IAMCR Panel: Benedetta Brevini

Part of panel at IAMCR 2014

Squashed by Big Media? From Media policy to “Big” Media policy: the battle for pluralism in Europe and Australia

Dr Benedetta Brevini

Over the last 20 years, unchecked media concentration in a number of countries around the world has allowed some media groups to accumulate vast amounts of revenue and influence with nefarious consequences for the proper conduct of democracy. Despite the dominance of prevailing policy rhetoric around the importance of pluralism in global governance debates, policy actions from Europe to the US, to Australia seemed to have favoured industrial standpoints to ownership over public interest and cultural approaches. As a consequence, since the ‘80s we can trace a common trait towards growing media consolidation and deregulation of ownership regimes.

While the recent founding of new initiatives to foster media pluralism in the UK in Europe and Australia had in principle opened new “policy windows” for change (Aslama and Napoli, 2011: 336) through the launch of major inquiries into the media, perhaps there is one lesson already to be drawn: reforms of media ownership rules and interventions to foster external pluralism and reduce consolidation are very hard to achieve and implement. The Australian and the Italian case can serve as recent and fascinating examples of this resilience to change.

Australia is quite renowned for its history of high levels of ownership concentration (Flew 2013) and extremely powerful media owners (McKnight, 2013) being Rupert Murdoch perhaps the most famous among them. Despite the recommendations of two major inquiries into Australian media initiated by the Labor Government in 2010 (Finkelstein Inquiry and Convergence Review) and thousands of pages of policy submissions and open debates, proposals for reform have been dramatically impeded.

On the other side of the globe, Italy is the European country with the highest concentrated media market, with the former Prime Minister Berlusconi controlling controlled 80% of Italian free-to-air television channels in a country where just 20% of the population reads newspapers. The launch of terrestrial digital television in Italy had been seen by many stakeholders as an opportunity to enhance media pluralism and diversity by building up new competition and breaking up the long lasting RAI–Mediaset duopoly for good (Mazzoleni, Vigevani and Splendore, 2011). Italian policymakers welcomed at first the DTT narrative as the new panacea to cure the enduring problem of media concentration. However, they failed to secure a solution to the problem in developing the new final National Plan for the allocation of frequencies, thus perpetrating a status quo that is blatantly at odds with the principle of media pluralism explicitly enshrined in Article 11(2) of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

This paper will compare policy approaches and outcomes in both the countries and explore dominant policy narratives and conflicting discourses coming from policy-makers, big media corporations and civil society groups involved in the policy process. What are the main factors thwarting opportunities for change? What is the weight of big media corporations on media policy? Is media policy turning into Big Media policy?