Open and Free? A Survey of Europe’s Media Regulators

May 3, 2013 • Media and Politics • by

Media regulators in Germany, Austria and Switzerland believe that they should be independent from the government, but do not necessarily want more interaction with the public, according to a wide ranging study into the attitudes of media watchdogs.

Marlis Prinzing at the Macromedia University for Media and Communication, Cologne, Germany and Roger Blum at the University of Bern, Switzerland have surveyed ombudsmen, members of press councils, and broadcasting councils as well as members of voluntary self-monitoring institutions in the three countries via an online questionnaire.

They asked them a range of questions that touched on topics of accountability, accessibility and openness, topics that were also covered by the EU report “A free and pluralistic media to sustain European democracy,” that tries to set out recommendations for media regulation across Europe.

The interviewees had to choose their answer on a six-stage scale from “I do not agree at all” to “I totally agree”. The questionnaire has been sent to 423 media regulation representatives; so far 102 have filled it in – 50 from Germany, 37 from Switzerland and 15 from Austria.

The study found that most regulators in the three countries do not hold meetings that are open to the public and do not believe they need to. The Swiss Federal Office for Communication, the body that regulate Swiss broadcasters, awards licenses and collects license fees, is not independent from the government.

Press councils in Germany and Austria as well as the Independent Complaints Authority for Radio and Television in Switzerland cannot take action against the media independently – they must wait for a formal complaint. Blum and Prinzing said many people in Germany and Austria do not know how to  complain about broadcasting media in their countries.

Almost three quarters of the Austrian interviewees opposed the idea that their meetings should be public. Swiss regulators are a little more open to the idea of public meetings, but still more than half of the Swiss respondents do not want press councils to meet in public. The German respondents are polarized, 38 percent are in favor of public meetings, 38 percent are against it – 24 percent abstain from answering. Three quarters of the press council members in all three countries  either strongly or very strongly oppose the idea of meeting in public.

However, around 65 percent of the interviewees in the three countries agree that press councils should publish all their decisions publicly. Around 85 percent of all respondents also believe that press councils should be able to take action against ethical misconduct by media without having to wait for complaints from citizens.

Around half of the German and the Swiss interviewees and 60 percent of Austrian respondents believe that  broadcasting regulators should meet in public. But, the study finds that far fewer actual members of broadcasting council support this idea: fewer than half believe they should have to meet in public.

There was a consensus among all respondents that regulatory bodies and ones dealing with complaints should be administratively independent from the government. Around 85 percent of all respondents in all three countries said this independence was important. Three quarters also believe all regulatory bodies should have a way the public can approach them with complaints against the media,and that they should publish all their decisions openly.

Prinzing, Marlis; Blum, Roger: „Medienregulierung zwischen normativen Anforderungen und faktischen Defiziten“ („media regulation between normative requirements and factual deficits“), presentation at the annual conference of the DGPuK-Fachgruppe Kommunikations- und Medienethik (communication and media ethics section of the German Communication Association) and the Netzwerk Medienethik (Media Ethics Network), Munich, February 2013.

Article translated from the original German “Medienregulierung: Ideal und Wirklichkeit” by the author.


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