We Need to Understand Who Really Has Control Over Access to Media Content

December 7, 2017

A decade or so ago, if you were invited to speak about media pluralism, one would prepare a few slides featuring the dangers of media ownership concentration. As the media industry has changed dramatically due to the rise of digital technologies, the debate on media pluralism has to be reframed.

“To be able to improve media pluralism, we have to look at it holistically,” Marius Dragomir, the Director of the Centre for Media, Data and Society (CMDS) told a room of media regulators, MPs and journalists from the Caucasus, Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus gathered in Budapest on 6 December 2017 by the Council of Europe. Media pluralism doesn’t only mean a set of rules on ownership, but is shaped today by many other factors, Dragomir added.

Funding, public media and regulation are three key areas to take into consideration, he said. Faced with the collapse of the commercial model, quality, public interest journalism is in dire need of support. As governments are major spenders in the media, it is precisely their role to help out by setting up mechanisms to ensure a fair and equitable distribution of public funds to independent media outlets.

Secondly, with the rise of automated content distribution and online platforms that, by and large, promote low-brow content, there is an immense role for public media to feed citizenry with high-quality content. But particularly in eastern Europe and countries from the former Soviet Union, public media suffer from a big disconnect from technology and young audiences.

That has to change if these broadcasters are going to survive the ongoing technological disruption. The most obvious things parliamentarians can do to help these broadcasters regain the swathes of public sphere it is rapidly losing to the dross online is to help them rid of their tarnished reputation as political mouthpieces. MPs, where possible, should also promote to these institutions people with vision, good grasp of technology and keen understanding of audiences and tastes, particularly the young ones who will shape the media market for decades to come.

Finally, when it comes to regulation, parliamentarians have to gain a much deeper understanding of how new players operate in the media, particularly technology companies with a say in production or distribution of media content. “We are witnessing a process of privatization of regulation where technology companies make decisions of pure regulatory nature,” Dragomir said. Who are these companies and how transparent are their content distribution policies are two of the key questions that regulators should attempt to answer.

Methodologies to measure ownership concentration levels ought to change as well. The current models used by regulators to monitor ownership are simply obsolete, according to Dragomir. They don’t work anymore. More sophisticated models measuring audiences across platforms are needed to understand who really has control over access to media content, he concluded.