MEDIA COUNCILS ARE FIT FOR THE DIGITAL AGE
Taken by their daily work, media and press councils rarely have the opportunity to reflect on their role, organisation, and future. For the second edition of the Media Councils in the Digital Age (MCDA) project, the French-speaking Belgian journalistic self-regulatory body (CDJ) decided to host the Media Councils Debates, a series of six webinars focusing on the transition of press and media councils towards the digital age. A new publication by the CDJ summarises these sessions, which helped to lay strong foundations for future dialogue between media councils and all stakeholders involved in the news media debate.
As the European Forum held during the first phase of the MCDA project came to an end in early 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic forced itself into the CDJ’s upcoming agenda. It was then confirmed that press and media councils needed to exchange more views on challenges at stake, and to speak in a louder and unique voice in order to be heard at the European level, especially when it comes to supporting reliable information and tackling disinformation. The crisis acted as a revelation of the role that press and media councils must play to (re)build confidence between the public and the media.
With this in mind, the objectives of the Media Councils Debates – virtual sessions among press and media councils’ members – were to tackle issues dealing with social and online media, to share practices and to find common grounds. In short, to exchange best practices by discussing crucial self-regulation-related issues.
An increasingly well-known and recognised expertise
The Media Councils Debates confirmed first and foremost that press and media councils rely on criteria that imply a similar identity and share both common interest and future. Whatever their organisational particularities or variations in ethical standards and principles, fundamentals remain the same by defending the accountability, accuracy, credibility and reliability of information.
A major takeaway of the publication is the magnitude of the task performed today by press and media councils, which are accumulating an expertise on issues that are central to our contemporary societies – defining journalistic content or information, moderating comments on forums, fighting against disinformation and hate speech, to name a few – while having little or no say in these matters.
While in most cases this know-how had already been recognised by journalists and media in the past, the Covid-19 crisis pushed press and media councils further to inform the public about online mis- and disinformation, while handling complaints regarding potential breaches of their Codes of Ethics.
Towards a more inclusive path
Another part of the report shows that regardless of their membership nature and their current jurisdiction, media and press councils all consider openness to digital content with the same pragmatical approach: they do not want to self-regulate all social media content, but they are aware that journalistic content shared on these platforms needs to be protected and self-regulated in the same way. Press and media councils know that such an inclusive path will be difficult to follow, but it is as necessary as freedom of speech and the right to information.
The conclusion stresses that progress on this issue can only be made through dialogue with legislators, in order to break down the barriers resulting from persistent misunderstandings and misrepresentations. While social media regulation cannot be avoided, this dialogue may conduct to a solution that privileges a legal exception for journalistic content. In the light of necessary independence for journalists and editorial media, journalistic self-regulation could have priority over external regulation. Such frontline action does not exclude state intervention if proven ineffective when for instance malicious or simply unreliable actors are pretending to be a part of the ethical game without respecting its rules.
Such an articulation between legal and self-regulatory approaches can be inspired by existing models, which prove that journalistic self-regulation can truly contribute to the general media debate in the digital age, putting ethics and accountability at the centre of discussion.
A source of inspiration and solutions
Ultimately, the Media Councils Debates did offer its participants a real opportunity to question themselves and the many issues they are currently facing. It is difficult to assess whether, without the Covid-19 pandemic, the discussions held during the various webinars would have been the same. But one thing is certain, it has created a dynamic and the desire to go further together.
 Together with the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), press councils from Austria (OP), Belgium (CDJ and RVDJ), Germany (TDP) and Finland (JSN), as well as academics from ULB and Blanquerna-Ramon Llull created a consortium to launch the Media Councils in the Digital Age (MCDA) project in 2019. Co-funded by the European Commission (DG Connect), this initiative aims to support the European models of media self-regulation through a network of press councils, the Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe (AIPCE).