1. Once upon a time, the Future was reliable. Sometimes intimidating, often exciting. Irritating perhaps in its uncertainty- but dependable as a horizon you would never quite reach… The Future has changed. As Paul Valéry, the great French poet, once put it, "the trouble with our times is that the future is no longer what it used to be".
For us in the media that change has been radical since, say, 1997. The future of information technology has overtaken us, "internet surfers". We rode the big wave, tumbling into its rip tide, not knowing where we would arrive, gasping for breath, sometimes drowning. Now, less than a decade later, we inhabit a brave new world of ubiquitous texting, email, search engines, portals, blogs (a word not yet in my spell check by the way…), a galaxy of satellites, shoals of servers, a veritable "info sans frontières".
Who could have foretold that, in this communications flood tide, would come the aggressive rhetoric of democracy, controversial warfare, suicidal terrorism, taut religious tension, maverick globalisation…and profound political uncertainty within Europe? We are living through not one but three apparently concentric revolutions: First the techno-info with instant news and universal access… Second, deep changes to the very identity and sustainability of democracy… and, third, the confrontation of cultures or the ‘ Clash of Civilisations’ if you agree with Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington. And simultaneously, as Europeans, we are making an urgent reassessment of what we mean by and want from "Europe".
2. I speak as the Chairman of the European Publishers’ Council a grouping of 29 Chairmen and Chief Executives of major European media groups who, though we may be commercial rivals, keep in close touch on matters of common interest. We publish newspapers, books, journals and magazines – in print and online. Many of us are also television and radio broadcasters.
Our immediate concern is the international operation of all the media – old and new – through an appropriate balance of regulation, self regulation and de-regulation.
The thoughtful papers on the legislative issues before this audio visual conference were close to completion, I guess, at the end of May when France rocked the European Union by saying "Non" – a surprise apparently to everyone except the French voters themselves!
In France the mainstream media – television, radio, newspapers and magazines all promoted a "yes" vote. Meanwhile, out of sight of the politicians at least, although the writing was on the wall from the opinion polls, an "information frenzy" was underway, as many citizens and some journalists blogged side by side to enhance and promote a new-found freedom of expression. The web served as a political forum – an "electronic republic", for those who considered themselves distant from tired television formats or paternalistic print media.
A similar internet and SMS mini revolution had previously taken place in Spain during the very short time between the terrorist bombs of March 2004 and the general election a few days later. It may have been instrumental in the change of the Spanish government. I wonder what these experiences in France and Spain say to the politicians who still seek to impose rules to safeguard diversity of opinion and to control the ownership of
newspapers and television channels.
3. We need to take a step back…to start from a new beginning. We need to review not just the regulatory framework of the media, but its very fundamental purpose. For what we do know is that the future will bring convergence of media, old and new, linear and non-linear: Television, radio, print, movies and the internet will blend together, distinguished mainly by the hardware we use for access. If we are to preserve the intrinsic freedom of the internet, should we not ensure that convergence brings similar and greater freedoms to television too…? Here’s the problem:
The conference papers deal with future regulation but are based largely on a previous, important law: "The Television without Frontiers Directive", which was born in the days of greater certainty about the needs of citizens… and the role of the media. Some of the Directive’s principles -like the country of origin – are still valid and we should be careful to preserve that. But many of the current assumptions about new regulation are not founded on a sound basis by which to plan the future.
In 1989 Europe had borders and technologies that you could readily define for legislation. Television, radio, newspapers, magazines and books were clearly distinct entities. Not so today. Convergence with the internet has changed all that. Can we really plan the future from an "audiovisual" past?
It may be tempting to do so because we experience the new media on a screen – whether a PC, a mobile, a PDA… but we must not fall into the trap of allowing our regulatory thinking to treat the new media like television just because we see them on a screen. Websites, blogs, text messages… they all spring from the same soil as publishing – books and newspapers… that is with few barriers to entry and business models fundamentally different from television. You cannot regulate the content of the Net as if it were TV. It was reassuring to hear Fabio Collasanti saying this afternoon that the Commission "does not intend to regulate the internet". We must therefore refine this debate so we all understand what the Commission intends.
A young woman in Liverpool or Lisbon may watch a television programme today and it is regulated by European rules, some legal, and some self regulatory. A young man may listen to the radio in Madrid or Mannheim and that too is regulated by his government. But the same pair may then go to their computers or mobile devices and watch a film or listen to a radio relay or a television programme from a country where no such regulation exists.
If those same young people were to read the remits for this conference,they might be surprised to see so little recognition of this universality of the Web. No uniquely European legislation can ignore or prevent that universality. They would both, I suspect, regard any new legislation as premature.
Publishing and now the Internet do not operate in a regulatory vacuum. What is illegal on printed paper is illegal online. Publishers – and the advertisers who support us -subject ourselves also to Self-Regulation, an important and well-tested part of our operation, even though this is still viewed with mistrust by some in government. And again in self-regulation we practise the principles of country of origin.
4. The media are at the very heart of Europe. We provide thousands of jobs. We keep the peoples of Europe informed. We entertain them. We help educate them. It is through the media that the very idea of the Community,the Union of nations, has grown and flowered (however much, on occasion,some politicians may express their doubts!). We contribute to vital causes like nature conservation, global warming, healthy diets for children and the celebration of our cultural heritages.
But to play those roles properly, we must be able to exercise the freedom of speech – whether in print, or increasingly online – whether through the written word, sound, photographs, video or info-graphics …independently, free from government control – and to do so profitably.
Profitability is particularly important when the landscape is changing so fast. We strive to deliver sensible self-regulation and appropriate protection for our consumers but we must operate on level fields of competition. Therefore we do not welcome constrictive legislation, nor well meaning but negative constraints at a time when change, opportunity and competitiveness are prime considerations. Quality, independence and profit go hand in hand.
5. Competition is fierce and unbalanced. Conventional broadcast television audiences have shrunk dramatically in many countries, our classic printed newspaper market is declining, while use of the internet is soaring. In ten years time I’m confident that today’s media and entertainment corporations will still be providing branded content and services, but their business models, revenue streams and key relations with advertisers,consumers and competitors will be dramatically different. Household names will compete alongside blogging consumers and new ‘techno-entrepreneurs’ – providing a new generation of content, products and services through a never ending array of digital broadband interactive devices.
We need the space and time to allow these markets to evolve without the inhibition of premature intervention and regulation.
Change is never easy, and the current opportunities are immensely challenging as we in the media face competition from newcomers on the internet. They seek to compete head on with traditional news and information providers, including, of course, the incumbent publicly funded broadcasters, who themselves seek new ways to extend into new media, as we heard today from Mark Thompson, who set out the BBC’s ambitious plans for the future. The concept of ‘public service’ is enshrined in the TV without Frontiers Directive but we must be careful that publicly funded media also obey the rules of fair competition, and remain distinctive from the commercial players – if they are to justify receiving the privilege of state funding into the future.
6. Let’s not forget that across the ocean is the United States, a massive player globally in all media, where, by the way, the concept and financing of public television is completely different from the state-funded European model.
Simply in terms of advertising revenues, newspapers in the US out-perform Western Europe by 39%; magazines by 23%. American television and radio out-gun Europe by 58%. There is an equally high disparity between EU and US advertising spend on the internet: EU ad spend in 2004 reached 2.8 billion Euros while in the US ad spend in 2004 was already 7.75 billion Euros. Any further regulatory restrictions on advertising, on its content, the amount, the format… will further limit European competitiveness.
Advertising is our major source of income. We face the biggest shift ever in advertising revenues, as consumer attention turns from traditional media to the internet and mobile. There is a new confidence in the internet now, attracting real money, in stark contrast from five years ago after the dot.com crash. The quest for information, products and services takes us beyond the borders of Europe, outside our regulatory framework. We are now part of the global communications and content markets. An old fashioned approach to regulation is as obsolete as Windows 95 or floppy disks – remember them?!
7. The Television without Frontiers Directive carries an obsolete ban on prescription pharmaceutical advertising – which is also banned in the press in Europe. This may seem a marginal example of an advertising ban.It is not. In the US in 2004 the advertising market for direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical products was worth 2.8 billion US dollars and is predicted to rise by 2008 to 3.8 billion US dollars. But these are advertising revenues which are not available to European media. And it’s not just about money…it’s a question of people having the freedom to use their media and get information about all the products in the market.
8. Many people are concerned about ads for alcohol but, if we want to cut down on drunkenness, let’s look to and cure the social causes. It’s the same with certain types of food, or ads which reach children. Some people have suggested complete bans during "children’s" television programmes. Is this really sensible, when we know that such ads will swiftly move elsewhere, that the kids will find them on the internet or even on their play stations… but coming from outside EU jurisdiction? There are methods to protect them by adding filters to computers. But surely this is the job of parents or the schools, not of governments to introduce over-arching bans or blocking mechanisms with uniform rating systems. That is the thin end of censorship.
You may feel that I’m over-reacting. We all know that word censorship. Few of you here will have direct experience of it. I have.
For 12 years I worked as an Editor on a newspaper in Lisbon under the regime of President Salazar who you may remember retained power for over 35 years! Not only my editorial content was checked and sometimes blacked out, but so was the content of much of the advertising…
9. Why are we as commercial media uneasy about government intervention in controlling our affairs?
Politicians come to power under the spotlight of the media who give them a platform… I know, I was Prime Minister of Portugal in the 1980s so I have been both politician and media man… As you can see I didn’t manage to hang on quite as long as Salazar… When they come to power politicians soon realise those same commentators who contributed to their rise can, and sometimes do, unseat them. Politicians are nervous of the media, jealous even, and their natural instinct is to try to exercise control as well as blaming the media for their own failures. But they dare not use outright force, so they hedge the media round with small restrictions – a let here, a hindrance or two there.
You have heard of Ling Chi? A method of execution in China for perhaps a thousand years until, I’m told, 1905! Yes, Ling Chi : death by a thousand cuts…
The European Commission exists to harmonize, to improve the internal market and in the process we do feel sometimes that we are subject to a cutting and slicing of our freedoms, our opportunities and our competitiveness. It is no surprise to this ex Politician that the Commission is sharpening the pencils on its desk. What is vital is that
any change that is under even preliminary discussion must be subject to a rigorous regulatory and economic Impact Assessment…Not just of the individual trees in the forest, but of the global forest itself. Why? So that the potential impact on the freedom of expression and existing systems of self-regulation is taken fully into account alongside the economic and structural aspects. If issues are dealt with, prematurely, one by one and our competitiveness is reduced bit by bit, we suffer a version of Ling Chi. Once freedoms are cut it is almost impossible to retrieve them. I would ask our politicians to make haste slowly.
10. I am sure that as editors, parents, politicians, business people, you will share my concern. After 50 years of relative peace in Europe, we are faced with unprecedented insecurity in and outside the European Union. We ourselves have a role in interpreting and helping us all to understand what is happening in this clash of religions and cultures. We must prevent the growth of disillusion and distrust. We need to communicate not just with information but with knowledge and understanding.
And we must do this at a time when the very principles underlying democracy may be under threat – as governments nobly struggle to counter terrorism. We the media must fight for the fine principles reiterated by President Thomas Jefferson at his inauguration in 1801 -
"the freedom of religion, the freedom of the press, the freedom of the person under the protection of habeas corpus and trial by juries impartially selected…"
In the months to come, we shall measure the actions of our governments against those words.
I began by doubting whether there is much in the past that could help us plan for this uncertain future.
It would be nonsense to try to impose on content providers regulation appropriate to a past age. Our governments must recognise that Europeans are actually consumers worldwide.
We must preserve the fundamental freedom to provide our media services throughout the European Union when they comply with the laws of the country of origin. We should all put greater trust in Self-Regulation, as the only sensible way to complement the general law…and to cope with the speed and complexity of "information without frontiers".
Rigorous Impact Assessments must always be central to any discussion about the need for further regulation.
I started by expressing concern that we had been almost overtaken by Future. I have, I hope, made clear that, until we better understand the changes we are living through right now, new regulation would be premature and ill advised. Let us first fully comprehend the Present. Till then let me join Lennon and McCartney and
"Whisper words of wisdom:
Let it be, let it be…."