Frozen media policies during a time of media change—new paper out

This year, we mark the twentieth anniverary after the Mosaic browser and affordable dial-up connections began to make the internet accessible for ordinary people, disrupting almost every aspect of the media business along the way as much of the population in high-income democracies started going online, moved from modems to broadband, from desk tops to lap tops, went from phones to mobile phones to smart phones, and as their TV was digitized and later connected.

And yet, despite all these changes in the media—and close to twenty years of media analysts arguing that they in turn necessitate changes in how media are regulated and underpinned—many areas of media policy remain essentially unchanged, especially when it comes to the forms of direct and indirect public support for media, including news media.

Across otherwise quite different countries including Finland, Germany and the United States, countries with different media systems and political systems, we have generally seen little reform of media policies, in particular those policies more important to democracy than to commerce (broadband policy and transition to digital television has been high on the agenda in many countries). The media industries are in upheaval. Media policies are being tweaked.

In a paper just published in Global Media and Communication (abstract below, full article here), I try to explain why many media policies seem “frozen” during a time of media change, looking at six high income democracies (Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the UK and the US) and drawing on interviews with media managers, media regulators, and media policymakers in each country.

I point to three factors that cut across all six countries and are likely relevant in many other places too.

I call them “the devil that don’t care”, “the devil you know”, and “the devil you don’t know.”

  1. “The devil that don’t care.”—a relative lack of interest in media policy from many leading politicians. The top people have a lot on their plate during a time of economic crisis, war, and all the rest, and changes in the media business has mostly not been put on their agenda.a
  2. “The devil you know.” The role of industry incumbents who are, whether in public service media or in the private sector, (predictably and understandably) keen to protect their existing privileges and who fear that any reform will leave them worse off. In some cases, this is close to “regulatory capture”, but in every case, incumbents can at least oppose reform proposals that hurt their interests.
  3. “The devil you don’t know.” Real, substantial uncertainty about what reform would look like and how it could be made both effective and governable. Anyone who talks to media regulators and serious media policy scholars recognize this. It is a lot easier to call for reform than to specify which reforms are simultaneously politically legitimate, cost-effective (especially during a time of austerity and budget-cuts), and ensure accountability.

The lack of high-level interest, the incumbents protecting their own interests, and the lack of clear blueprints and best practices for what could be done all help explain why media policies remain “frozen” in many respects in many countries.

Of course, the absence of major reform combined with major changes in the media industry means that many media policies are increasingly subject to what political scientists call “policy drift”, a process by which the operations and effectiveness of policies change not because of deliberate reform, but because of changing conditions on the ground.

The changes in our media are not going away. They are in fact likely to accelerate. And while we can understand why our media policies do not always change at the same pace, that does not mean change is not necessary. We need 21st century media policies for 21st century media. (See? I told you it was easier to call for reform that to specify what reform should look like more concretely.)

a) With regards to the first factor: France under Sarkozy was a partial exception to this (and has seen some changes in media support arrangements during his presidency) and Italy, because of Berlusconi, has been an obvious exception to this (though changes there have mostly taken the form of cuts). The period I examine ends before the Leveson Inquiry began in the UK, but keep in mind that despite the best attempts of the Media Reform Coalition and others, that has been more about press regulation than about the framework conditions of media.

Abstract etc below.

‘Frozen’ media subsidies during a time of media change: A comparative analysis of media policy drift in six Western democracies

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen Roskilde University, DK; University of Oxford, UK

Abstract

Media systems around the world have changed in significant ways in the early 21st century. In this article, I analyse how various forms of media subsidies have changed in response to these transformations in a sample of six different affluent democracies. On the basis of interviews, official documents and secondary sources, I show that media subsidies have largely remained frozen in their late-20th century form. The absence of major reform means that media subsidies are increasingly subject to policy drift, a process by which the operations and effectiveness of policies change not because of deliberate reform, but because of changing conditions on the ground. Analysis of interviews with relevant stakeholders suggests that the main obstacles to reform across all six countries are: (1) limited political attention to the problem; (2) strong incumbent industries protecting their interests; and (3) a perceived shortage of desirable, cost-effective, and governable alternatives to existing policies.

Full article here.

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