European Policies and Regulations on Media Concentration
European governments have addressed the issue of media concentration at several points
during the latter half of this century. Following World War II, the press underwent a very
turbulent period as most Western European democracies experienced a radical reduction in the
number of daily newspapers. Deep concern about the concentration of power in the media led
individual states and the Council of Europe to seek remedies to this situation in the 1970s.
Some countries adopted regulations to curb this development - or at least to give the impression
of curbing it. In most cases, however, these initiatives did little to alter the situation
substantially, although a few countries, such as Sweden, Norway and Finland, were, in fact,
able to maintain the status quo for two more decades.
As the overall circulation of newspapers had risen, the concern was not one of a shrinking
readership but, rather, the shrinking number of hands in which the control of the media lay.
Gradually, however, attention to this issue faded away as universities and research institutions
turned to other fields of research. For example, while the late 1970s saw fierce controversies
in Unesco regarding the dominance of the Western media in the Third World - resulting in the
withdrawal of the US and UK from this organisation-political manoeuvring soon buried the
debate. The non-democratic regimes in the Third World and the Communist countries exploited
the criticism of Western media dominance for their own political aims - clearly to justify their
disregard for the right to freedom of expression. The 1980s, in contrast, saw the rise of
commercial, market-oriented tendencies and an increased emphasis on free trade and national
deregulation in all spheres, including the media.
By the end of the 1980s, the explosive commercialisation of the mass media sector -
resulting in a drastic growth of output in the electronic media - provoked a new wave of
concern. The increasing globalisation of media company operations and rapid technological
changes in media distribution brought the concern over the concentration of the media back
into focus. The appearance of "media tycoons" - some with international ambitions
and working in several media sectors - caused great debate about the concentration of power.
In 1989 the Council of Europe undertook a series of studies to monitor these new
Ironically, 1989 was a year of widespread de-concentration in the mass media: the
liberation and gradual democratisation of Eastern and Central Europe was in part a result of
greater access to information undermining the Communist regimes. This liberalisation led to a
pluralism of views expressed in new independent media in those regions. Despite bloody
backlashes, such as the Yugoslav War, pluralism was established in most countries in this
part of Europe.
Within Western Europe, however, the situation was very different. After a period of
privatisation and the launch of many new media outlets in both radio and television, the
already dominant actors in the field consolidated their power and some remarkable mergers
took place. Nevertheless, European governments continued to worry about the concentration
of ownership, despite the recognition that strong ownership can have a positive effect on
pluralism in the media.
The majority of European states have, to date, adopted legislation in favour of protection,
and in some cases, promotion, of media pluralism. As described in Part 3, a number of other
policy measures are either still in force or scheduled to be enacted.
2. Conceptual issues
Before turning to the overview of policies and regulations, it is necessary first to address
some of the conceptual issues involved.
Dissent and controversy have accompanied every step of the debate on media concentration -
beginning with the very definition of the notions themselves. It is more the rule than the
exception that, after lengthy debate on details and proposals regarding media ownership and
its consequences for pluralism, the discussion breaks down. This is due to different parties
in the discussion employing quite different, and incompatible, understandings of the central
concepts of media, pluralism, concentration, information, freedom of expression etc.
While no definitive meanings will be agreed upon by everyone, I would like to propose at
least some terminology for the purposes of this essay.
Media concentration can be defined in a number of different ways. Perhaps the best brief
definition, as opposed to a lengthier description, is the "working definition"
suggested by the Council of Europe:
In relation to media concentrations, the notion of pluralism is understood
to mean the scope for a wide range of social, political and cultural values, opinions, information
and interests to find expression through the media.
This definition of pluralism views media concentration as being in opposition to pluralism.
This makes the definition of media concentration "negative", which is a rather common
method in scientific contexts and logic.
The Council of Europe later adopted another more detailed definition based on a number of
criteria regarding the supply of media content.
Pluralism may be internal in nature, with a wide range of social, political and cultural values,
opinions, information and interests finding expression within one media organisation, or external
in nature, through a number of such organisations, each expressing a particular point of
"The Soviet criterion" of pluralism
In the definition quoted above, concentration pertains to the content of the media, not to
the structure of companies, organisations etc. To a certain degree, this represents a deviation
from current understanding of the concept. There is good reason for this deviation, however,
since definitions that focus on media structures themselves also run the risk of claiming the
opposite: that media companies that are not part of a concentrated structure are, therefore,
pluralistic. Abundant evidence for this is to be found in the media structures of recent
European dictatorial regimes. In the Soviet Union, for example, many organisations and companies
were allowed to produce newspapers, magazines etc. But, of course, any claim to
"pluralism" was not remotely authentic according to the common understanding of human
rights as defined by the European convention of Human Rights. The mechanisms and structures of
the Soviet state concentrated real media power within one single entity, the Communist Party.
Some citizens, particularly those with sufficient knowledge of foreign languages, were able to
access channels for information beyond the official channels. 'The Soviet criterion of pluralism'
might then be used to define pluralism in the media as follows: Any use of the term pluralism
justifiably applied to the media structure of the Soviet Union is not applicable to a democratic
Without going into too much detail of the nuances of terminology, there is one important
distinction to highlight: the distinction between external and internal pluralism suggested
in the working definition of the Council of Europe. Of course, other uses of this conceptual
pairing are legitimate, yet experience has shown that considerable confusion arises from
different uses of these notions.
The working definition suggests that pluralism should, in this context, only relate to content.
Therefore, external pluralism is also defined in relation to a pluralism of content. Applying
this usage of terms, it is advisable to qualify all other uses of the term "pluralism"
or vice versa concentration: pluralism as regards companies, owners, actors, channels, outlets
etc. would then be harmless to use, but not without the particular specification. Defining
pluralism "as such" in the media by one of these specific pluralisms is, at least potentially,
devastating to a serious analysis - since all of them are liable to break against the "Soviet
criterion" described above.
2.2. Media power and abuse of power
The definition of media pluralism as based on content in the media does not solve another
conceptual issue crucial in the choice of policy approaches to media concentration. It is often
claimed that strong media companies, and even the reduction of the number of outlets or media
companies, may well be favourable to pluralism in terms of content. It has been argued that
only actual and proven abuse of positions of power call for media policy measures. This is
consonant with the attitude in competition legislation that it is the abuse of a dominant
position - not simply having a dominant position - that should be the target of such interventions.
More often than not, those in positions of power within the media tend to emphasise their
liberal attitudes and broad perspectives and to downplay the role of ownership in general,
arguing that the real power belongs to the content producers (the journalists) or the
"market" (the advertisers).
This view is mistaken - and remarkably difficult to dispel - as it fails to distinguish between
power as a potential to perform an action, and the exercise, whether laudable or reproachable,
of power. It is the common view that while abuse of power should obviously be contravened, power
in itself is not considered a bad thing. This may be true generally, but in terms of democracy
and pluralism, as well as freedom of expression and opinion, it is crucial to note this
distinction as such seemingly theoretical definitions of terminology may guide the entire
approach to governmental regulations and interventions.
This hinges upon the circumstance that, in a political structure where different actors in
a society should begiven equal opportunity to exercise influence, the power itself is at the
centre of political life.
If a group occupies a position of power, one that allows it to control sources of
communication and therefore the dissemination of information and knowledge, this power
would become increasingly concentrated in a way that a broader and more democratic division
of control would not. Of course, one cannot assume that all powerful players abuse their
power. The problem is one of potential and risk, not necessarily a problem of actual abuse.
But this does not make the problem of abuse of power more theoretical or hypothetical.
On the contrary, most discussions on constitutional matters, human rights and other principles
for governing society deal with the construction of systems for distribution of power and
the opening up of possibilities for individuals and groups to exert influence within society.
It is clear, therefore, that it is the structure underlying the distribution of power that
requires examination rather than the solely the allegations of abuses of such power.
The problem of media concentration is thus more constructively analysed as an issue of
risk assessment and risk prevention rather than a problem of finding fault in the specific
exercise of power. The big media owners are successful in market terms and this leads to the
assumption that they are skilful and broad-minded in the handling of their businesses. Their
success is also often justified by the quality of their products, both in terms of content
and consumer response.
The problems arising from a concentration of the media are not black-and-white; they are,
like most complex situations, a matter of degree. A demand for "proof" of the evils
of media concentration will inevitably lead to a simplistic approach. Such an approach
will - despite its desire for rationality - beg the question: is it ever possible to present
proof that is uncontroversial or even remotely objective?
Now, if the problem of media concentration is a problem of risk, or power, is not the
above-mentioned definition of the problem as a problem of content obfuscated?
It does complicate the problem, that is true, but basically it does not change the question.
If media concentration concerns the organisation of content-provision, organisational or
structural matters come in the foreground from either perspective as organisation informs
power structures. Many aspects of a company's structure can influence content: ownership,
internal organisations, supply relationships, other kinds of economic relations and even, of
course, personal relations.
As analysis has clearly demonstrated, the relationships between these kinds of power and
media concentration in terms of content are very complex: it is extremely difficult to predict
the consequences of any kind of change in the power structure for the content. As in all human
contexts, the consequences of actions are by definition unpredictable, due to the existence
What needs to be addressed, therefore, is how the structure of power in the media is related
to the goal of plurality of views and perspectives. Again, the goal is not to identify
malevolent media-owners, but rather to develop and implement safeguards to protect the exercise
of human right of freedom of expression.
3. European efforts towards a common approach to media concentration
3.1. The Council of Europe
Monitoring and analysis
The Council of Europe bases its work in the media field on Article 10 of the European Convention
of Human Rights, which deals with freedom of expression and information. Media thus come into
a fundamentally political framework: it is the adoption and practice of human rights - under the
supervision of an international system of sanctions - which is the basis of a democratic society.
Today, the mass media are an integral part of this system of freedom of expression, and unless
freedom of expression is a reality in each Member State of the Council, the democratic ideals
of the organisation are in jeopardy.
The Council of Europe has played a role in achieving a certain level of common European
legislation through a set of conventions adopted by the Member States. Within the media field
there are also certain conventions - the best known is probably the Convention on Transfrontier
Television adopted slightly before (and in essence a model for) the European Community Directive,
Television without Frontiers.
The ambition of the Council of Europe - notably its Secretariat - is to serve as a vehicle
for European harmonisation of legislation. This is rather unrealistic in light of the much
stronger machinery and ambitions of the European Union. The Council seems, instead, to be
increasingly functioning as an agency for policy discussions, analyses, and research. In terms
of the issues addressed here, this role might turn out to be equally, or even more, important
than the formal legislative activities.
The Council began its current round of deliberations on media concentration in 1989. The
ambition was, as in the case of transfrontier television, to arrive at some political
agreements, which would hopefully lead to common regulatory initiatives. This was obviously
a motivating factor in both the Secretariat and some of the most active countries in the
Council's standing media committee (CDMM).
Initially, the plan was more modest: to examine through a common framework the developments
and consequences of changes in media structure and ownership within individual countries in
relation to the goal of pluralism.
A series of questionnaires addressing both legal and structural issues was distributed to
a number of Member States and two consultants were engaged to analyse and report the outcome
of the responses to this questionnaire. A working party was set up to monitor the work and
prepare the reports.
It turned out, however, that the plans to present a detailed and factual report were overly
ambitious. Although the consultants presented voluminous texts, analyses, and surveys of
legislation, several Member States expressed doubts about the methodology and withdrew their
support for the project. Also, political resistance against any deeper investigation grew -
notably the UK government constantly drew the project into doubt, denying the very existence
of a media concentration problem. Thus, the comprehensive and analytic report was never
published, although large manuscripts were presented to the Committee on various
The outcome of the story, thus far, is that the Council of Europe has produced studies,
data and overviews pertaining to various aspects of the media concentration issue. In only
one instance was a regulatory text adopted - the 1994 Recommendation on transparency. It is
likely that a document on the advisability of adopting measures to deal with the negative
consequences of concentration of ownership in the media will be presented in 1998.
More important, perhaps, is the construction of a monitoring mechanism within the Council.
This consists of a network of national correspondents in each Member State that reports, in a
standardised framework, on media structure and media regulation of relevance to the media
concentration issue. A Committee of Experts of the Council analyses and develops the material
supplied by the national correspondents. It is difficult to understand why the Council - which
enjoys much prestige through a permanent body, the European Court of Human Rights - is so
hesitant to permanently engage in the monitoring of mass media pluralism, which is of central
importance within democratic societies today. The Committee is commissioned to suggest
possible measures to the standing media committee and other bodies of the Council, including
the Conferences of national Ministers responsible for media policies. Those conferences of Ministers
has met every three years since 1988 (the last meeting was in Thessaloniki in December 1997).
It is, however, a temporary body and, as such, can be abolished at any time should other
issues be deemed more important.
It seems quite clear - despite concerns over the lack of "concrete results" in terms of
proposals for international regulations (as if they are concrete!) - that the results of the
work undertaken to date demonstrates a need for a more permanent mechanism in this field.
Though a large amount of material has been produced within this machinery already, little
is accessible to the general public or to researchers, due to the tradition of restricted
circulation of Council documents. Considering the great value of the material, this is
regrettable. If the much needed common basis of knowledge of media structure and regulations
is to be realised, the Council of Europe would likely be a very important partner, provided
it was willing to sacrifice some of its outdated diplomatic traditions of secrecy. There are,
however, some recent signs of a shift towards greater openness. A comparison with another
international body might be useful: the OECD regards the monitoring of issues of economic
importance its core activity and devotes the major part of its resources to this work.
3.2. The European Union
The European Community, later the European Union, approaches media issues from a different
perspective than the Council of Europe: the EC views it from a position of economic integration
and the establishment of a European internal market. This, however, does not preclude rivalry
between the two organisations, as demonstrated in the case of transfrontier television
The European Parliament, since the end of the 1980s, called for initiatives to curtail the
growing concentration of ownership in the media. This originally came from German Social
Democrats and printers' trade unions. The Commission responded to these initiatives by issuing,
at the end of 1992, a "Green Paper" on Pluralism and Media Concentration in the Internal
Market. After a lengthy period of consultations, debates and considerable lobbying from major
transnational and national media groups (European Publishers Council, EPC), Commissioner
Mario Monti was prepared in July 1996 to present the text for a directive to his colleagues.
The text was widely, though unofficially, made known both to Member States and journalists.
At a 4 September 1996 meeting, however, the Commissioners turned the project down, asking for
amendments. Subsequent versions became known in the spring of 1997. Since then, the discussion
has continued and no agreement has been reached, although some versions of Mr Monti's project
were supported by the powerful German Commissioner Bangemann.
In August 1997 the process took a new course as German Chancellor Helmut Kohl dispatched a
letter to the Chairman of the Commission expressing his resistance to the entire project of
common regulation, arguing that it is a matter for national legislation. Pressure from media
industry lobbying groups has also continued. At present, the prospect of a common European
agreement looks rather bleak, although the Commission continues to work on the project, and
its officials continue to express optimism regarding adoption of such an initiative, despite
frequent rumours, possibly disseminated by lobby groups, to the contrary. If a draft directive
is proposed, years of negotiation will inevitably follow. The adoption of legal texts in
Member States is not likely to take place less than ten years following the introduction
of initiatives. (In the case of Sweden, any adoption of restrictions on press, cable radio
and television ownership will likely require an amendment to the constitutional laws on freedom
of the press and freedom of expression before any special legislation could be adopted.)
The Commission claims that the existing texts are irrelevant to today's media environment
although they still contain many options for regulations developed in the intra-commission
talks. They were constructed upon two rather simple principles:
A general clause of exemption should apply to media companies exceeding the thresholds only in one
country, thus catering to the interests of nationally dominant, but not Europe-wide, participants.
For brevity, I do not intend to provide details here.
- The maximum share of audience permitted to a single media organisation in radio or
television should be 30 %.
- The amalgamated share of radio, television and newspaper audience/readership should
not exceed 10 %.
One alternative to a directive on ownership might be to promote transparency of media ownership,
rather than regulating maximum shares. The "common position" on a directive regarding a transparency
mechanism for Information Society services reached at the 27 November 1997 Council of Internal Market
Ministers might serve as a model for a similar development in relation to the media concentration issue.
Then, once again, the EU would effectively be following in the footsteps of its weaker rival in
European co-operation, the Council of Europe. Although the outcome might seem rather modest as compared
to the initial ambitions, one should not be too dismissive: the limited success of formal legislation
in this field to date may demonstrate that other means of tackling the issue are more
4. Overview of European policies and regulations on media concentration and
Political debates on media concentration have mostly centred on introducing statutory
measures, legislative regulations or other kinds of prescriptions adopted by public bodies.
It is, however, crucial to any realistic perspective on the policies and regulations of
media concentration that the definition of regulation be broadened. It is true that "land
shall be governed by law", and it is true that interventions in the media sector should be
permitted only on a basis of equitable treatment of the media, without regard to political
affiliations or tendencies. It is also true that in most democratic states the adoption of
legislation is the usual method of establishing procedures of public governance.
But this should not be taken to imply that the adoption of regulations is the only, or
even the most effective, way of coming to grips with problems of media concentration. Quite
the opposite might in fact be the case: it is crucial to analyse and evaluate the
actual function of legislation in this context without prejudice. Indeed, the German media
researcher Gerd Kopper's rather cynical description of the relationship between the political
sphere, legislation and the media as a "drama of expectations" might to a great degree
be confirmed by the experience of existing legislation in some European countries. Laws
are enacted for a number of reasons other than those stated. They serve the purpose of
demonstrating action in the political sphere in order to persuade voters or dissatisfied
groups that something has been done even when a law does nothing to alter existing
oligopolistic or even monopolistic structures.
The creation of European Union has led to widespread belief in regulations, precisely
address new situations resulting from liberalisation, privatisation and international
economic integration. The primary instrument of the Union is, of course, regulation,
either harmonising national laws through directives or in some cases implementing direct
regulations. Although the Union has far-reaching ambitions to influence the economic
structure through new regulations, this is possible only to a limited extent. Other
factors might easily overtake regulations adopted after a pain-staking process of negotiation
in the EU framework.
Therefore, it is crucial to consider alternatives to regulatory action. Governments also
govern by creating organising authorities, by making various decisions on a day-to-day basis,
by allocating money and other resources, by devising taxation systems, by simply monitoring
developments and by influencing public opinion. Private actors might on the other hand also
choose to adapt themselves to demands which are not only of an economic nature. For example,
they may withhold from action on some occasions, collectively or individually.
Policies on media concentration could be categorised as follows:
These categories cannot be kept completely distinct: restrictions, in terms of regulations,
might, for example, play a part in most of the other categories, and any kind of political
measure, including regulations, requires some degree of organisational follow-up.
- Economic interventions
- Transparency measures
- Organizational measures
Restrictions might be of two distinct categories: statutory (regulations) or voluntary.
Theoretically, all kinds of regulations laid down by public authorities might be replaced
by restrictions agreed upon by the actors or competitors in the particular sector (all
things being equal). In practice, however, restrictions tend mostly to be of a statutory
nature. One reason is that competition regulations normally presuppose that actors in the
market do not attempt to make agreements that restrict full-fledged competition. The
legislative motivation may be very noble, such as the aspiration to develop pluralism
in the media sector.
Most countries' constitutions include references to freedom of expression and of information
and, at least indirectly, the necessity to uphold pluralism in the mass media. Some
constitutions also include an obligation for the state to supply a basic amount of information
to their citizens (the German Grundversorgungspflicht).
Most countries apply competition legislation to the media sector. Some exceptions are, however,
to be noted. US legislation authorises certain kinds of co-operation between newspapers. The
EU Merger Regulation provides an exemption for reasons of the "plurality of the media" from
the exclusive right of Community institutions to regulate mergers between companies, which
has reached a "European" dimension.
Sweden's special constitutional laws of freedom of the press and of expression have
generally been interpreted as prohibiting any interference in the freedom of establishment
- including acquisitions of companies - in the press and cable sectors.
Some countries have general clauses regarding media holdings (Norway), others allow
considerations of a general nature (the "public interest") to influence decisions in
licensing procedures (Germany, UK).
A number of countries have quantitative restrictions to media control based on the number of
channels (Italy, Portugal, Spain, Sweden), the share of audience (UK, Germany, France), the
share of circulation or absolute circulation in the press sector (France, UK), the share of
foreign holdings (Poland), and the shares held in one channel (Norway), or the right to vote
(Sweden). These types of restrictions may pertain to one kind of media outlet or may be
constructed as restrictions of certain combinations of ownership (e.g. Italy, UK, Sweden).
4.2.2. Voluntary agreements
In the field of media ownership and structure it is rare to have voluntary agreements
between the actors regarding mergers of companies. In the Netherlands national press, however,
an agreement has been made among media owners not to exceed a maximum share of one third
in the national press. Of course, various tacit agreements on market division might be
included in this kind of restriction. However, the decision not to compete to the bitter
end - though it deeply affects media structure - is not usually regarded as a means of
promoting pluralism but rather the opposite since it cements the local monopolies. Systems
for reducing costs of distribution by co-operation between competitors also exist - in
Sweden this kind of distribution is subsidised by the state.
It might also be worth mentioning that the tradition of establishing an agreement between
the owner and the journalists on the independence of the editorial staff from the owner
exists in several countries (such as Austria, Belgium, Germany, Norway). This limits the
margin of action of the owner to some degree and helps to promote a kind of pluralism within
a specific organisation. In some cases (such as Belgium), when a newspaper or magazine
is purchased the new owner negotiates with the staff.
This term may not be the fortunate choice of words; it is meant to cover efforts and
systems that provide the public with alternatives to the free-market or commercial media
4.3.1. Public service radio and television
The early model of radio and television monopolies in Europe was consciously designed as
a counterweight to commercial systems in the US and the prevailing free market in the press.
Authorities and politicians generally did not trust the commercial sector to provide news
that was reasonably free from bias. It is clear, also, that states felt a certain reluctance
to give free reign to the new media, which were felt to have a much stronger impact than
the older media, such as the press and books.
Since the resources (frequencies) for broadcasting were scarce until rather recently,
there were other good reasons for introducing general licensing systems and public financing
(licence fees) for radio and television. In authoritarian or dictatorial regimes much effort
was, for obvious reasons, expended in arguing that pluralism was not important. As a whole,
however, pluralism in these media was not really an issue until the expansion of media outlets
and broadcasting after World War II. Mostly, the state monopolies were of an official or
semi-official nature and for this reason were not permitted to be biased in their perspectives.
Following the development of new media resources (the FM-band, more television frequencies
etc.), public regulation gradually emphasised an obligation to reflect different opinions
and views. As private operators were let into most European radio and television sectors in
the 1970s and, abundantly, in the 1980s, the objective of pluralism, catering to universal
access, minority opinions and groups and independence of private financing (i.e., non-profit
principles) became overriding. It was at this point that the need for "counterweights"
was fully recognised.
"Counterweight" does not, in most countries, mean independent of commercial
financing: in most public service systems advertising was judged to be a legitimate
source of income - thus, of course, establishing direct competition between public and
private operators in the advertising market. The additional income from licence fees,
regulations prescribing unbiased reporting of news, diversified programme content and a
genuine independence from political and private interests are the pillars upon which the
public service system rests.
Generally speaking, the meaning of public service broadcasting has changed from an early
"classic" (British) conception, where it was understood as a framework for the entire
system of broadcasting, involving different assignments, sources of financing, owners
etc. - all viewed from the position of the "public interest". Today, public service
broadcasting is instead regarded as one particular media sector, differentiated from
the commercial, privately owned sector. Moreover, public service broadcasting (no one
talks of other kinds of public service media - so far) is today linked to specific
companies, institutions or channels, not to the intervention of public authorities to
promote a certain kind of programme content independently of the broadcaster. Despite
some proposals here and there to emphasise content rather than the institutional aspects
of the public responsibility for broadcasting and the promotion of independent productions,
the general attitude toward public service broadcasting has not changed.
All countries in Europe have - though following different forms in nearly all aspects
of operation (ownership, financing, regulation, supervision, independence from public
authorities) - some kind of broadcasting that falls under the heading of public service.
The model example is, of course, the BBC, despite its being rather exceptional in a number
of ways, i.e., it is nearly entirely financed by licence fees. A kind of ultimate blessing
of the idea of public broadcasting is part of both the "protocol" to the Amsterdam
Treaty (constituting the revised Treaty of Rome of the European Union), and in a declaration
of the media ministers of the Council of Europe at the Prague conference in
4.3.2. Non-profit (community) radio and television
In addition to the public service sector (in the narrower sense described above), there
is non-profit community radio and television, which is sometimes also regarded as a
counterweight to the commercial structure. Available radio frequencies are sometimes set
aside for this sector (e.g. in France and Sweden), consequently offering a smaller number
of frequencies for the commercial and public service sectors. Conditions and regulations
vary considerably in this sector in a number of respects other than just frequency
4.3.3. Internet facilities
Although "public service" normally refers only to broadcasting, basic Internet services,
such as those offered by many countries through the educational system, might be considered
a new field for a public service media intervention. These kinds of services do, in effect,
often involve an element of public subsidy, thereby marking the Internet as some kind of
public domain. This will likely change as the Internet gradually becomes more of a
distributor of commercial services and, therefore, a marketplace itself.
4.3.4. Cultural policies
Cultural policies may also be viewed as remedies for "market failures" and therefore
fall under the heading of "counterweights". Obviously, cultural institutions play an
important role for the media sector by supplying productions, facilities, training etc.
Conversely, media policies as such might also be included in a wider notion of cultural
policies; one common aim for these policies in a democratic society is to ensure a broad
range of expression of values, opinions, criticism etc.
4.4. Economic promotion
In international discussions indirect and general subsidies are generally looked upon
more favourably than direct and selective ones. The reasoning behind this is rather simple:
selective and direct subsidies are often judged to be subject to political and other kinds
Actually the picture is more complex, and the balance of "pluralism profit" between
these approaches is not easy to establish. The general subsidies approach normally means
that the major share of the money goes to those who are already strong on the market,
therefore having negative repercussions for the goal of pluralism.
In fact, cases where subventions have a proven effect on pluralism - at least by the
preservation of some competition in the press sector (Norway and Sweden) - seem to be
characterised by a strategy of direct and selective (though based on general criteria)
4.4.1. Indirect support
Indirect subventions to the media sector are also primarily of a general nature, awarded
to an entire category of media companies or products. Most European countries provide some
kind of tax breaks to the mass media sector, such as reduced VAT rates for books or dailies.
In France, there is tax relief for journalists. In countries where postal and telecommunication
tariffs are still under control of the state (Belgium, Switzerland), there are reductions
of relevant tariffs.
4.4.2. Direct subventions
Direct and selective support to the production of daily newspapers exists in Finland,
Norway and Sweden and, on a smaller scale, Austria, France and Italy. Selectivity is
normally regulated by way of general criteria, such as the level of market share in an
area, profitability of the product etc.
A direct, but not selective, subvention is given for the distribution of the daily
subscription press in Sweden and France.
Development contributions are often considered a more "neutral" way of subsidising
media companies. Such contributions exist in several countries (for example, the
Netherlands, Norway and Sweden).
A somewhat original system of supporting, by subvention, co-operation between the
daily newspapers was recently proposed in Sweden. This kind of support might prima
facie seem in direct opposition to pluralism since it aims at eliminating some
elements of competition. However, the idea was to facilitate co-operation in all fields of
activities, except the central core of editorial material. Obviously, competition in
advertising, distribution or in other important economic aspects might force a media
outlet out of business. Competition, therefore, can be seen as detrimental to pluralism.
In Sweden, the state subventions to distribution newspapers presuppose co-operation between
competing newspapers in terms of distribution. On the regulatory level, US legislation tolerates
some exemptions from competition legislation, for our purposes, to press companies.
Transparency is sometimes viewed as goal in and of itself and sometimes as a means
to achieve the aim of pluralism in the media.
Transparency is conceptually related to the notion of power or control, because to a
certain degree power rests on some superiority of information, which must not be transmitted
to competitors. Complete openness can mean a lack of power, for any person in any social
The link between the concepts of transparency and control was studied in a report to
the European Commission in the course of the preparation of a project for a directive on
media ownership. The outcome of that study was a generalised approach to the control of
media companies, taking into consideration not only formal ownership of the media but also
other aspects of power. Accordingly, transparency of control in the media should include
a whole spectrum of factors of influence, such as agreements, financial dependence,
programme supply relations etc.
From the point of view of an "ideal" market economy, transparency, or complete knowledge,
strengthens the power of the consumer in relation to the supplier: only when consumers
know exactly what the supplier is offering can they make the best or most "rational"
4.5.1. Why transparency?
In general terms, this question has already been answered: the consumer - also a consumer
of the mass media - has an interest in knowing as much as possible about the product,
including the background and interests of the producer or supplier, in order to make the
most informed choice. But there are also other reasons of a more political nature. They
might be broken down into the following two subcategories:
Basis for regulation
General requirement of public information regarding the exercise of power in a democratic
The public interest, pointing in some cases to a need for some intervention in the media
market, must be linked to an assessment of power, in real terms. It is pointless, for example,
to regulate or intervene in the practices of a company or group of companies if it is not
based on a genuine knowledge of who is actually in control.
Since the media are, in most contemporary democracies, instruments for the exercise
of and struggles for power, the public must have at least a minimum of information regarding
the underlying interests that are inevitably expressed in the media that influences
4.5.2. Methods of promoting transparency
Just as in other cases of intervention in the media sector, there are both voluntary
(e.g., agreements on statistics and other data on audience shares) and statutory regulatory
methods of intervention.
Both of these methods are subject to either a more "passive-prohibitive" or a more
active-researching approach. Also, any method can be more general, applicable to all
businesses or associations, or more specific, applicable only within the media sector.
The recommendation of the Council of Europe on transparency in the media sector (1994)
specifies a framework for transparency in terms of possible methods. Generally speaking,
however, it is clear that the degree and scope of transparency depends largely on the
political will of the authorities within individual countries.
General statutory transparency regulations
Special rules for the media
Most countries prescribe some degree of disclosure of ownership of all publicly held
companies. Some restrict this openness to companies registered on a stock exchange; others
apply a more general approach to all companies. The transparency can be geared to the
needs of public authorities or to the general public at large. Media companies are, as a
rule, included in this general regulation. Effectively, however, the degree of transparency
varies considerably, and the difficulties might be classified under a rather small set of
A number of special rules apply to media companies in Europe, such as a requirement in
the newspaper industry to publish the name of the owner, the editor-in-chief, the executive
director etc. Though many countries mandate that the name of the editing company be provided
in newspapers, for example, this does not always establish genuine transparency. Company
names might, in many cases, reveal little about the real interests behind the product and
might require considerable effort to gain such knowledge. Some countries also require the
inclusion of data on the circulation or reach of a particular media product within the
A special case is the award of concessions or licences in radio and television. Normally,
the government or some subordinate agency is responsible for such decisions. It goes without
saying that in these cases transparency is much easier to establish than in a free market
situation where no licence conditions prevail. Most European countries enforce licence
systems for radio and television, irrespective of their forms of distribution. There are,
however, exceptions. One interesting example is that in Sweden, licensing is the exception
rather than the rule (although it nonetheless has a vast influence on the market).
A variety of difficulties may also arise in structures based on concessions. One case
would be a company that is, by agreement or economic dependence, linked to a group organising
a network (Slovenia's "Pop TV" is referred to as an example) controlled by a non-concession
holder. The change of ownership might be differently regulated and sanctioned. The Swedish
case of change of control over the - thus far - single terrestrial commercial television
channel (TV 4) may illustrate another kind of difficulty. In the end, neither sanctions in
law nor licence conditions prevented the major Swedish media group from taking control of
the channel - and less than one year after the new licence was awarded to another constellation
As a whole, the system of concessions - in light of the development of new forms of
distribution by digital means (Internet, digital terrestrial and/or satellite, other kinds
of networks) - might not be viable much longer. These developments might cause the notion
of a "channel" as we now know to become obsolete and also to radically transform transparency
"Active" means of promoting transparency
If transparency is a means of assessing power and also influencing power structures, no
interested party can rely solely on formal rules obliging companies to disclose information.
Information must be actively sought and retrieved, and a number of methods will need to be
utilised. Research is one such means, both scientific research and other ways of
systematically collecting data and documentation. Such investigation would result in the
creation of databases, registers, statistics, various publications, schemes of comparison
etc. It is noteworthy that the EU, in its preparatory work for a directive, presupposes
that each member state should be capable of assessing and monitoring issues of media
ownership within its own borders.
Representation of the editorial staff on boards of media companies is rather common in
European countries. This access to information may, in some cases, lead to a leakage of
information to certain portions of the public, but it rarely provides real transparency to
the public at large or even to the relevant authorities. Also, matters of critical importance
will, obviously, often be addressed behind closed doors.
A number of countries have editorial statutes that guarantee some knowledge among editorial
staff of the interests and ownership issues within a particular company. Norway exemplifies
a country where such a statute is proposed to be erected into law.
4.5.3. Difficulties for transparency
Some types of difficulties regarding the issue of transparency occur within all
sectors of the business community. For example:
Others are more specific for the media sector:
- The general secrecy of business partners' internal agreements in a company: though
ownership may give certain information on the control in a company, agreements might
result in quite different actual relations of power and strategic decision-making.
- It might be difficult to determine, with an acceptable degree of impartiality, who
effectively controls a company as media companies are often involved in complex partnerships,
alliances etc. The German legislation and prescriptions on minimal shares in television
companies when calculating audience shares - determining maximum number of licences - is
illustrative in its complications. This may be one of the stumbling blocks for the passage
of an EU directive.
- Similarly, statistics on audience share are notoriously complex and unreliable, and
therefore transparency regulation built on such data will be correspondingly
4.6. Monitoring and authorities
The monitoring of the media, looking at issues of encouraging pluralism and media
concentration, by an institution or authority, might be considered an "active" method
by which to promote transparency as described above. It might, however, constitute a
mechanism itself, as it will be a key component within many other approaches.
Competition authorities in most countries are also responsible for the media sector.
Sweden is an interesting exception due a legal conflict between the constitutional
freedom of expression - which includes absolute freedom to establish a media company
(press or cable) and publish anything legally permitted - on the one hand, and the desire
to prevent monopolisation, on the other.
Competition regulation is viewed quite differently within countries that not only include
the media within the scope of their regulatory responsibilities, but also have introduced
specifically strict regulations for this industry. The majority of European states have
introduced regulatory bodies and some restrictions on ownership in order to promote
competition and/or pluralism in radio and television. Some of these countries are: Belgium,
Germany (with the recently established KEK), France, Italy (which is in the course of
establishing a new authority that also supervises telecom companies), Norway (which is also
setting up its media pluralism authority), Portugal (with its Alta Autoritade), and the UK
(with its strong institutions). Most Eastern and Central European states have radio and
television "councils" responsible for the allocation of licences.
Regulations for the press are normally supervised by other public agencies (as in the
case of France and the UK), while other countries (Norway and Italy) adopt industry-wide
International organisations have played an important role in the monitoring process for
some time. In fact, national measures have often been inspired by international discussions
in this field. As described above, the Council of Europe - in accordance with its remit in
the field of human rights - has long felt an obligation to examine, analyse and discuss
measures to counter monopolistic tendencies in the media. The European Commission has clearly
also demonstrated a desire to act as a monitoring agency in this field, by promoting analysis
and resistance to monopolisation, although its broader goals of implementing regulations
have been, to date, unrealised.
On the global level, Unesco has taken steps to monitor developments, although this
organisation still suffers from the consequences of the political controversy over the
mass media in the 1970s and 80s, which led to the withdrawal of the US and UK from the
organisation as mentioned earlier.
Non-governmental bodies such as the European Institute for the Media and various bodies
within the university sector also participate in what could develop into a kind of
5. Conclusion: Nationalistic media policies at the end of the 1990s
Trends and developments in the era of convergence
Professor Karl Erik Gustafsson of Göteborg University has observed that media policies of
the last decade have taken a somewhat ironic, albeit not unpredictable, turn. During a time
when Europe is seeking to integrate its economic activities - as a basis for a union in a
vast number of fields - when global economic integration makes national frontiers less and
less important and states gradually less powerful in economic terms, national media policies
seem to emphasise the role of national media companies. "Our" companies become subject to
protection and oversight by national governments - even at the cost of pluralism on the
national level. There are two consequences, observable in a number of legal contexts and
international forums, to this attitude.
First, the national tolerance of concentration of already powerful actors increases: in
some countries (UK, Germany, France), maximum market shares have increased, and generally the
attentiveness to the concerns of the major players in the media field also has expanded.
Effectively, this might lead to shrinking pluralism in the media on a national level or at
least to a reduced number of controllers of media companies. Whether this will be accompanied
by requests for a higher level of "internal pluralism" in the media remains to be seen.
Second, resistance to international regulation of media concentration, after a period of
consideration, has grown. Some have argued that this kind of regulation (notably in the EU)
might only serve the interests of the already dominant individuals. Conversely, some argue -
as Chancellor Kohl did in the letter to the President of the European Commission - that
international regulations would obstruct the natural growth and consolidation of successful
and profitable media corporations, to the detriment of European competitiveness (in relation
to the US and Japan).
produced by the Swedish Council for Pluralism in the Media 1995-1997 (Available in Swedish on
The following titles (given in English translation) are available:
- What is media concentration?
- Media concentration - a bibliography
- Swedish media owners
- Private local radio
- Freedom of expression, constitutional legislation and media concentration
- Swedish journalists on pluralism and media
- DN Debatt
- Television in Sweden
- Music, Mass media and Pluralism
report to the Government on ownership in the Swedish media 1997 (SOU 1997:92).
Karl Erik (Ed.): Media Structure and the State. Concepts, Issues, Measures. Göteborg 1995.
Tabernero, A. et al.: Media concentration in Europe. Commercial enterprise and the
Public Interest. European Institute for the Media, Manchester 1993.
A: International synthesis on the economic, political and legal aspects of media pluralism,
concentration and competition. (Includes bibliography) IViR and Unesco 1993.
Council of Europe documents
on media concentrations in Europe. Consultant report containing a legal and an economic
analysis. (Unfinished working paper - one version numbered CDMM (92)8)
from the Prague Ministerial Conference 1994 MCM 94 (1-25) in particular the report on media
concentration which also contains a list of working documents prepared for the Committee.
on media concentrations and pluralism in Europe. MM-CM (97) 6
of national reports on media concentrations (provisional version). MM-CM (97) 10 rev
European Union Documents
and Media Concentrations in the Internal Market COM (92) 480 final, Dec. 23 1992.
"The Green Paper".
transparence dans le contrôle des médias (rédigé par
Philippe Mounier and Serge Robillard). Report submitted to the European Commission
by the European Institute for the Media, Düsseldorf 1994.
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