation of media and opportunities for self-expression through the internet, the quality of information is in free fall."
What are the strategies that governments can employ that tackle issues of the quality of content, and content's concomitant relationship with a transparent, open society and democracy itself, not to mention the conditions and livelihood of the writers, journalists, editors, photographers, videographers, and musicians that create our media culture? How can they tackle media ownership and advance pluralism?
Can governments do anything or should they even? Increasingly, the direction of media policy over the last thirty years, in Europe as much as anywhere, has mirrored the wider policy trajectory of deregulation and a hands-off approach that trusts the unregulated free market as the best mechanism for the distribution of goods and services.
MEPs worry about threat to democracy
Many members of the European Parliament, however, believe that the media, and journalism in particular, due to its role in the maintenance of democracy, is not a business just like any other business, and as such needs special protection.
They believe the time has come for the EU to protect media content, expand pluralism and tackle consolidation of media ownership. On regular occasions, the parliament calls on the commission to limit media concentration.
In January of this year, a first draft of a new report was presented by MEP Marianne Mikko to the parliament's culture committee. The report's purpose is to provide an overview of the current European media landscape with a view to protecting media pluralism.
Ms Mikko, an Estonian MEP from the centre-left Socialist grouping in the parliament, covered politics as a journalist for both public and commercial media outlets—print, TV, radio and the internet—for 20 years before becoming a politician.
Like Bruce Springsteen in his famous song, 57 Channels and Nothin' On, she worries that while there may be a great many media outlets around today, this has not led to an improvement in quality—and that this has very dangerous consequences for democracy.
"The commission it seems to me has dealt with media business as if it's just like any other business, and that is alarming," she tells the EUobserver.
In the report, she wrote: "[While] the primary concern of media businesses may be financial profit, media remains an ideological and political tool of considerable influence, which should not be treated solely on economic terms."
The report also highlights the increasing concentration of media ownership in Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden.
"This increasing trend, if not subject to regulation, will pose a threat to pluralism, democracy and cultural diversity in the EU," she says.
Ms Mikko said she fears the "knock-on effect all this has in terms of democracy. My whole raison d'etre in writing this kind of initiative report was to safeguard democracy."
"I'm from Estonia. We had 50 years of totalitarian government, and so my instinct to protect democracy is very strong. I just feel that sometimes in Western or so-called Old European countries, people have forgotten how dear a thing democracy is. The media is like oxygen for democracy. Once there isn't oxygen, you understand something's wrong."
In the East, with the media controlled by the authoritarian regimes, they had none of this oxygen, she says. "And so we appreciate democracy that little bit more, perhaps."
Blogs and user-generated content
The report has no legal weight itself, but offers political guidance to Europe's executive institutions. Its main recommendation is for the European Commission and EU member states to apply competition law to the media to ensure media pluralism.
Its other major recommendations include the creation of media pluralism ombudspersons in the member states; the development of European core curriculum for media literacy; for the commission to ensure that regulations governing state aid not be used to undermine public service media
The report also tackles the very latest new media developments—the ever-expanding blogosphere and increasing use by news organisations of user-generated content such as mobile video. In order that existing profession producers of content not be undersold by freely delivered but poorly produced content, the report recommends the payment of fees for use-generated content. In this way, producers or publishers would choose which content to purchase—professional or amateur—not based on which was cheapest, but which was of the highest quality.
Ms Mikko also worries that who the authors of weblogs are is not always made clear to readers, and that there are regular concerns regarding the impartiality and reliability of blogs. What is the legal situation of bloggers regarding source protection? Should they adhere to journalist ethical codes? Where is liability assiged in the event of lawsuits?
As a result, the MEP also calls for a clarification of the legal status of weblog authors and wants to see a disclosure of interests and the voluntary labelling of weblogs. Interestingly, the UK's National Union of Journalists new media section—who recently signed up the world's first unionised professional blogger—is currently drafting a voluntary code of conduct for bloggers that can be applied as a widget on any blog, similar to a 'fair trade' sticker on a bunch of bananas or packet of coffee.
Sensationalism and trivia
The MEP has received quite a bit of interest in the document, with 242 amendments suggested. A large number of them, she says, are devoted to the protection of public service media, as well as quite a number from Italy, where media concentration is a growing concern amongst opposition politicians.
"Quality content tends to come from public broadcasting, at least in Estonia," she says, "but private broadcasters are claiming that because public service broadcasting gets money, this creates unfair competition."
"But what kind of content do the private broadcasters introduce? They just have similar formats all over the world, and that is cheaply made infotainment. Where is the analytical substance?
She says when she discusses this with commercial employers, it is never a popular topic. "They're more interested in entertaining. 'Isn't that wonderful?' they say. Well, partly yes, but if we only entertain, poltics and decision-making is turned into a circus. If you're entertained all the time, then you think that all of life is about 'Dancing with the Stars'. That's not the reality."
Aidan White too is worried in the growth in reality TV while the news operations of broadcasters, as well as newspapers, are steadily eliminating foreign bureaux—at the very moment that global events require citizens to know more about the world they live in than ever.
"Opportunities for making easy money out of media have disappeared ... resulting in cuts in infrastructure and short-term investment in sensationalism and trivia to keep the attention of dwindling audiences," he says.
Marc Gruber, the chairperson of the European Federation of Journalists is glad to see the report, but he does not think it goes far enough. "The intentions are good, but unfortunately they are not focussed enough. The report clearly identifies the problems ... but it does not go far enough to propose concrete solutions."
"We saw that the Civil Liberties committee, in its opinion on the report, call on the commission 'to draw up a directive setting limits on media ownership,' and this is an approach that we fully support but we also have had the feeling that over the past years that this has been a losing battle."
In early April, the parliament's Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs voted its opinion on the report. Despite the draughtsperson of the opinion, German MEP Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, coming from the Liberals, he too was as worried as his Socialist colleague about how the drive for profit was undermining democratic safeguards.
"A pluralistic media system is an essential prerequisite for the continued existence of the democratic European social model. But the media landscape and media content are continuously converging," he said.
"The media system is increasingly driven by profit-making whilst social, political or economic processes are not adequately safeguarded," he added.
"Therefore competition law must be interlinked with media law."
The Culture Committee had originally pencilled in 6 May to vote on the report, but due to the number of amendments submitted and the time it takes to translate them, says Ms Mikko, it is now more likely that the culture committee will vote on the report at the beginning of June, with the first reading in the plenary of the parliament some time in July.
At the same time, the European Commission has launched an independent study on indicators of media pluralism in member states. The commission has said it is to issue a communication on the issue some time this year, to be followed by a public consultation on the topic.