The advent of the « Digital Revolution », in a time of widespread economic deregulation, is profoundly disrupting traditional media. New technologies are shaking the previous balance of power between economic actors, favouring the concentration of media companies into a few private hands. The role and rights of artists are changing, while the working conditions and ethical standards of professional journalists are lessened. More than ever before is the pursuit of profits driving these shifts.
Understanding the current trend
The current concentration of private media companies are at the same time (i) transnational (albeit with yet little perceptible effects in France) ; (ii) manifold with respect to media support (with all cultural and leisure activities deeply affected) ; and (iii) “financialized”, by which we mean that these new private media conglomerates do not merely aim at being economically viable, but profitable. These conglomerates encompass more than the traditional media : they are introducing new and powerful actors into the information, culture and entertainment spheres. The traditional media conglomerates (e.g. Dassault, Lagardère, Bouygues in France), production and broadcasting giants of yesterday, are economic midgets compared to today’s telecommunication, technology or Internet titans, with which they are already clashing. The current regulation, adjudication or control of current media transformation by public authorities are grossly inadequate if not pathetic.
New technologies (the Internet, mobile phones, iPad, e-books, etc.) are created at an unprecedented fast pace. With the diversification, or in some cases fragmentation, of supplies, consumer practices and uses of technological devices are ever-changing. Parallel changes in information contents and funding are highly desirable, especially changes whereby market rules are not all powerful. However, the multiplicity and profusion of channels does not necessarily mean that the conveyed information are either of high quality or reflect a plurality of point of views.
“You are whoever pays you” : although too simple a description, this sentence conveys an element of truth in the present time of funding transformations and diversification occurring along with the mutation of consumer needs and uses. The written press traditional economic model of funding, based both on subscription and advertising, is outdated and no longer self-sufficient. General-interest televisions and radios are receding, yet their former grounds are not covered by a flurry of fragmented and localized sprouting media. In particular, public broadcasting media must compose with fewer resources and social clubs media are being given up. Independent actors, e.g. on the web, do not have enough resources to keep to the challenge.
Meanwhile, the development of the Internet is torn between the freedom it can offer, and traditional attempts to yoke any new media to private (and lucrative) interests and state control or even censorship. Examples of such attempts to reinforce the hegemonic position of authoritarian economic liberalism (maybe a repetition in terms) can be seen in projects such as Google books library, chronic assaults on Internet neutrality, or in the passing of laws authorizing to hunt down internet users and to restrict their civil liberties (e.g. Loppsi1 & Loppsi2 in France in 2002 and 2011 respectively).
The benevolent and free production of information and cultural products are transforming the traditional landscape. Traditional actors such as journalists, authors, writers and artists see their rights being mauled by current shifts. The greater availability of news articles or books on new technology media does not directly benefit their authors. In France for example, the “HADOPI” law has weakened artists’ and authors’ rights to the benefit of dominant actors or trusts.
The conjunction of free contributions, especially on Internet blogs, and maximal profit seeking has somewhat paradoxically resulted in a worsening of working conditions for professional journalists : precarious and underpaid, their jobs are now too often tied to the instantaneous reporting of short news reports, taken verbatim from large press corporations (e.g. Agence France Presse) at the expense of in-depth investigations which require time and a vantage point for in-depth analysis. As a result, the profession is dominated by an oligarchy of omnipresent, vocal and well-paid media pundits, whose disproportionate influence is not effectively countered by their few critics.
A handful of targets
Against such profound transformations, unambitious or partial adjustments are simply not enough, unless they are given a global outlook.
The following proposals are but fragments of a utopian, yet practical, project which must accommodate several constraints in order to become effective. Transforming the current media environment is intimately linked to reforming the political landscape. This, in turn, demands to call into question and repel the economically unbridled liberal directives and treaties of the European Union. The success of this project crucially depends on social and political forces, both at the national and European level, and should clearly distinguish between short-term and long-term objectives, the latter being for the moment (but hopefully only temporarily so) unattainable.
In other words, our aim is not to make promises, but to indicate targets.
Creating and constitutionalizing a National Council for Media
In France, the “Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel” (Upper Council for Broadcasting Media) is a puppet body at the mercy of political powers that be, a fig leaf which hides but a small segment of the media environment. It should be replaced by a “Conseil National des Médias” (National Council for Media), with radically different legal status, composition and missions. This council should encompass elected members, delegates from media workers and users. In place of a direct election process (which remains an option), its composition should reflect that of the first round in the legislative ballot. Such a council would be constitutionalized and the embodiment of the so-called Fourth Estate (which would have thereby actual and material significance). The missions of this council would include the regulation of broadcasting media, and in particular the implementation of legal provisions, rulemaking and public funding allocation. In short, its missions would bring about the remaining targets below.
Countering media concentration and financialization
Only the circumscription of financialized conglomerates and the reinforcement of non-profit media and journalists’ and workers’ rights can effectively guarantee pluralism and diversity in the media.
These anti-concentration dispositions should not be limited to imposing concentration threshold : they should effectively counter financialization and the hold of advertising.
Consequently, a set of legislative measures aiming at lowering the threshold of concentrations authorized by French dispositions is needed (and so is a struggle for its joint and unified lowering in every European country). The criteria for imposing limitation thresholds for single media or multimedia concentrations ought to add up capitalistic concentration, limitation of the number of titles and channels owned, and audience and broadcasting maxima.
Likewise, it appears essential to forbid firms which play a major role in other economic areas, in particular firms that depend on public procurements, to hold shares in a media company. This is urgent in France, where the grip of Bouygues (building), Dassault (military weapons and planes) and Lagardère on media is crippling. Furthermore, public media privatization, past and new, should be abandoned and even reversed. Limiting financialization means opposing pension funds or transnational conglomerates to hold any mass media company. Finally, dependence on advertising should be lessened and circumscribed, for example by limiting the volume and duration of advertisements.
The best defense against capitalist concentrations remains the creation of a strong public service for media, information and culture.
Creating a Public Service for Information and Culture
Information and culture are commons. Only if their production and diffusion become the target of a democratic appropriation, whereby priority is given to non-profit media organizations, can they remain commons.
This appropriation should rest on two pillars : public and collective ownerships. All the aforementioned proposals would allow the development of public services for information and culture, public services themselves both backed by a public and a community sector.
(1) A public sector appropriation is not bound to lead to state confiscation or bureaucracy, at least under certain conditions, among which the creation and constitutionalization of an independent National Council for Media, and extended rights for information workers.
A public appropriation should include the public sector, large information companies (e.g. Agence France Presse in France, Reuters in the United Kingdom), and infrastructures in order to allow the pooling of production, printing and broadcasting means.
More precisely, the public sector should take back the command of its own broadcast content and economic strategy, which means deprivatizing TF1 - thus putting an end to a distorted competition. This would also entail the following steps - amongst others : RFI and France 24 (France’s external audiovisual services) being integrated to France Télévisions ; repealing the Tasca decrees (which force one to outsource production and to give up all ancillary rights) ; gradually increasing the television licence fee which should become proportional.
If these conditions were met, a multimedia offer would truly guarantee political pluralism and cultural diversity across media channels.
(2) A collective appropriation is not doomed to helplessness provided legal and financial means to develop are granted to it. Collective and cooperative media (TV, radios, websites, newspapers) are decaying by lack of sufficient and adequate means such as access to DTTV for TV, print services for newspapers or contributing professional journalists for non-profit news website.
Yet, media importance does not boil down to quantitative ratings and measurement (which is often under-estimated) : they also enhance and favour proximity, sharing and solidarity in their audience. They also play an informal role in educating journalists or artists, and are thus an essential source of diversity (in particular with respect to social class) in information and culture. Thereby, they take an active part in the regeneration of a worthy public service, and should benefit from adequate public funds.
(3) Facing both the acute crisis of its traditional economic model based upon advertising and subscription fees and an eroding readership, the daily press only remain buoyant thanks to public aids. That is why it is urgent to transform the latter, direct or indirect, so that they are targeted in priority, if not exclusively, to non-profit media companies, either private or collective. The creation of a specific status for non-profit media companies is thus paramount.
Guaranteeing the rights of journalists, artists and users
All restrictions on civil rights and liberties aforementioned must be repelled. The rights of journalists, artists and users must be protected. Journalists must benefit from legal collective rights : that is why professional ethical codes must be incorporated into national collective agreements, and editorial boards must acquire a legal status (and effective rights) within each media company. To be more than just passive consumers of information, users must also take part, at the very least with an advisory role, in the main regulatory bodies. Finally, to be critical of media should not be the prerogative of professionals or any dubious go-between, nor should it be limited the “Letters to the Editors” column or Internet forums. Critics should not punish or retaliate media companies, but they should be able to challenge them.
If another world is possible, so are other media. To make another world possible, other media are needed.
Translation by Matthieu Authier (with Cyrille Rivallan and Thibault Roques)