May 18, 2013
Read this, El País
‘Sacred cow’ days over for press
Just three days before the Spanish newspaper El País incurred in arguably the worst journalistic gaffe in memory for the European quality press by publishing the fake photo of a convalescent Hugo Chávez on its front page, a European Commission study group had recommended that all EU members set up independent media councils with enough clout to enforce fines and penalties for press blunders.
Parallel to the big show set up by the Leveson Inquiry in Britain, which had celebrities, leaders across the spectrum and media experts testifying in public over the phone-hacking scandal involving journos, cops and politicos alike, this little-known media panel named the High-Level Group (HLG) on Media Freedom and Pluralism and made up of four individuals wielding long names and important titles (Vaira Vike-Freiberga, former president of Latvia; Herta Däubler-Gmelin, former German justice minister; Professor Luís Miguel Poiares Pessoa Maduro and British technology expert and author Ben Hammersley) had been working quietly since December 2011 with the goal of providing “a set of recommendations for the respect, the protection, the support and the promotion of pluralism and freedom of the media in Europe.”
And the one thing they came up with, this being Brussels, is a proposal for new rules.
The HLG started off by stating the obvious, often forgotten by both governments and media organizations:: “If citizens are to exploit (their democratic rights) to the fullest, they must have free access to information that will give them sufficient basis for making enlightened judgements and informed political choices.” And it adds, “... the public service aspect and democratic function of media can come under threat either through political interference, under commercial influence, or increasing social disinterest and indifference on the part of the general public.”
Anybody who has lived in Argentina and read newspapers over the last four years can give credit for almost every danger to citizen information consumption in the paragraph above. The government has — right or wrong — sought to meddle in media affairs and there has also been commercial and business interests influencing the way some mainstream press has shaped information. It is still not clear whether the media war here has led to public disinterest — at first glance it would seems quite the contrary, as Argentina seem to be living in one of the more politicized periods of its recent democratic life. The intensity of political debate, however, does not speak about their quality.
The European HLG’s statement that each country should have “independent media councils with a politically and culturally balanced and socially diverse membership” would send shivers down the spine of press freedom advocates here — and also in Europe. The post-modern Western world is struggling to establish a clear line between freedom and responsibility in the field of the media and the press, but the historic tides seem to be shifting — largely on the back of press slips such as El País’ this week or the British hacking scandal — toward more public checks, both formal via State institutions or informal through social media. El País lifted the Chávez picture only half an hour after it was published, when it learned, “through social media” according to the paper’s apology, that it was phony. The EU group’s proposal might stretch the language of control too much, as it often happens with integration language emanating from Brussels: “Media councils should have real enforcement powers, such as the imposition of fines, orders for printed or broadcast apologies, or removal of journalistic status,” it says. It is hard to imagine the “removal of journalistic status” actually enforced in most of the 27 European Union countries.
As all “academic” recommendations — the EU HLG’s text hits a middle ground which, if actually enforced, would affect the more short-term interests of both dominant governments and large, market-driven media outlets.
Adapted to the reality of Argentina, one of the group’s postulates could conceptually resolve an issue that has parted the waters between the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner government’s media reform drive and its main media rival, the gigantic Grupo Clarín: media freedom versus media pluralism. Grupo Clarín is technically defending its freedom; the government is technically seeking pluralism. The EU HLG says, “Media freedom is closer related to independence of media from government control and media pluralism is closer related to independence of media from private control and disproportionate influence of one or few economic, social and/or political powers.” Ergo, the two goals are largely compatible.
The report places strong emphasis — and hope — in the role of professional journalists as they serve their role of delivering sound information to the public. It is not all about rights, the HLG says, “Since rights carry responsibilities, journalists have the professional obligation to provide accurate information and must always be responsible and accountable for their output.” El País, for instance, had fired a third of its newsroom in October.
And yet it also warns that the public must never forget that “media are purveyors of information, not of absolute truths. They should not be seen as sacred cows that are beyond criticism and are accountable to nobody.”