Politicians pontificate on media theory

Although set in Germany’s most important media location, the Cologne-based Medienforum NRW has experienced a steep decline from its glory days in the 1990s. Then, media – especially television and online – were everybody’s darling with strong growth rates and burgeoning employment opportunities, and government subsidies were dispensed generously. But in the meantime, as a result of the economic crisis and structural changes in recent years, politicians as well as business managers tend to see the media sector more realistically and with much less excitement. This also affects the Cologne event, which now struggles to find topics relevant enough to merit a slot in the German media community’s busy schedules.

This year, however, offered new opportunities. Since the Medienforum took place near the end of the German EU Presidency, both Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU Commissioner Viviane Reding used the opportunity to present their respective views of media policy in a European context. Two core issues emerged which are currently occupying the pertinent debates in Germany: A renewed support for the public broadcasting system (expressed by Merkel and Northrhine-Westphalia’s Prime Minister Jürgen Rüttgers), and, two, almost unanimous opposition to the EU’s plan to auction off air frequencies.

Chancellor Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany, put a strong emphasis on media freedom and variety; with a smile, she noted that although on a lot of mornings she felt that she might very well do without a large portion of what the media offer, she always highly appreciated how democracy is expressed and practised through this multiplicity of news and opinion. Therefore, Merkel accentuated, media in general and broadcasters in particular must not only be considered a business, but also with regard to their function for the public sphere. She acclaimed that the dispute between the European Commission and Germany over the financing of public broadcasting had recently been settled to the effect that the German system is reassured, and criticised the plans to sell radio frequencies to the highest bidder rather than deliberately allocating them with the public interest in mind. The EU Member States, Merkel added, should retain the power to shape their own media landscapes.

Commissioner Reding, on the other hand, advocated in her keynote address the European point of view. Referring to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, she explained her position that effective media policy needs to take three interdependent fundamentals equally into account: Freedom of opinion, freedom of the media, and media pluralism. While the first one is largely uncontested throughout the EU (although Reding pointed out examples where this value is currently challenged within the Union and in some Third States), the other two pillars are subject to a diversity of interpretations between the Member Countries. Reding said that because actual media freedom requires a sound financial foundation of the media companies, the market should be as deregulated as possible. This would at the same time reduce state influence, foster economic development and offer more choice to the citizens. Defending the new Audio-Visual Media Services Directive (formerly known as Television Without Frontiers Directive), which was received with some reservations in Germany because of the new rules for product placement, Reding emphasised that she is, therefore, decidedly opposed to advertising restrictions and mandatory content quotas.

The Commissioner also noted that while the notion of media pluralism as such is acknowledged in the entire European Union, a common understanding of what it actually means and requires under different economic and societal circumstances remains yet to be defined, and announced an EU initiative to this effect.

The subsequent panel discussion focused on the duality of the media as both an economic and a cultural good, and proved, again, how difficult it is to reconcile these fundamentally different perspectives. With the debate about possible terrestrial frequency auctions in mind, head lobbyists of the two major commercial German television chains argued that surrendering the air waves to market mechanisms would be the beginning of the end of all pluralism-enhancing media regulation. As the incumbent private TV channels are living quite comfortably with must-carry rules politically securing their distribution over the air, cable, and satellites, they apparently are afraid that further deregulation would cost them additional money and encourage competition from outside their own securely established domains. In order to stress this point, the private broadcasters, somewhat ironically, pleaded that their services fall within the domain of culture – a notion they normally would have dismissed out of hand.

This was also at odds with a remark by Prime Minister Rüttgers, who stated that the role of private broadcasters was to drive innovation, while the public broadcasters should rather assure consistently high quality standards. Although this might have been a let-down for the public media system which is very intent on further developing its innovative capacities, it also seemed like a quite good description of the common reputation of the commercial electronic media.