Angered by the British media’s coverage of Brussels, the European Commission says it wants to be a “moral compass” against press misconduct, seeking new national and Europe-wide regulatory powers over journalists.
The EU has spent £2.3 million on the previously unpublicised “Mediadem” project to “reclaim a free and independent media”. In a “policy brief” co-authored by its lead British researcher, Rachael Craufurd Smith, Mediadem says it is “simplistic” to “see state influence [over the press] as inherently stifling”.
Dr Craufurd Smith, an Edinburgh University academic, said that it was also “simplistic” to believe that “market-driven media” were now “free and independent”.
Mediadem recently produced “recommendations for the UK” demanding the “imposition of sanctions beyond an apology or correction” on errant media outlets and the “co-ordination of the journalistic profession at the European level”.
The recommendations call for the press to be controlled by the same body and on the same basis as broadcasters, who are currently tightly regulated with statutory “balance” obligations that do not apply to newspapers.
Mediadem’s report pays tribute to the part played in its work by the Media Standards Trust and the Coordinating Committee for Media Reform (CCMR), the two key constituents of Hacked Off, whose late-night “deal” with politicians for a regulated press has sparked a fierce backlash among organisations campaigning for free speech.
CCMR, run by Left-wing academics at Goldsmith’s College, London, believes that concerns about the media “should not be confined only to individual abuses” and regulation should not simply be about the “social-worker mediation of grievances”.
The group wants a new media regulator to correct the “national conversation” which it says has been “distorted” by Right-wing newspapers and to change the “terms of public debate” by “imposing public-service duties” on the press. Hacked Off is closely intertwined with CCMR. Prof Natalie Fenton, one of Hacked Off’s directors and spokesmen, is a key figure in CCMR and the book about the media written by its co-founder and former chair, Prof James Curran, is described as “the Bible” by Brian Cathcart, Hacked Off’s executive director.
Writing on the “New Left Project” website, Prof Fenton attacked the “excessively liberalised press” and the “naive pluralism” of “assuming that the more news we have, the more democratic our societies are”.
Mediadem closely follows CCMR’s interventionist agenda. In the policy brief co-authored by Dr Craufurd Smith, it said: “Liberal conceptions of media freedom focus on editorial freedom for government interference…. [however] states may also be required to take positive measures to curtail the influence of powerful economic or political groups…. this entails that neither the media, nor those individuals who own or work for the media, enjoy an absolute right to freedom of expression.”
Asked whether the Mediadem initiative had been prompted by the EU’s belief that the press treats it unfairly, Dr Craufurd Smith said: “I think there might be an element of that. Citizens have a new expectation to obtain reliable information about what’s going on in Europe.”
She said that Mediadem’s recommendations were about “helping to protect the press from inappropriate commercial pressures and potential political pressures”. “People should not see this as being a threat.”
Dr Craufurd Smith said that discussions with the Media Standards Trust and CCMR had helped to inform Mediadem’s conclusions. A Hacked Off director, Professor Steven Barnett, was at the Brussels meeting in February where Mediadem launched its recommendations.
Mediadem is only one of at least five concerted and coordinated initiatives being pursued by Brussels to increase its powers over the media dramatically. Another EU programme, MediaAcT, has channelled about £100,000 of European cash directly to a key Hacked Off ally, the Mediawise campaign group.
Mediawise was created by Clive Soley, the then Labour MP, who was one of the first politicians in the recent era to attempt to introduce state regulation of the press.
It advises victims of media abuse and campaigns for regulation. Its EU money does not appear in its published accounts, but the grant and its amount was confirmed by Mediawise’s director, Mike Jempson, a lecturer at the University of the West of England. “The money is paid via the university, where we are based,” he said. The EU payments appear to account for almost all of Mediawise’s recent income.
Mr Jempson says his group is “associated with” Hacked Off and he writes on its website, most recently on March 20, two days after Hacked Off’s “deal” to establish a new state-backed press regulator under a royal charter.
MediaAcT is calling for the kind of “media accountability” favoured by Hacked Off and other such groups. In one of its papers, “Mapping media accountability in Europe and beyond,” Mr Jempson calls for press regulation on the grounds that it will “ensure that minority views and voices are heard”.
The actor Hugh Grant, a director and prominent supporter of Hacked Off, has been closely involved in EU-backed press regulation initiatives. Last June he spoke at an event in Brussels organised by the “Centre for Media Freedom and Media Pluralism,” a third new EU-funded project for “media accountability” established last year and based at the European University Institute in Florence. His fellow Hacked Off director, Prof Barnett, was on the event’s advisory committee and is a regular attendee at the centre’s meetings and summer school in Italy.
The EU media regulation initiatives are being led by Neelie Kroes, the vice-president of the European Commission.
Mr Grant said: “I had a very useful meeting with Ms Kroes. I think there is an appetite to do something about it [media regulation] and I think the EU is potentially uniquely placed to do something about this because many member state governments are effectively captured by the media. The EU is perhaps less biddable and we have more chance of getting something done at this level.”
Last month, Prof Barnett and Mr Grant were due to speak at the launch in the House of Lords of a fourth EU-related project, a “European Initiative for Media Pluralism” calling for tighter pan-European media regulation.
A fifth EU initiative, the “High Level Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism”, recently delivered a report to Ms Kroes, calling for “a more extensive competence of the EU” in the field of media regulation. All EU countries, the report said, should be forced to have “media councils” exercising draconian controls over the press, including the power to ban people from working as journalists.
The “media councils,” the report said, should have “real enforcement powers, such as the imposition of fines, orders for printed or broadcast apologies, or removal of journalistic status”. They should “follow a set of European-wide standards” and be “monitored by the commission to ensure that they comply with European values”.
Ms Kroes’s spokesman, Ryan Heath, said the report showed that the commission should act as a “moral compass” on good journalistic practice. “We need to take decisive action to ensure the freedom and pluralism of our media in future,” he said. The commission has now launched a consultation on whether to implement the proposals in the report.
The report was co-authored by Ben Hammersley, who holds an official Government appointment as the Prime Minister’s “ambassador to Tech City”, the new media and technology cluster around the so-called “Silicon Roundabout” in East London.
Mr Hammersley is closely connected to Goldsmiths College, home base of the Coordinating Committee for Media Reform. He is “innovator in residence” at Goldsmiths’ Centre for Creative and Social Technologies, a cross-disciplinary centre at the college which covers courses in journalism.
Hacked Off said last night that it had not received money from the EU. However, the Media Standards Trust has received money from the EU’s European Social Fund for a study into local news.
The Media Standards Trust is also closely connected to a charity for training “future leaders” called Common Purpose, accused by its opponents of being a political front for pro-Brussels values, which it denies. Common Purpose was paid at least £1.4 million in EU grants in 2011, according to the EU financial transparency system database.
“The proposals emanating from Brussels make the Leveson Inquiry look like a Sunday afternoon picnic,” said the leader of the UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage. “The EU’s attempts to win positive coverage by state regulation is reminiscent of the days of Soviet Russia.”