Christophe Leclercq is the founder of EURACTIV media network and Chairman of Fondation EURACTIV, and also an adviser & commentator. Since January 2018, he is one of the experts on the High-Level Expert Group (HLEG) on “fake news” and online disinformation set up by the European Digital Commissioner Mariya Gabriel. Leclercq also moderates conferences, speaks at policy and corporate events, and helps boards and media associations. He leads the new projects #Media4EU and Stars4Media (Erasmus4Media).
He also teaches at the Institute for European Studies (ULB, Brussels) while his publications include many books and articles on media policy, alliances, governance, EU communication, public affairs, Eastern Europe, Brexit. Greek News Agenda conducted an interview with Christophe Leclercq on the currently ardent subject of “fake news”, the digital revolution in the field of information, the ways these affect EU policies and the role of EURACTIV network.
The founder of EURACTIV media network & Chairman of Foundation EURACTIV, Christophe Leclercq gave an interview presentinghis views on EU strategy for the media sector. In it, he addressed many topics. He started by pointing out that fake news and disinformation are crucial issues directly linked with political developments such as Trump’s win and Brexit. Leclercq was also indirectly asked to comment on Russia’s actions, so he mentioned the Russian tendencies towards destabilizing specific countries, supporting oppositions and attempting to make the democratic system less effective. Ιn order to protect the freedom of the press, the European Commission recently decided to launch some initiatives regardingillegal/harmful content and fake news. Leclercq stated that fake news is not illegal, yet we need to “Avoid censorship, dilute fake news and promote quality content”. In order to achieve that, he suggested that we augment the visibility of genuine contents and use “trust indicators” and that these initiatives are actually essential for both Europe’s future in general and for the 2019 EU elections. For that reason, the High-Level Group of Experts is asking the EU to develop a new sustainable path for the media sector in order for it to be included in the economic sector and not to be thought of as a communication system.
When asked about EURACTIV, he explained that it has expanded –now being present in 12 countries- thanks to its adaptability and its collaborations with high-level partners and multilingual journalists. EURACTIV credits its expansion to the fact “that unfortunately some other players started to disappear” and especially to it’s being European rather than French. Discussing the development of new types of business models, he explained that these can be based on support from public money and non-profit foundations of public interest, on condition that editorial independence is not jeopardized. Concluding the interview, Leclercq was asked about his personal perspective for the media sector in Europe to which he responded that despite the presence of the digital single market, “the media sector is still very national” and that this critical issue affects the democratic procedures in Europe by shrinking the pluralism in the media. In order to avoid that, he proposed the development of cross-border media concentrations as he noted that it “is important for European citizens to be able to read about other countries in their own language without going via some Anglo-Saxon media”.
Mr. Leclercq, you are a member of the EU High-Level Expert Group on 'fake news' and online disinformation. “Post–truth” was named “word of the year” for 2016, and misinformation is considered today as a major threat to western democracy. What is your take on the issue?
My take is that it is indeed very important issue and it’s not going away easily. So, maybe it will not be anymore the trending topic for this year, but it remains a big issue. In my view, ‘fake news’ is part of the explanation for the Trump win and also for Brexit. Even closer to home, there are destabilization attempts in Central and Eastern Europe.
How do you evaluate the EU actions so far?
The EU has talked about doing something for many years already, notably during the Ukraine war, but it has not done enough. The platforms, notably Facebook and Google, are very much under pressure now, even more so in the case of Facebook after the revelation of some important leaks of data, but it has not done enough. And I think this is why the EU institutions and a number of governments are coming to action. The actions are not always fruitful, although they are always well-meaning, and they could lead to other problems. One of the concerns is that handling ‘fake news’ could lead to censorship.
Could you name specific examples?
I would mention two examples, in Germany and France. There are of course other initiatives in other countries. In Germany, if I simplify, there is a German law now that forces Facebook to take content away from its platform, when it is illegal or harmful, for example hate speech, racism etc. So, Facebook had to quickly recruit a few hundred people in order to check the content. And this leads to two problems. The first is that some of the things taken away are actually not problematic and the second is that Facebook is becoming de facto publisher, which it doesn’t want and which the public opinion also doesn’t want. So, clearly this is not exactly the right solution. Then there is the French law that is under consideration. President Macron has indicated that he would like fake news to be taken away from the public sphere in the run up to elections. We can understand why: Because there was a destabilization attempt just before his own elections, notably from extreme right circles in the US, unfortunately they were not relayed in the French press. But in the view of most European experts, censorship is not the solution to fake news. There are better solutions.
Given that information has been used as a weapon for centuries, do you think that the threat is being blown out of proportion or is it a real modern menace emanating from a specific country?
I think it is a really serious issue. Your question is really, if I understand well, whether Russia is behind it. I would say there is sufficient evidence to say that it is the case of a number of situations, whether it’s Russian groups or the Kremlin, you can debate for a long time, but what is clear is that this country has an interest in destabilizing certain other countries, in crystallizing oppositions, in making the normal democratic system work less well. I am not anti-Russian, by the way, and I am not saying that the majority of Russians would support that, but very clearly there is a certain track record which is not favourable and it will not be tackled by protesting in front of Russian embassies or at summit between leaders. One has to act on the ground. But again, censoring Russian media or content which is triggered by Russian groups, like the famous Internet Research Institute in Saint Petersburg, is probably not the solution. Firstly, because they will always find new ways and new format etc., sometimes hidden, and, secondly, because it could even be counterproductive. The moment a state or the EU institutions start suppressing some news, there will be some reactions in part of the public opinion, which will say “the establishment is trying to protect itself from criticism”, “it is EU propaganda” or “national propaganda”. The French idea of the law, which I alluded to – I hope it will change, there is still time – but as it is currently conceived, it could give arguments to governments in Eastern Europe to have their own system of censorship. They would say: “Look, the French are doing it, we are doing it as well”. That would be a big worry for democracy in certain countries, even in the European Union.
So, you are saying that this is not and should not be the road we want to take in Europe.
We definitely want to uphold the values of Western democracies and not to bate freedom of speech, which includes freedom of the press. If we end up suppressing our values in order to combat the adversaries, we are not doing the right things, we are doing what they would wish.
In this context, how do you evaluate the Commission’s recent attempts to tackle this phenomenon?
There are several EU initiatives and they should be clearly distinguished. There is one initiative regarding illegal and harmful content, content that is clearly illegal, for example racist content or things which could be harmful to children. This is already covert by legislative pieces at national and European level and there have been some agreements recently between the European Commission, notably the Justice Commissioner, and the main platforms. Fake news is a different thing. Fake news is not illegal, or not always illegal, news. Fake news is news, which is false and intentionally false in order to distort the debate, either for political reasons that would be the case for Russian influence, or simply for commercial reasons, because some content can be very attractive, completely wrong and be like clickbait, leading to a lot of visibility and therefore advertising revenues. Fake news should be handled in different ways than illegal news. And we have some proposals in this report from the High-Level Group of Experts.
Would you elaborate on these proposals and on the work that is being done within this Group?
We are a Committee of 39 independent experts, representing five different constituencies, the platforms, the press, the broadcasters, civil society and academics, and despite our very different cultures, we manage to agree, we reached unanimity minus one vote, which is already an achievement. And I think our proposals are quite practical and really tackle the issue. In fact, it is expected that the Commission will issue a Communication at the end of April, which will probably endorse most of our recommendations. Obviously, they are not obliged to do so. The title of the Report is a bit long and, in my view academic, so I would like to summarize it in my own way. I would say “Avoid censorship, dilute fake news and promote quality content”. The first one, we have discussed it already. I would just add that it takes educating the citizens to have a critical mind. The best filters for fake news are not technical devices, not judges, they are the citizens themselves. We already educate our children, I hope in most schools in Europe, to distinguish between news articles and advertising. Well, now we have to help them distinguish between genuine and fake news articles. This is called media literacy and I am certain there will be initiatives flourishing in this area notably at national level. Now, the second thing is to dilute fake news. How to do that? We need to enhance the visibility of genuine content, where the source is authentic and therefore the fake news will be less visible. In other words, to use an image, if you really want to read something about Hillary Clinton killing little babies, you will find it. But it will be difficult to find. On the other hand, if you want to read the articles from Kathimerini or Le Monde, you will find them much more easily, because everybody knows that these are good sources of information. How to do that?
There are two main ways. One is to use the revenue side. It’s to make sure the platforms stop putting advertising on content that is likely not to be genuine and correct. This will reduce the commercially driven part of fake news. There are initiatives in that direction in the US and we can take inspiration from them. For example, the media Breitbart has difficulties now to carry advertising, because it carries to much ‘fake news’. The other side is a bit more technical. It’s about the algorithms, which are pieces of software that allow the platforms to choose which content you and I are reading. We would like to read the news and messages from our friends and family, we would like to read articles from the good newspapers, we would like to read less of the clickbait and the very poor sources of information. To do that the platforms has to use the so-called signals. There are many signals, for example the proximity of certain key words, the relevance to your search on Google etc.
What are the proposals of the Expert Group in this context?
The Expert Group is suggesting using so-called “trust indicators”, which would bundle a number of signals in order to help the platforms determine which content is relevant and of quality. Other people call it trust transparency indicators. This is not completely new. There are interesting projects that exist already, let me mention First Draft and also the Trust Project in the US. They already have an affiliate in Europe and there are ideas about developing them in Europe as well and the platforms are seriously committed to this project. The report has provided the principles for the code of practice, which will be further developed by an alliance of stakeholders, including the platforms, the media and civil society. This alliance will enact the Code. A very important aspect is that we are suggesting putting in place what people call co-regulation. You can also call it carrot and sticks. Google and Facebook have an interest in doing the right thing for reputation reasons and to look good in the eyes of the advertisers. This is private sector based self-regulation. If they don’t act quickly enough and if there is a serious worry of destabilization before the next European elections, then the EU institutions and possibly some governments will act more strongly using any relevant policy initiative, including the competition powers, which, as you know, are very strong. I myself, before setting up EURACTIV, was competition official, so I know about these tools.
How about the third dimension you mentioned, the quality content?
The quality content should, first of all, actually exist. It’s not a given. You represent the executive power, there is a second power, legislative, the third one, judiciary, and, in principle, there is a forth one, the press. The press is in great crisis and in order to dilute ‘fake news’, you need to have journalists writing good articles, so that people continue to be well informed. The EU has not handled so far the media sector as a normal economic sector. As you know from books and the university, the EU was first created around coal and steel and in the meantime it has tackled a number of other areas, of course agriculture, the automobile sector, chemistry etc. The media sector has always been thought of as a communication channel. So, people ask us to do more about the EU information, sometimes subsidies have been distributed, but we have not yet tackled the huge need for innovation in the media sector. The media sector itself is trying to innovate, but it has very limited means. Most of the advertising money has drifted towards Google and Facebook, which don’t pay many taxes here, so we can’t even use part of that money to invest back in Europe.
What is the input of the Expert Group in this field?
The Expert Group report is clearly asking the EU to develop a strategy for media sustainability. These things take time, so this strategy can be thought of now, we recommend that there is a study commissioned this summer, which will give ideas to the Commission services, which will then brief the new Commissioners that will come after the European Parliament elections. Hopefully there will be some points from that in the programme of the next Commission, which is endorsed by the next European Parliament.
What reactions did you receive on this report so far?
It was great to see very good endorsement of the Expert Group not only from media circles on this approach. There were also review points foreseen in this report, so it will be difficult for the EU to just leave the report in a drawer. There will be more debate about it. The High-Level Expert Group will meet again in November and there is an even more important review point in March next year, so just before the European Parliament elections, where the Commission will assess how well the platforms have done and whether it is needed to go a bit further and take pore policy initiatives.
Since you mentioned the 2019 EU election, do you fear fake news could affect it?
Yes, certainly. I am not sure there would be a coordinated campaign across all countries, but certainly in some countries, where the national public sphere is weaker, there could be attempts to do so. There was a big worry in Germany after the French elections, but in fact it has not really happened, because I think that the German media sector is strong and also because the public opinion had been prewarned and so it was not a major worry. I don’t think that the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) relative success can be attributed entirely to fake news or to some foreign influence. It’s probably a more home-grown form of populism. But next year, yes, it could happen again, especially because the European election is a less involving election in a way, so it’s typically an opportunity for the electorate to vote for people who have extreme views, when they know that it will have no direct impact on the government. An in a country like Greece, where there has been a lot of turmoil in the last years, I could imagine that it’s a concern.
Let’s shift our attention to the digital agenda. EURACTIV has been one the first media to incorporate the digital agenda in its main thematic. It is also a pioneer in hosting related events, such as the event on the top 40 EU digital influencers last October in Brussels. Could you highlight the importance of the digital transformation in the media sector?
This is really important and I think now we are moving on. To start with your first point, EURACTIV is indeed a pure player. We started without paper and we are still without paper. When we started, it was a bit strange for people, also we decided to be for free, because we stand for transparency and we think EU information should be available widely without pay. Initially that triggered some questions, also from our colleagues in the press core here.
In the meantime, we have expanded. As you know, we are present in 12 countries, notably partnering with the Athens News Agency and a number of other good ones, for example EFE, the Spanish Press Agency and a number of other good media, like the Guardian in London etc. So, the credentials of pure play online media are not at stake anymore. I think now the big challenge for the media is not to go from print to online, because this is nearly done. Of course, paper continues to play a role. I would make an analogy if I may. There are still theatres in every country, but of course the main entertainment channel is TV, in different ways. One day we will think of print newspapers like we think about theatre: This is a luxury product for certain people. I am talking especially about the daily price. The magazines etc have a different role. For me the real challenge is how to move from 1.0, which is still based on the traditional model with advertising and subscriptions, to other types of revenue models, and to be honest I don’t have exactly an answer.
How prepared are the traditional media to embrace the digital revolution?
Two years ago, because I was stepping away from the management of the media EURACTIV, I decided to go on a “tour d’ Europe”, visiting publishers and editors in a number of countries, to try to see which their main concerns are and whether the EU could do something to help them. Coming back from this series of trips, I was even more concerned than before. Even great brands in Europe, great media brands in Europe, are basically SMEs led by all the white men who are not digital natives, people like myself, who don’t know the answers. They don’t know all the answers to the questions, and neither do I. There are elements of solutions and I can tell you that every meeting of media publishers or media editors that I attend is talking about that. There are elements regarding regulation and how to change the balance of negotiation between the media sector on the one hand and the platforms on the other hand. This is important. It is a whole discussion about copyright, and whether the media should be able to charge fees to the platforms for using snippets, part of their content. It is not the answer.
How are new business models shaping the media landscape?
There are elements concerning new types of business models, for example public money, if it can respect editorial independence, which is not easy, or non-profit money foundations of public interest are sponsoring, but not sponsored content, sponsoring of a long term supportive nature, not infringing editorial independence. This is by the way the main model for the EURACTIV network of policy media. There are also things which do not appear like normal media business model, but which are very relevant. You were asking about events. Every year EURACTIV organizes more than 100 events. Most of them are sponsored. They are always leading to a debate. It is not exactly the same notion of editorial independence as you have online, but it is a debate between different stakeholders. You attended one of them which was focusing on social media stars – so to say – but there are many others on more technical issues. Typically for the press, events make money and the traditional media activities lose money. People hope to win more on the one side than what to lose on the other side. Most media groups still have very good brands and they try to leverage their brands with events or supplements or other types of products which can be profitable in an appropriate way, not doing lobbying and which helps to subsidize for the lack of subscription or the lack of advertising.
In an interview 3 years ago, you mentioned that competition keeps you and EURACTIV on your toes. How has the media landscape evolved in the meantime? What are the main challenges for a hybrid, as you characterized it, medium that is neither Brussels-centric nor national?
I will not make very long comments about the competition, because it would not be appropriate and also because I think we keep them on their toes. I am sure they are watching carefully what I am saying. Of course, for some few years now there is a relatively large player in the European media landscape coming from Washington and we immediately said that they are welcome and they still are. We tend to focus more on policies, on depth and we are multilingual. These are the main differences. There are also differences regarding our DNA. We are European and despite French nationality of the founder, you could not say that EURACTIV is French. I would say it’s a bit different for the other main player in the city.
What has changed in the last three years is that unfortunately some other players started to disappear. There was a media called Europolitics, which does not exist anymore and there are smaller players, which, from my understanding, are becoming even smaller, at least in terms of revenues. But we should not confuse EU reporting with the very specialized media that have their centre in Brussels. For me Brussels is not Europe, and that is why early on EURACTIV decided to develop a network of media instead of being centralized in Brussels. We are present in 12 countries and my counterparts are not my colleagues here in Brussels. My counterparts are the entrepreneurial editors in the other countries. Interestingly, they are very faithful. We have very little job rotation in our network. You have people who started with us 12 years ago and who are still leading the EURACTIV affiliates in their country and who are little stars on their own in their respective countries. Some of them are even going to politics, which is nice to see. After having reported and interviewed others, now are being interviewed and influencing policy in a different way. We are in Europe, we are not in the US. We have many different languages, many different cultures.
There have been attempts by the EU institutions to bring the debate at the European level and to translate their websites in different languages. This is a bit of centralizing process. I believe in the reverse. I think we should bring Europe to where people are instead of bringing people to where Europe thinks it is. And that’s why our network is decentralized.
Could you explain how the EURACTIV model actually works given that it is available in so many different languages?
This might surprise you: If I take the total of EURACTIV teams, not only in Brussels, but with the different affiliates, we have among them very few translators, although we have 12 languages. How is it possible? Because they are journalists. They take our articles typically in English or German or French, they decide what to pick, they adapt immediately, they change language, sometimes they have to change the currencies (we don’t have the euro everywhere) and they become really interesting articles in their own language. And, of course, we do the reverse, when some national European news is relevant to EU level, then it is translated in English, and, typically, also in French and German.
We do not see a lot of such initiatives in Europe.
My wish is that the EU or other sources of founders would invest a lot more in this multilingual interface. I wish we had more competitors, not less. There is VoxEurop, which is an interesting initiative, complementing what we are doing. They are inspired by a previous project called Press Europe, which was at the time managed by Courrier International, subsidiary of the Group Le Monde. It was subsidized by the European Commission. Unfortunately, it stopped. I wish there would be many more like that.
Translation technologies have made immense progress. Many people remember the mistakes from ten years ago, but this is today, and I think it is important for European citizens to be able to read about other countries in their own language without going via some Anglo-Saxon media. I am not anti-AngloSaxon, my wife is British, I have worked for an American company before being an EU official, but I believe that if I am Parisian, I want to know about the coalition talks in Berlin in French using German sources and not via some English or American newspaper.
They are the majority of our readership. Clearly, it is not only us who are satisfied, it is also the readers and for a media the key is always the readers. There is a wide variety of partners in nature, because some are agencies, some are political dailies; some have been created in order to be the affiliate of EURACTIV, which is an interesting form of diversity. And, of course, we have to make efforts to coordinate them, but it should remain very decentralized and demand-driven. Our main challenge is not so much on the editorial side, except the translation challenge which I have mentioned (we could be more productive with better translation technologies). Our main challenge is on the revenue side. The advertising and sponsoring markets and also the event markets are still very national and we need to convince our clients that it makes sense to use the same network across different countries. And then there are wonderful scale effects. And if you deepen the debate in several countries and several languages at the same time, of course you really help policy making at EU level. But not every client understands it. Organizations are typically quite national and so this is our main challenge.
What is your personal vision for the media sector in Europe? Are you trying to create an EU-wide public sphere?
Absolutely. I used to say some years ago that the European public sphere is a dream. I share this dream, but it still is a dream. Now I think it’s becoming a bit more of a reality, because of economic necessities. I used to be a strategy consultant and then – as I mentioned – an EU official regarding competition policy, so I think a lot in terms of industry structures. I think the media sector was left behind by the single market. People in the EU institutions have believed that the digital single market would complement the original 1992 single market regarding all the digital affected services’ industries, including the media. This has not happened. What has happened is that the digital single market is facilitating a number of things, notably the expansion of the platforms. Perhaps it is facilitating the development of start-ups across border, but the media sector is still very national. I would say it is shrinking and concentrating at national level, which is an issue for the employment of journalists. It is an issue in terms of democracy, because of the lack of pluralism, and it is also an issue for Europe, because there cannot be a healthy functioning democracy without a healthy free press.
Do you think we will witness more concentration in the media sector in Europe?
I believe there will be more concentration of the media and - it will surprise you - I welcome cross-border concentration; because cross-border concentration would actually increase media pluralism. If I take Central Europe for example, after enlargement there has been a wave of investments by western companies, notably German and American, but also some French, British, Swiss, Italian etc, and that was good. That was a period where democracy was flourishing in those countries. A lot of them have retreated in the meantime for all kinds of economic and also political reasons and I think this is a loss of democracy in a number of Central European countries, where most of the media is controlled either by the government or by some oligarchs who confuse their business and their political interests. In those countries, when there is a foreign media, it is typically the best. And by the way it is typically the one with which EURACTIV likes to cooperate. So, if there were again cross-border investments, it would be good. It would also be good in the West as well.
How is the situation in your country, in France?
In my own country, in France, you can see that there is a progressive concentration of the press around 3 or 4 groups and that is not enough. If there was also a big German player, a big Italian player, a big Spanish player, it would be all the better. Again, I think the EU institutions could help, by accompanying the innovation process with translation, with other forms of help, with retraining the journalists etc. Of course, the main responsibility is of the media sector itself. When I talked to a number of media bosses in France, I asked them about international strategies and they said “yes, we have a great one; it is to go French-speaking Africa”. Of course, this is important, but I think Europe is even more important. This is our future.
* Interviewed for Greek News Agenda by Antigoni Pilitsi from the press office of the Greek Embassy in Brussels. Summary by Regina Zenteli.
Read also via Greek News Agenda: Digital Policy Minister on fake news, the government's goals and the need for progressive alliances in Europe; Panos Kakaviatos on the role of the Council of Europe concerning media and press freedom