By Beatriz Costa-Lima
While we did have our fair share of delicious food and gorgeous sight-seeing, the Europe Tour provided something new that I’ve never had during an international trip: a new perspective on journalism. During our travels across Prague, Paris, Brussels and Rome, we learned how media outlets differ from country to country. From privacy laws to the amount of online presence, news media in various parts of Europe differ in many ways to the United States. Living in the United States for so long, it’s easy to forget that other countries go about life very differently–not just in traditions and food, but also in the ways they go about government and media. For example, it’s hard to wrap my mind around the idea of privacy coming before free speech in Europe and even harder to imagine a news outlet that only just now got website. It was extremely interesting to see how treatment of media varied from place to place and how the culture or history of the country brought about these traditions.
One of the things that kept sticking out to me was how news organizations in different countries were financed and if and how that affected coverage. The lectures given by Milan Smid, at Charles Univeristy in Prague; Peter Gumbel at Sciences Po University, in Paris; and Gareth Hardin in Brussels, all covered different aspects of European media and taught me a great deal about why and how certain media outlets are funded differently from country to country.
A huge difference between most European countries and the United States that I noticed repeatedly in our lectures was the amount of funding that goes to public broadcasting.
In the United States, public media is significantly funded less in comparison to most European countries. U.S. per capita public spending is less than $4, while in many European countries it’s somewhere between $30 to $134 per capita. In addition to federal funds, public media in the U.S. also receives funding from donations
France Télévisions is funded by revenue from television license fees, which is collected with local taxes. In the Czech Republic, public broadcasting is financed by fees collected from households and businesses that own a radio or television. In Belgium, in stead of having a single public broadcasting organization, has two: one for Flanders and one for Wallonia. Additionally, the Belgian and French governments provide newspaper subsidies in order to foster a diversity of opinions in print media.
Generally in Europe, public media had different origins than the United States. The U.S. public media system was created before the commercial system, while in Europe, public broadcasting systems formed before commercial systems. In fact, in the Czech Republic, originally all media was controlled by the state and no private companies for media existed. In the United States, from the foundation, broadcast media in Europe was built as a public service network. This difference in origins is one of the reasons that public media in Europe tends receives more funding in European countries.
However, the worry in some European countries is how can a news organization funded by the government remain independent over the government? Also, how can they remain independent from government influence when government officials play a part in selecting their directors? In some countries, like the United States and The United Kingdom, public broadcasting has proved to be able to remain independent from government influence. But other countries, such as France and Italy haven’t always been as fortunate.
All the European countries we visited had a combination of public media and commercial media. Private ownership of media outlets also sometimes have problems of owners influencing content.
France has legal restrictions for private media ownership where no single entity can control more than one terrestrial channel or more than five terrestrial digital channels. Another interesting aspect of French journalism is that journalists receive a 30 percent income tax deduction for professional expense from the French government.
However, in France, during former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s time in office, many media outlets were owned by Sarkozy’s close friends. In fact, two thirds of all French newspapers and magazines are owned by Sarkozy’s friends, who are also the two main arms manufacturers in France.
In 2005, Paris Match magazine ran a front page photo of Sarkozy’s former wife Cécilia with her boyfriend. The infuriated Sarkozy demanded that the magazine’s owner, Arnaud Lagardère, who is also Sarkozy’s friend, fire the editor-in-chief. Sarkozy’s friends also own TF1, the Journal du Dimanche, Télé 7 Jours, Première magazine, France-Dimanche the magazine La Tribune, the newspaper Le Figaro and the newsmagazine Le Point, as well as many other publications and cable channels.
Even France Télévisions, one of the country’s public broadcasting networks, felt pressure from Sarkozy in the past. Sarkozy as the head of state, had direct hand in the firing and hiring of France Télévisions directors and curbing unwanted publicity on their channels.
In Italy, former prime-minister Silvio Berlusconi owns three of the largest private television networks in the country and many publishing companies. Additionally, while in office he had control over the state-owned broadcaster RAI. Berlusconi had influence over the management of the stations. Although, the country’s courts have ruled such media ownership concentration as illegal, the decision has yet to be enforced. Berlusconi had hand in the firing of public broadcasting.
Berlusconi’s extensive influnece over Italian media resulted in Freedom House downgrading Italy’s ranking from “Free” to “Partly Free” in their 2004 Freedom of the Press Global Study, and still holds that ranking today.
From all of the things I learned about media ownership and funding, the main lesson I took away was that there doesn’t seem to be a perfect system of public and commercial media. In the U.S., public media remains independent from government or owner influence, but its funding is significantly lower than most countries. In France and Italy, despite better funding of public media both public and commercial media have seen government and owner influence affect coverage.