The story about Maria Miller MP, UK Culture and Media (DCMS) Secretary, has inevitably moved onto Capital Gains Tax today. I’ve found her an exceptional minister when it comes to ministerial replies on constituency issues, actually, and it seems a shame she’s been caught up in the tricky area of the byzantine House of Commons expenses regimes. However, I hope that as time moves on the main DCMS issue to the fore is not ‘expenses shlock’, but the much more important one of press regulation.
Sometimes it feels like the EU has a strategy of doing its best to help UKIP, but here’s a taste of how the EU views press regulation. Essentially, the Vice-President responsible for press regulation, Neelie Kroes (born under Nazi occupation), agrees with the authors of a recent report produced on her behalf (by someone born under Stalin in the 1930s) that all EU countries should subscribe to a common press regulatory regime consisting of a strict hierarchy of officials and politicians with her (Kroes) at its apex.
The EU as we know it today comprises a majority of countries freed from tyranny and dictatorship relatively recently. So of the 27 EU commissioners the clear majority, including the president, have lived much or actually most of their lives in societies with no press freedom at all. 11 are from former Communist dictatorships, 3 were born into fascist ones, one has experienced a military dictatorship (Greece) and one represents a country where a neighbouring dictatorship played a significant if often subtle role in press freedom (Finland). Germany is of course in a category of its own.
Moreover, in some of the remaining EU nations the instability of the body politic has often led to officials playing the true leading role. For example, Belgium and Italy, like Greece, have gone through very recent and lengthy periods with no elected government (the current President of the Council of Ministers was himself an unelected PM of Belgium). This latter culture, one where officials sometimes wield great political power, is prevalent in the EU where the multi-layered complexity of political appointments is underpinned by officials who remain constant when all around them is in flux. More power to (unelected) EU commissioners is, therefore, often simply more power to EU officials.
You might think the last thing people who’d lived under dictatorships would aspire to is any degree of control over the media; you’d think they’d run like the wind when confronted by the vaguest possibility of political regulation. But in fact the instinct of most is, like Kroes, to want the opposite. I think this may be related to their determination to avoid dictatorships in future, which leads to a desire for democratic control over all institutions, but then they include the media as one of those institutions and end up gong full-circle and segueing, disastrously, into demanding political control over the media.
I don’t doubt the freedom of press in Malta, Cyprus, Lichtestein, Denmark, Austria and Sweden – but all have relatively simply media markets. That leaves France and the UK, with very different traditions as regards legislation around press freedom, as the two national models most likely to be replicated across the EU. It’s clearly the French model which is winning out.
The simple fact is that David Cameron can give all the heartfelt guarantees he likes, but the commissioners will still be there with this agenda when he is gone. Any involvement at all by UK politicians in regulating the press in the UK would insert a wedge which politicians and officials across Europe would continuously seek to push further open.
It really is literally impossible to understate the significance of the UK’s approach to press regulation to the wider EU agenda. Let’s not get it wrong.