Marianne Mikko (PES, Estonia) apparently harbours a profound suspicion of blogs and blogging, as reflected in the terminology she has employed in relation to our "polluting" cyberspace and our propensity to indulge in "misinformation and malicious intent".
Such generalisations, inaccurate and offensive though they may be, could have been shrugged off had it not been for the fact that Ms Mikko is the author of an own-initiative report on Concentration and pluralism in the media in the European Union (final version, PE402.864v02-00). Although it possesses no legal force, the report nevertheless offers an insight into what future legislative initiatives may be expected from the Commission. On the one hand, blogging has grown into a form of expression important enough to have caught the eye of politicians and regulators, whilst on the other the response illustrates the complete lack of understanding of the phenomenon amongst those eager to place restrictions upon it. Incidentally, she has in the meantime hastily cobbled together a blog of her own, presumably to stave off accusations that she is busy shooting her mouth of on issues she is eminently unqualified to address.
The initial working document (PE398.617v01-00) sets out the background to the report, articulating the concerns that inspired it: "Media freedom and pluralism are vital for democracy, given their essential role in guaranteeing free expression of opinions and ideas and in contributing to peoples’ effective participation in the democratic process.
The European Parliament has shown continual concern for the defence and the promotion of media pluralism, as an essential pillar of the right to information and freedom of expression enshrined in Article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which remain fundamental principles in preserving democracy.
Plurality of information from a wide variety of sources, as well as access to a wide range of high quality information, are the prerequisites for democratic communication in an open and democratic society.
European citizens are not only entitled to have guaranteed access to independent, objective and impartial information but also to a wide choice of other high-quality content".
I doubt very much whether any of these sentiments in themselves would upset bloggers. After all, absolutely anyone can create a blog – you don’t even have to own your own computer to do so, as libraries and Internet cafés provide access without the cost being prohibitive and if you do not want to pay a monthly fee to a host you can sign up to Blogger. Your arguments and viewpoints are similarly preserved in the virtual world and, unless you are a ferociously outspoken critic of certain regimes your writings can potentially reach an audience right across the globe. What could possibly be more conducive to "effective participation in the democratic process"? This is precisely what sets blogs apart, what makes them intoxicating for those who devote their time and energy to them. Their sheer variety is overwhelming: there are teenagers seeking catharsis for their hormonally-induced angst, feminists picking apart the latest batch of newspaper articles perpetuating gender stereotypes, even politicians anxious to show that they are not so out of touch as they are often lambasted for being. Yes, there is plenty of dross, yes, there are exquisitely crafted products that do not receive the recognition they deserve, but this cacophony of voices competing for public notice has permanently altered the relationship we have with those in authority over us, increasing accountability (for the simple reason that it is no longer possible for local councils to behave in a heavy-handed manner without provoking an outcry on the Web). Instantaneity of communication amongst members of, for example, a pressure group to save a stretch of woodland with a shared blog as a forum and the flow of information more generally increases transparency and (hopefully) discourages those in positions of power from abusing the privilege. The most anti-democratic move conceivable would therefore be to attempt to stem that flow. Blogging reigns supreme when it comes to "democratic communication in an open and democratic society".
Turning back to the working document, an extension of the EU’s powers is a recurrent theme throughout the text. It would be an error to dismiss these calls out of hand as they represent an endorsement to the Commission in striving to enhance its role:
"The EU competence to act on media pluralism is confined to the area of competition law. However, the financial scale of activities directed at vertical and horizontal concentration of media ownership in the most new member states of the EU does not extend to the point where EU competition law would apply.
The media is not only a business but also an ideological and political tool of considerable influence. A case could therefore be made for greater EU and international involvement.
We should consider creating a charter for media freedom and strive for its Europe-wide and indeed global acceptance and ratification. There is a need to monitor systems for media pluralism based on robust, reliable and impartial indicators".
Another preoccupation pertains to the erosion of quality of content, or "dumbing down", of the entertainment on offer (yet who is going to stop a bored pensioner from tuning into the thousandth episode of a Brazilian soap when the only alternative is another generic home improvement or antiques auctioning show?):
"Despite the progress of new information technologies, television remains a most influential source of information for European citizens. Viewers now have hundreds of channels at their disposal. As new formats such as Mobile TV as well as new channels made available by the digital switchover develop, there are now endless possibilities for the display of [a] wide variety of content.
However the greater quantity available has not lead to an increase in quality. Instead there has been a noticeable drop in the quality of content throughout the EU, most notably and seriously in news reporting, TV throughout Europe becoming less informative and more sensationalist.
Concentration of ownership has resulted in a lower quality of content. The current drop in quality of programs is most noticeable in Member States where there is a high concentration of media ownership.
The most powerful corporations are able to use the scalability of their business models to displace the possible new entrants. new and high-quality providers will find it hard to compete against the content cheaply recycled from other markets, other channels and from the archives of a big company.
Thus the proliferation of new channels may simply increase the power of a few corporations, solely concerned with profit maximisation".
As Ms Mikko goes on to admit, this is primarily a problem in the new Member States.
Cheap schedule-fillers also come under fire:
"Especially the publications aimed at entertaining the mass market customer are increasingly using the content generated by their readers and viewers. Videos and pictures from mobile phones, holiday or real-life stories are some of the examples of the content generated by the general public and published through for-profit channels. The customers receive at most symbolic rewards for their content, sometimes in the format of the customer lottery with a main prize and several smaller prizes.
Such content is displacing professional content to the detriment of the media professionals’ livelihood and to the journalistic level of the content. The measures to counter such trends could include institutionalised rates of compensation for user-generated content.
User-generated content also creates a danger of constant surveillance and invasion of privacy for public figures as well as private citizens. Therefore the applicability of ethical and legal codes to such content should be debated".
Frankly, I would have thought that the paparazzi have cornered that market. The price of celebrity, no matter how minor or fleeting, the unrelenting glare. An insatiable demand exists for every tiny detail of the lives of the famous, the wrinkles on their hands and necks that ruin the deception of eternal youth so carefully (and expensively) performed by the plastic surgeons, or whether the PM bites his nails (which could be interpreted as a physical manifestation of his inner turmoil). Even the humblest citizens are under constant scrutiny anyway. Personally, I am infinitely more worried by government surveillance, the CCTV cameras, the desire to track our every movement by installing devices into cars, ostensibly to tax drivers more fairly, the more exhaust fumes you pump out into the atmosphere, the more you pay, but which in reality, is a means of keeping tabs on every trip (the same goes for the Oyster card, which can likewise be used to establish our whereabouts, provided it is registered in our name, of course). The minutiae of our daily lives is available for bureaucrats and corporations to pore over, right down to which brand of biscuits we prefer, courtesy of our supermarket loyalty cards. In this wider cultural context you can hardly blame the casual bystander for cashing in no matter how disapproving you might be of the wider cultural trend that whets this unsavoury appetite. Ms Mikko is shooting at the wrong target. Indeed, more relevantly, where is the condemnation of journalists cheerfully reproducing passages from bloggers without permission or remuneration?
Finally, the core anxiety is rendered explicit, the presumed incompetence of the ordinary consumer:
"Some would argue that at the end of the day viewers are responsible enough to regulate themselves and freely decide what they choose to watch, and there is no need to regulate to preserve media pluralism. This would be the case if viewers were media literate. Unfortunately this is far from true.
Information today is above all visual. All media messages are constructed using a creative language with its own rules, promoting values and points of view and are often designed to gain profit and/or power.
Media literacy would constitute a good tool for safeguarding media pluralism, as viewers would be able to independently judge the content of the programs or information to which they have access.
In this respect, the EU citizens should be encouraged to develop the skills to analyse content and manage information, which would allow them to think creatively and critically".
These points are reiterated in the report proper, as it emerged from the Committee on Culture and Education (PE402.864v02-00), with 33 votes in favour, one against and no abstentions, as demonstrated by the passages cited below.
Recital S: "whereas, however, respect for pluralism of information and diversity of content is not automatically guaranteed by technological advances, but must come about through an active, consistent and vigilant policy on the part of the national and European public authorities".
Recital V: "whereas the media remains a tool of political influence, and whereas there is a considerable risk to the media’s ability to carry out its functions as a watchdog of democracy, as private media enterprises are predominantly motivated by financial profit; whereas this carries the danger of a loss of diversity, quality of content and multiplicity of opinions, therefore the custody of media pluralism should not be left purely to market mechanisms".
The recitals are so numerous that they continue into double letters: "AB. whereas media consumers should have access to a wide choice of content".
AG. whereas in commercial media outlets private user-generated content, especially audiovisual content, is increasingly utilised for a nominal fee or without any payment, raising problems of ethics and protection of privacy, a practice putting journalists and other media professionals under undue competitive pressure,
AH. whereas the increased use of user-generated content does not always respect the rules on privacy of citizens and public figures, and whereas, therefore, legal means need to be provided to protect those concerned".
"AU. whereas the EU has no intrinsic competence to regulate media concentration, nevertheless its competence in various policy fields enables it to play an active role in safeguarding and promoting media pluralism; whereas competition and state aid law, audiovisual and telecommunication regulation as well as external (trade) relations are areas in which the EU can and should actively pursue a policy to strengthen and foster media pluralism,
AV. whereas there are a growing number of conflicts concerning freedom of expression,
AW. whereas, in the information society, media education is an essential means of empowering citizens to make an informed and active contribution to democracy,
AX. whereas the increased supply of information (particularly thanks to the Internet) is making the interpretation and assessment thereof increasingly important".
"BA. whereas we live in a society constantly being bombarded with information, instant communications and unfiltered messages, while the selection of information requires particular abilities".
Once again, we are confronted with Ms Mikko’s patronising assumption that the Great Unwashed are idiots, devoid of an ounce (or should that be a gram?) of discernment and common sense. Even if this were true, the best means of remedying the perceived problem would indeed be to enable readers to maintain a critical distance from texts through developing their analytical skills, rather than clamping down on blogs. The public are portrayed as hapless, guileless infants, bloggers cast in the role of the wicked witch with the apple, one bite of which would poison their victims.
The actual recommendations are presented in the body of the report:
Paragraph 5: "Points out that the development of the media system is increasingly driven by profit-making and that, therefore, societal, political or economic processes, or values expressed in journalists’ codes of conduct, are not adequately safeguarded; considers, therefore, that competition law must be interlinked with media law, in order to guarantee access, competition and quality and avoid conflicts of interests between media ownership concentration and political power, which are detrimental to free competition, a level playing field and pluralism".
Paragraph 12: "Welcomes the Commission’s intention to develop specific indicators to evaluate media pluralism".
Paragraph 13: "Calls for further indicators, in addition to media pluralism, to be drawn up as criteria for analysing the media, including its orientation as regards democracy, the rule of law, human and minority rights and professional codes of conduct for journalists".
Paragraph 14: "Considers that the rules on media concentration should govern not only the ownership and production of media content, but also the (electronic) channels and mechanisms for access to and dissemination of content on the Internet, such as search engines".
Paragraph 21: "Stresses the need for the EU and Member State authorities to ensure journalistic and editorial independence by appropriate and specific legal and social guarantees, and points out the importance of creation and of uniform application in member States, and all markets where EU-based media companies operate, of editorial charters to prevent owners, shareholders, or outside bodies such as governments, from interfering with news content".
Paragraph 22: "Calls on Member States to ensure through appropriate means a suitable balance among political and social sensibilities, in particular in the context of news and current affairs programs".
Paragraph 27: Recommends the inclusion of media literacy among the European key competences and supports the development of the European core curriculum for media literacy while underlining their role in overcoming any form of digital divide".
Paragraph 28: "Maintains that the purpose of media education must be, as laid down in Council of Europe Recommendation 1466 (2000), to provide citizens with the means of bringing critical interpretation to bear on, and utilising, the ever growing volume of information being imparted to them; considers that this learning process will enable citizens to formulate messages and select the most appropriate media for communicating them, and hence to exercise their rights to the full where freedom of information and expression is concerned".
This is the backdrop against which Ms Mikko’s pronouncements on blogging have to be assessed.
The working document states:
"Weblogs are increasingly popular among the general public as well as among the media professionals. In several cases they have considerably influenced the decisions taken by the business and media executives – or even regarding those executives.
Many professional journalists run blogs on their employers’ websites; others do it on dedicated hosting sites. the legal status of weblogs kept ‘privately’ by media professionals is undetermined, causing uncertainties regarding source protection, applicability of ethical codes and the assignment of liability in the event of lawsuits. the same questions apply to a certain extent to the weblogs of politicians/public figures and private citizens.
Additionally, the widespread use of weblogs by media professionals gives rise to questions regarding the pluralism of the content in their primary occupation".
The report itself deals with blogging in two recitals and two paragraphs:
Recital T: "whereas, while the Internet has greatly increased access to various sources of information, views and opinions, it has not yet replaced the traditional media as a decisive public opinion former".
"AI. whereas weblogs represent an important new contribution to media pluralism and are an increasingly common medium for self-expression by media professionals as well as by private persons; their proliferation implies a need to establish legal safeguards providing for the assignment of liability in the event of lawsuits, and establishing the right to reply".
Paragraph 25: "Suggests clarifying the legal status of weblogs and sites based on user-generated content, assimilating them for legal purposes with any other form of public expression".
Paragraph 26: "Supports the protection of copyrights at the level of online media, the third parties having to mention the source when taking over declarations".
The Explanatory Statement endeavours to account for Ms Mikko’s eagerness to meddle: "The development and acceptance of new technologies have led to the emergence of new media channels and new kinds of content. The emergence of new media has brought more dynamic and diversity into the media landscape; the report encourages responsible use of new channels.
In this context the report points out that the undetermined and unindicated status of authors and publishers of weblogs causes uncertainties regarding impartiality, reliability, source protection, applicability of ethical codes and the assignment of liability in the event of lawsuits.
It recommends clarification of the legal status of different categories of weblog authors and publishers as well as disclosure of interests and voluntary labelling of weblogs".
Four alternative resolutions were tabled by way of amendments (as prescribed by Rule 151 (4) of Parliament’s internal procedures) jointly by Christa Prets on behalf of the Socialist Group and Hannu Takkula for the Liberals (A6-0303/1), by Pál Schmitt for the European People’s Party-European Democrats (A6-0303/2), Helga Trüpel for the Greens/European Free Alliance (A6-0303/3) and finally by Věra Flasarová, Giusto Catania and Umberto Guidoni for the United European Left/Nordic Green Left (A6-0303/4). Although there are slight variations in the numbering of the recitals and paragraphs between the modifications, the wording on blogging is identical in each. The new recital reads: "whereas weblogs represent an important new contribution to freedom of expression and are increasingly used by media professionals as well as by private persons" and the less belligerent passage in the main text: "Encourages an open discussion on all issues relating to the status of weblogs".
As has become apparent, the main focus of the report is on the mainstream media, more specifically television. Blogging seems curiously out of place, tacked on gratuitously, or perhaps because Ms Mikko is keen to demonstrate how web-savvy she is and the Internet to her mind poses a threat to the livelihood of journalists as the public have grown tired of reading the bland, editorially triple-checked output of paid columnists, whose authority to pontificate on subjects about which they know little (often in a drearily didactic tone) has correspondingly diminished. Niche blogs where members of a given profession reveal what goes on behind the facade, demystifying their occupations and mercilessly expose the flaws that riddle the system, rightfully condemning the resulting absurdities, might even intrude on the territory of the undercover investigative journalist, but, given the incomparable wealth of insight and experience of the insider, this is not necessarily to be lamented.
The democratic credentials of blogging cannot be impeached, but its very popularity (fuelled in part by the dream of discovery and escape, or the yearning to establish contact with others in the same situation) has attracted politicians and journalists, who have parasitically exploited our medium to generate cheap publicity for themselves, to clamour for our admiration, in short to maximise the privilege they already enjoy in excess, yet we bloggers are expected to submit to regulatory intrusions because of their relentless self-promotion (for them to fall out of the limelight is to cease to exist). Surely this is the wrong way round. Not that I am advocating that blogs by public figures or newspaper scribes be targeted, subscribing to the thin-end-of-the-wedge theory. If the blogs in question are subsumed under the newspaper’s or party’s main site then the halfway intelligent reader will surmise that – in the absence of a specific disclaimer – the contents meet with party/editorial approval or will at least to some extent accord with the general outlook or policy of the organisation involved. Any postings will therefore be influenced by the values that the newspaper or party adhere to, even supposing they deliberately wish to provoke debate by disagreeing with a specific initiative or viewpoint. So far, so patently obvious. When the same politician/journalist maintains a private blog (what Ms Mikko frets over), as a form of flaunting themselves or a less than subtle means of soliciting business, it is highly unlikely that they will suddenly abandon those core convictions. Far from desperately trying to conceal their affiliations, they are usually quite brazen about displaying their status. Companies with something to sell might potentially go to great lengths to disguise advertising as blogging. It is conceivable that, let’s say, a washing powder manufacturer might employ someone to pose as a housewife churning out glowing testimonials to the ability of a given brand to remove the peskiest of stains. Unless, however, they were willing to fork out for a writer of genuine brilliance who would only occasionally sneak in such praise and deal with other topics or adopt a truly convincing fake persona it wouldn’t take long for readers to suss out that they were being manipulated. So far, the preferred method of hawking wares (potency-enhancing pharmaceuticals and diet pills) has been to bombard blogs with comment spam, with all the subtlety of a gaudy neon sign at Piccadilly Circus.
The most cursory examination of the nature of blogs suffices to illustrate quite how misplaced Ms Mikko’s fears are. For a start, blogs are written by private individuals with limited resources (time and money). Most bloggers depend for their livelihood on their day jobs and cannot afford to give them up, myself included. Only a miniscule number of bloggers have been able to switch to blogging as their main source of income, no matter how stratospheric their statistics (number of hits, subscribers to feeds). The handful of book deals that certain bloggers have secured has not yielded enough in advances or royalties to fund a life of untroubled leisure. From that point of view alone, we cannot really compete with newspapers, which command both advertising revenues and a staff of trained correspondents and specialists covering the entire spectrum of what is deemed newsworthy. Nor can we for the most part pursue leads or maintain contact with sources who might alert us to a story. Hence the accusations levelled against us by our "betters" that our activity is merely reactive (sounding off about articles we have unscrupulously culled from newspapers) or derivative.
The key issue is the professional/amateur divide. This cannot be reduced to an argument about the quality of writing (and I am sick and tired of being derided as a mere dilettante by one snotty columnist who immediately springs to mind). Much of what bloggers write is of a higher standard as far as both accuracy and the pleasure derived from reading the final product are concerned. Bloggers can be incisively analytical and every bit as eager to uncover and castigate hypocrisy in crusading mode. Bloggers are not encumbered by space constraints and can develop a complex argument at length, a luxury beyond the reach of those labouring under strict word limits. What most of us do not have is a diploma in journalism or the undisputed benefit of having clawed one’s way up through the ranks from local stringer to the exalted heights of editorship.
Then there is the matter of reputation, which can only be earned over time and with unflagging, painstaking effort alongside raw talent. Blogging can be little more than a hobby for some, a harmless way of passing otherwise dull hours, whilst for others it might evolve into an obsession. A blogger can spend months or years slogging away without any guarantee of being noticed, much less of gaining recognition or acclaim. Accordingly, free hosting sites, such as Blogger, are bleak repositories of defunct projects, of thwarted ambition, of passing fancies, of extinguished passions. Compare this with the established cultural presence of the broadsheets, anything other than ephemeral. Although individual contributors may have been crucial in the attainment of their stature, their fortunes do not depend on any single person, gradually accruing over the decades. The great newspapers are veritable institutions, imprinted on the nation’s consciousness, a self-evident part of daily life. Blogging can never dislodge them (as the report acknowledges when it talks about the dominant position they occupy on the Internet) precisely because their authority has built up in geological strata, layer after layer. They are ritually consulted, morning after morning on breakfast television as well as on politics shows, reinforcing that authority, that ability to influence opinion, to call politicians to heel. The first pot of call of the reader wishing to access quality information will be the paper they trust, whether in dead tree or electronic format and it is simply absurd to claim that bloggers command the same respect. Unfortunately. Journalists are only too keen to remind us of our comparative lack of prestige, occasionally condescending to quote from us (without paying for the privilege) on the assumption that we will feel immensely flattered to have been showcased. Although we cannot topple the mainstream media from their pedestal we are too important a phenomenon to be completely ignored and still possess novelty or curiosity value for those looking to fill column inches.
What are the motives for reading a blog? A blog can provide a shrewd idea of what one person thinks and might not constitute a reliable guide to party or organisational policy, but instead of the bland pap routinely posted on official sites can lapse into the most glorious vitriol. Blogging tends to complement rather than usurp newspaper reading. It tends to be more narrowly focused on single subjects, cataloguing reactions to government proposals, defending or attacking them depending on political conviction, pointing out inconsistencies and discussing the relative merits of the arguments advanced. Blogs are for spare time, for coffee breaks, evenings and weekends, consulted for entertainment, distraction or relief from the daily grind, for their stridency and refusal to slavishly regurgitate received wisdom. As to which particular blogs are likely to appeal, we enter the territory of personal biases. As Julian Baggini writes in Welcome to Everytown: A Journey into the English Mind (London, Granta Books, 2007): "The papers that do best are those which reflect the basic values their readers already have. If they fail to strike a chord, they just won’t sell. That’s why, although imperfect, they are more reliable barometers of national opinion than many would like to think" (p62). What applies to the papers for once applies to blogs equally well.
Our credibility does not emanate from our association with a venerable publication, or our respect of a strict ethical code, but from the authenticity and directness of our personal voice, from our independence and the fact that our motivation is not turning a profit. When it comes to our writing, we are not on anyone’s payroll, we are not beholden to anyone (which brings us straight back to preserving pluralism and diversity: we bloggers are the embodiment thereof). The trustworthiness of what we say arises from the fact that we are not pretending to endorse a view, but genuinely hold it. Our reward is to know that someone is actually reading (and, hopefully, appreciates) our scribblings.
In short, blogs are not assimilable to newspapers and it is therefore out of all proportion to attempt to subject them to the same rules.
As for the insistence on the right of reply, this again betrays complete ignorance of the most rudimentary facts about blogging. If you feel slighted by a blogger, you can immediately reply by leaving a comment. What could be simpler? If the comments are disabled, or the host is curmudgeonly enough to delete your remarks no matter how obstinately you persist in typing them in (so that they never actually appear on the site), then reply on your own blog. It is unpleasant to be lacerated in public, but you can stick up for yourself. Unsubstantiated allegations and nonsensical, unfounded accusations are usually recognisable as such (admittedly provided the reader is willing to give a fair hearing to both sides, though this is something no writer can control). Just ignore the slanders or distortions if they are not worth bothering with. If your words have been ripped out of context and misrepresented you have to rely on the integrity of the reader to test the validity of the criticisms by consulting the original text. At the end of the day, nobody can force you to read a blog. If it offends you, all you need do is close the window…The most that a legislator could hope to achieve would be to compel us to insert a (redundant and sterile) standard formula at the end of a post prefacing the rebuttal or objections from the complainant (without the remotest assurance that anyone will bother to give it more than the most cursory of glances) or correcting a factual inaccuracy.
The call for voluntary labelling was dropped from the body of the text, but reared its ugly head in the Explanatory Statement. Such a label is intended as a substitute or surrogate for readers’ powers of judgement, but its effect would prove infinitely more insidious, casting an automatic pall of suspicion over any blogger who refuses to adopt it. I could not help but be reminded of a recent discussion with my colleague EP. She takes turns to mind the children in the church crèche in a mutual support network, enabling the off-duty mothers of the congregation to listen to the service in peace without the squalling of fractious infants whose appreciation of theological niceties somewhat limited. These are all middle-class, middle-aged working women helping each other out on an informal basis, not men lurking around playgrounds trembling as they proffer sweets to unsupervised pre-pubescents, but now the diocese has demanded that they fill in a sex offenders screening form in order to continue because the crèche operates in public premises. She recounted how the mental images conjured up the questions left her physically sick. Have you ever had sex with a baby? She was left breathless with indignation at the politically correct gender blindness permeating the exercise. To her mind, the mere existence of the form was corrosive, especially now that accusations of abuse must likewise be recorded, decrying it as a charter for revenge and petty jealousies, whilst at the same time agonising over whether she should pull out of the babysitting network so deep was her resentment over the implied slur on her character. The dilemma was exacerbated by the knowledge that if she didn’t fill in the form, it could be construed as a tacit admission of having something to hide. A classic example of how the well-meaning desire to protect the vulnerable can end up severing bonds of solidarity and trust (pedophiles still slipping through the net to blight the lives of their victims).
Bloggers should refuse to adopt such a label on principle. Certain practical difficulties might suffice for it to be shelved. Who would award it? Who would adjudicate whether it was deserved or not? Would regular content checks be carried out to ensure the standards were being rigorously maintained over time? By dint of the very nature of the blog as a vehicle for personal opinions, no blog can be impartial, as what is committed to paper (or rather the screen) passes through the filter of consciousness, class, education, political persuasion, preoccupations and gender to name but a few of the more obvious factors. This is true of any vehicle of expression (newspapers and television channels are not miraculously exempt and operate under a commercial imperative to appeal to their chosen constituency) and healthy scepticism ought to be the default position of any reader, listener or viewer. Bloggers do not in my experience subtly masquerade as neutral. In fact, as alluded to earlier, most readers turn to blogs precisely because they are refreshingly candid, if not immoderately opinionated.
One final issue of vital significance is that of anonymity. Ms Mikko wants to eliminate the possibility of blogging under a pseudonym. What we have witnessed is the ugly and unjustified persecution of bloggers by employers terrified that their good name might be besmirched. Rather than reviewing or eradicating the practices the blogger has lamented, employers have preferred to lash out with a "fire first, ask questions later" policy. There is no comeback for the blogger concerned, no means of retaliation beyond highlighting the injustice on their site. No adequate protection has been put in place to prevent such arbitrary and unfair dismissals. On both sides of the Atlantic bloggers have come to prominence for falling victim to such treatment (securing book deals and leaving the jealously guarded reputation of their former bosses in tatters). In spite of the photographs (most of which date back twenty years anyway) in sidebar and profile page, I have been relatively watchful about covering my tracks in order to avoid incurring the wrath of my employers (search engines concentrating on texts as opposed to pictures, which can be carefully captioned), for whom the distinction between contractual and private persona might be overly nebulous and contrived. Organisations are notoriously reluctant to have their flaws brought to light, no matter how great their ostensible and publicly proclaimed commitment to transparency, whistle-blowing and loyalty still regarded as mutually exclusive. Without safeguards the only outcome of forcibly outing us would be to stifle dissent, stifle criticism and thereby stifle pluralism. Servile, cringing conformity to the officially sanctioned line would be all that remained and our paymasters would impose their orthodoxy with all the monotheistic zeal of the Inquisition. I find it extremely sad that Ms Mikko seems to be utterly oblivious to the irony of how her proposals would promote blatant censorship, achieving the exact opposite of her stated aims (not to mention the hugely detrimental impact on European business either provoking a mass migration to American and other ISP’s which do not have to capitulate to regulation on labelling).
The Debate (Monday 22nd September)
(The statements dealing with blogging have been marked in bold)
"Dear colleagues, dear President, Commissioner, EU membership has almost doubled since the beginning of 2004. Ensuring the convergence of standards for the protection of democracy and basic freedoms towards the highest existing levels is one of the main post-Enlargement challenges. In this context, the report welcomes all initiatives aimed at safeguarding democracy and points out that the media remains an influential political tool, which should not be treated solely on economic terms. The report recognises the decision of the European Commission to entrust the determining of reliable and impartial indicators of media pluralism to a consortium of three European universities.
In addition, this report stresses the need to institute the monitoring and implementation systems based on the indicators thus determined.
The report also recognises the ongoing efforts of publishers and journalists’ representatives to create a Charter of Media Freedom.
In addition, the report underscores the need for social and legal guarantees for journalists and editors.
The report advocates the adoption by multinational enterprises of the best practices for editorial and journalistic freedom in each country where they operate.
It expresses concern over lower standards being applied in the Member States that acceded to the EU in 2004 and 2007.
The development and acceptance of new technologies have led to the emergence of new media channels and new kinds of content. The emergence of new media has brought more dynamic [sic] and diversity into the media landscape. The report encourages responsible use of new channels.
Weblogs. I understand and I do not understand the concern of webloggers. My entrance into cyberspace has created among a lot of bloggers rapid reaction. I make it clear now: nobody is interested in regulating the Internet. That’s why I support, as rapporteur, the compromise that has reached common understanding in the Socialist, ALDE [Liberals] and Greens political groups and which underlines the following: encourages an open discussion on all issues relating to the status of weblogs. Full stop. We remain here.
The report acknowledges the challenges posed to the print outlets by the migration of the advertising revenues to the Internet, but points out that the new commercial media landscape is dominated by the established public and private media content providers. It also takes the standpoint that the concentration of media ownership is approaching levels where media pluralism is not guaranteed by the forces of the free market, especially in the new Member States.
The report recognises that the public service media needs a sizeable and stable market share to fulfil its mission. It points out that, whereas in certain markets, the public service media is a leading market participant, it mostly suffers from inadequate funding and [from] political pressure.
The report recognises the need to increase media literacy in the EU, recommends the inclusion of media literacy among the nine basic competences and supports the development of the European core curriculum for media literacy.
Once again, the report welcomes all initiatives aimed at safeguarding democracy and points out that the media remains an influential political tool, which should not be treated solely on economic terms.
Freedom of expression is the key of my report. For that I really stand for.
Commissioner Figel’s reply: "Distinguished Members of Parliament, I’d like first of all to congratulate Madame Marianne Mikko for the excellent report. The Commission shares many of the views expressed in this report. We are convinced that this resolution sends a very positive signal in favour of media pluralism to all interested parties, including Member States and, of course, European institutions, namely here the Commission as well.
Safeguarding democracy and plurality, as you have said, plurality of expression, is essential. We must maintain a good balance between the objectives of the diversity of voices in media and competitive strength of media.
However, earlier and intensive consultations indicated that it would be politically inappropriate for the Commission and for the European Union to harmonise media ownership rules or media pluralism. Subsidiarity is effectively a strong consideration here and a "one size fits all" measure or model would not suit the variety of situations.
This is the reason why I think it would be a mistake to over-regulate a very lively blogosphere. Nevertheless, I agree with you that certain legal obligations imposed on the press, such as respect for copyrights, or the right of reply must be respected in any case by websites.
Putting user-generated content sites on an equal footing with any other forms of public expression seems like a desirable aim to us.
Conversely, creating a rigid and special status for blogs seems counterproductive and in contradiction with the genuine spirit of Internet.
The Commission agrees with the Parliament that European Community’s competition rules themselves can only partly, partially ensure the pluralism of the media. This is exactly the reason why media pluralism is regarded as a legitimate public interest by Article 21 of the EC merger rules, or regulation. Therefore, Member States may take appropriate measures to protect media pluralism by implementing additional rules beyond the merger regulation. They must apply, however, national and EC law.
However, as regards the competition rules, I would like to nuance a little your statement on the harmful character of concentration of ownership on media pluralism. Europe’s media companies, including the written press, must be strong enough to withstand competition at global, international level. We are against over-restrictive rules on media ownership, which could reduce the competitiveness of EU companies. Situations are not comparable from one Member State to another. There is real, real diversity of situations.
I am, of course, in favour of more transparency of ownership and of complete information being available to the public regarding the aims and background of broadcasters and publishers. This is a sine qua non condition to attain more authoritative and reliable media.
As you insist in your resolution, public service broadcasters are an indispensable element for media pluralism. This is why the Commission thinks that their missions of public service must be clearly specified and their funding ensured, otherwise great uncertainty will ensue.
In this respect, Ladies and Gentlemen, we all agree that the definition of the public service remit is in principle a matter for Member States to decide, rather than the Commission. Member States also decide the mode of financing public service broadcasting, as indicated in the Amsterdam Protocol. In this context, the Commission’s role is to minimise distortion of competition between all types of media. The Commission also appreciates your position on codes of conduct and self-regulation as instruments to support media pluralism.
Thank you, Mr President".
At the vote held on Thursday 25th September, the watered down, amended version of the report was adopted with 307 in favour and 262 against. Although this represents a climb-down, the euphemistic phrase "encourages an open discussion" means that while we may have stopped them now, our elected deputies are not going to let the matter drop, but are likely – after an appropriate "reflection period" – to engage in window-dressing by inviting tame "stakeholders" (based on the model established by the Constitutional Convention’s sham consultation) to spout set pieces before re-tabling restrictions. This is not about passing fads, or vanity, but one of our most fundamental freedoms. We must resist all proposals to muzzle us and we must band together to ensure the effective conveying of our viewpoints and the unflinching defence of our interests, which coincide with the interests of democracy.
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