EU: Pressures on papers

In a keynote speech at ENPA’s Tête à Tête with the Press Lord Black, a member of ENPA’s executive committee, said:

It’s a very great pleasure to be here this evening, right at the start of a new Parliament and on the brink of a new Commission, to share with you some thoughts about the huge opportunities and challenges that face the press throughout Europe in the next five years, and most importantly the ways in which we hope to work with you on some of the key issues that will arise for the European news media between now and 2019.

Let me start by stating the obvious - that there is of course a huge paradox surrounding the modern media, particularly that part of it which was once print-based. I always think of the way Charles Dickens starts “A Tale of Two Cities”: “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times” because it’s a bit like that for us.

It’s the best of times because today’s media is fuelled by the most extraordinary creative energy based on the white heat of the digital revolution. Our ability to provide ever more high quality content across an exponentially increasing range of new platforms, winning huge new on-line audiences, is enormous. For those who invest in technology and nurture talent, particularly among young people whose enthusiasm for journalism is greater than ever, this is a golden age of opportunity.

But it really is also the worst of times as the business model which has sustained us for generations crumbles, as the legal protection of what is at the centre of everything we do – content – is being undermined, and as giant search engines and on-line news websites change for ever the way people consume news and advertisers advertise. For those failing to keep up with such dramatic change - and there is still time - the situation will become increasingly critical.

 

We are an industry in rapid transformation but also one under real, unrelenting pressure. Yet perhaps most importantly we are also an industry which for the sake of a free society must survive and prosper. Freedom of expression is the foundation on which European democracy, and European civilization, is built – for it is the guardian of every other freedom we as European citizens take for granted. Where the press falters, either because of a direct attack on its freedoms or more likely because it fails commercially, democracies themselves also falter. That is why our Association is passionate about it and why we will be ever vigilant in safeguarding it.

And I think that is a belief that those of you who have come fresh from hard fought elections will feel as strongly about as those in the media - for the political process requires a lively, inquiring press, a right to receive and impart opinion, and a free flow of information to electors. In other words although different sides of the same coin, a free press is as vital for Parliamentarians as it is for us as publishers.

So the issues we are going to discuss tonight are not special pleading. If we value democracy then we have to value a commercially successful free press. And that is why we are so keen to open up and nurture dialogue with you.

That dialogue is as crucial as ever for despite the weight of history – and despite the constitutional guarantees for free speech in our ECHR and elsewhere – freedom of expression remains a very delicate commodity.

The appalling events of recent weeks, which saw the brutal murder of two journalists at the hands of IS, underline in a very dramatic way that being a reporter can be extremely dangerous in some parts of the world. That is something Elmar Brok, the distinguished Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, who has always argued so passionately in favour of democracy and press freedom across the world, knows so well, and it an honour to have him here tonight.

We mainly have challenges different from that, and it’s those I want to address tonight.

For me threats to a free press come in two different forms. The first is easy to see and understand – and that is a direct assault on self regulation and the imposition of formal legal controls on the press. That is what has happened in the last three years in the United Kingdom where the so-called Royal Charter on press regulation, alongside legislation imposing exemplary levels of damages in libel and privacy matters on publishers who do not co-operate with a new state licensing system, is the first set of statutory press controls in Great Britain since 1695. It is a very dangerous and draconian system and publishers in my country are united in their determination to oppose it, including taking action if necessary in the European Court. That is an example of a very direct and obvious threat to free expression and indeed we have seen in recent years that other established democracies in Europe are not immune to similar such threats.

Much more complicated is the second way that a free press can be undermined, and that is by stealth, through the accumulation of often well-meaning regulations or apparently harmless red tape or by the slow cutting away of copyright protection - all of which make it more and more difficult to run a successful business. And commercial success is so important because if the press is not successful commercially it cannot be free, because it cannot invest in high quality investigative journalism.

 

That means we need the freedom to operate without undue interference in either our editorial or our commercial operations and I’d like to give you some concrete examples.

All of us here today are committed to the highest standards of reporting, but the only way effectively to achieve that without infringing press freedom is by recognising the importance and value of voluntary industry self-regulation systems at a national level, including Press Councils, industry best practice guidance and codes of conduct. Undue centralised regulation – possibly under the guise of something like “monitoring” – would impinge on editorial freedom in a way that would be extremely harmful to our role as public watchdogs.

A point which stems directly from that is data protection, a subject which is of huge importance to all journalists, and particularly those involved in investigative journalism. This arises because the changes in technology that have happened over the last few years mean that data protection laws – which in most countries have criminal force – now cover virtually every aspect of the way a journalist operates. Without a strong and clear exemption for journalistic data processing in the new data protection regulations, journalists and publishers across Europe will find themselves dragged into a regime of censorship, controlled by data protection authorities, embracing most of the day to day work of the press and news media, including investigations, the protection of confidential sources of information, and the reporting, publishing and archiving of an article.

Given the huge importance of this issue for us, we are privileged to have with us here this evening former Commission Vice President and newly elected MEP Viviane Reding, who was the Commissioner in charge of this proposal. Mrs Reding has been a strong defender of Article 80 in the draft Regulation, which recognises the crucial importance of press freedom in Europe. We shall continue to need her help in advocating a legally binding and directly applicable Article 80 in the Parliament’s second reading.

Another area where the structure of law needs to work with the grain of massive digital change relates to Audio Visual Media Services, a subject the new Parliament will continue to debate.

Because of the way that news websites have developed, there has long been a danger that news providers will find themselves pulled into a statutory regime that would be incompatible with press freedom. The Parliament has always recognised the special place of the press in the new media landscape and we hope this will be maintained during the current discussions on the future of the AVMS Directive, particularly in regard to editorial videos.

Aside from these editorial regulatory issues, there are a number of commercial and business issues that are crucial to the success of the news media sector, particularly at a time when our on-line activities, absolutely vital if we are to survive, are facing a digital market distorted by some of the activities of giant technology platforms.

For us to be able to compete we need three things. The first is a tax regime that recognises the special role that the press plays in European democracy. A majority of Member States apply reduced, super-reduced or zero rates of VAT to the printed press to ensure it is sustainable and because of its role in promoting wider public policy interests such as literacy and cultural diversity. However, the current VAT regime penalises the digital press which is our future. We believe that to address this the EU should come forward urgently with proposals to allow Member States the possibility of applying zero, super-reduced or reduced VAT rates on electronic publishing while maintaining the existing regime for printed products.

 

The second, which is the bedrock of our business, is a stable copyright regime that encourages freedom of expression and above all investment in content. We know that review of copyright will be high on the agenda of the Juncker Commission. From our perspective the current regime works well in terms of protecting the rights of content creators and the rights of consumers or users.

Digitisation has not reduced but increased the need for copyright protection together with better enforcement. Any significant new exceptions to it will damage a free press as surely as any full frontal legal assault. It is that important to us. 

And finally, I give you what is perhaps the elephant in the room – and it is certainly the size of an elephant. That is Google. Google and other giant technology platforms have an enormous impact on our businesses. And they also have an impact on the way that European citizens – your electors - access news because of their ability to make content visible. Fair competition and equal search are therefore fundamental to the proper functioning of today’s media eco-system, and to the sustainability of a free news media which benefits content creators, advertisers, users and customers alike. Central to this are the discussions that the Commission is currently having with Google as part of an ongoing competition inquiry.

ENPA and its national members are supporting the complaints by the German and Spanish newspaper and magazine publishers’ associations. After four years of negotiations, Google has still not come up with a proposal that addresses the main competition concerns. We therefore count on the incoming Competition Commissioner to take a decisive step by issuing a statement of objections.

We are particularly delighted to have with us this evening Ana Gomes MEP, who has made some very pertinent public comments about the impact of Google in the creative sector in Europe. We welcome the Parliament’s ongoing efforts to ensure an open and transparent debate about an issue fundamental to media policy and to a free press.

Ladies and Gentlemen, all of these issues are important in their own right but they also central to the nurturing of a vibrant creative economy, of which the press is the corner-stone, throughout the European Union. We wholeheartedly agree with the mission given to incoming Commissioner Oettinger about the “development of creative industries and of a successful European media and content industry able to reach out to new audiences, adapt to the digital era and thrive in the connected Digital Single Market” and create jobs. We want to work with you in achieving that. It is a huge opportunity to make a real difference to the peoples of Europe.

 I hope the very quick summary of a few of the key issues relating to intertwined press and commercial freedoms with which both you, as Parliamentarians, and we will be faced over the next few years has been helpful. They are succinctly summarised in the new ENPA “10 Action Points” brochure, which we are launching this evening and which I hope you will find of use. Publishers across Europe, and my colleagues at ENPA, greatly look forward to working with you during the new mandate. We will be in touch from time to time. But please also be in touch with us if you need information or support in your hugely important deliberations.