The sinister sound of democracy trickling away

The European Parliament is failing to protect democracy against powerful and greedy media moguls
Sometimes democracy seems perilously fragile. It may not be overthrown by coups or dictators, but it may seep away from us, power leached away towards the great multinational corporations.

Yesterday the European Parliament debated a lengthy series of proposed amendments to an existing directive called Television Without Frontiers. The amendments sought to regulate the mushrooming unregulated world of cross-border television to ensure higher standards and free access to all.

The most important issue was to guarantee that all broadcasters carry a quota of European programming, ensuring a measure of European cultural independence and giving a huge boost to the European film and television industry. The current directive says that 51 per cent of all screen time should be given to programmes made in Europe. But Britain managed to get added the weasel words "where practicable", which means that each country can decide who should and who should not obey it. The amendment proposed making it compulsory for all. Yesterday that amendment, along with others designed to raise standards, fell.

The French government imposes the quota on all its broadcasters, including Canal Plus, while the British Government uses the "where practicable" get-out to exempt all satellite and cable broadcasters.

The quota amendment was supported by Labour but vigorously opposed by the Government, which mounted a ferocious lobbying campaign claiming that: "Inflexible mandatory quotas restrict the development of new broadcasters, viewer choice and the essential programming freedom of broadcasters."

Why are they so adamant? Because the British broadcaster it would affect most drastically would be Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB. If it had passed he could still have put out his soap channel, for instance, which is 100 per cent American programming, but he would have been obliged to spend 25 per cent of his overall non-sport and news programme budget on European- made programmes. It would have had no effect on BBC, ITV or Channel 4 as they all obey our national rules for terrestrial television and all greatly exceed the quota that was being proposed for Europe. One rule for terrestrial broadcasters, almost none for Murdoch, seems to be our policy.

Jack Lang, the French MEP, complained bitterly: "Once again the European Parliament had the chance to justify its existence. But it bowed down before conservative forces. The majority of European leaders have agreed to deliver to future generations a television bombardment of US series. I trust they will not come back and cry crocodile tears about the lost European soul."

Two of the strongest campaigners for stricter controls were Labour MEPs Carol Tongue and the distinguished ex-broadcaster Philip Whitehead. Deeply depressed by the vote, he said: "What I have seen today is the colossal resources of the multinationals pitted against Members of Parliament and all the European consumer and artistic interests who operate on a wing and a prayer."

The spectacle in the European Parliament in the last couple of days has been extraordinary. All the world communications giants, all those with their snouts in the great European broadcasting trough, were there, leaning, lobbying, paying, threatening. Some, like Italy's Berlusconi, actually have their own staff as MEPs. Those with media empires used their newspaper clout to intimidate politicians.

There was the full might of the American administration, promoting the interests of its movie and television industry. Bertelsmann, Kirch, Murdoch, Turner, Reuters, British Telecom, Sony, Microsoft, Deutsche TV - the list is endless. All the big global players had their lobbyists there. They were ensuring that the soon-to-arrive "video-on-demand" services would not be counted as broadcasters at all, and thus would escape the same regulation as other broadcasters. And, not surprisingly, it worked. Although the majority of MEPs resisted their blandishments, not enough turned up to reach the required large majority, and so the "free market" won.

But what is a cultural free market? When buying second-hand American television programmes costs 10 per cent of the price of new, European- originated material, where is the level playing field? In 1994 European broadcasters had a deficit of $4bn in imports of American programmes. By this year it has galloped ahead to $6.3bn on the balance of trade. Cultural and commercial interests go hand in hand - an estimated three- quarters of a million European jobs are lost in that cultural deficit to America. In two years the Americans have increased their penetration of the European broadcasting market by 14.5 per cent. What is the point of a common market if it does not include those things most important to our cultural and trading interests?

Other important amendments failed - but one did succeed, preventing sports events such as the World Cup from falling into the exclusive hands of pay-per-view monopolists. Well, at least they didn't dare let the free market interfere with football.

All this raises a bigger and more alarming issue. It shows how, hidden away in Europe, crucially important issues are fixed by the sheer mega- power of conglomerates, against consumer interests. Next week the Government will publish its long-delayed regulations on the future of digital broadcasting, which will show whether they are prepared to sell the digital future to Murdoch. The auguries are not good.