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Identity & Television: Europe on Screen

Richard Collins
28 May 2003

The European Union’s (EU) Television without Frontiers Directive (TVWF) is due for renewal. Now is a good time to examine it’s underpinning assumptions, and the grounds on which some have argued TVWF needs to be strengthened.

The Directive, which first came into force in 1989, requires (among other things) EU member states to ensure “freedom of reception…on their territory of television broadcasts from other Member States” and to “ensure where practicable…that broadcasters reserve for European works…a majority proportion of their transmission time”. All very innocuous – how could anyone reasonably object to measures which ensure European viewers are able to watch television from neighbouring countries and which require broadcasters to screen European programmes? But all is not as it seems.

Behind the technical jargon, and the unstated but clear attempt to impose a quota on US imports, lurks an ideological question: does a united and effective Europe require underpinning by a strong shared culture, and are media regulations the best way to ensure such a culture? Europe, and particularly those ‘“soeurs ennemies” France and the UK, hardly seem united on this issue.

The expression of identity

One could explain this Franco-British conflict over the principle and future of TVWF as an expression of either, or both, national political habit (the same “habits” that led the UK to follow the USA into Iraq and France to oppose the invasion) or national economic interest (the UK benefits from the liberalisation of European audio-visual markets whereas France doesn’t). But it is also a matter of a different understanding of culture, and the impact of television.

Implicit in the French claims that “audiovisual works are the expression of an identity” and “audiovisual [policy] should, therefore, favour the emergence of a European conscience and a greater cohesion at the level of the continent” are three problematic assumptions. First, that the media are effective – watching a film or television programme challenges or confirms the values of those who watch. Second, that social cohesion and legitimacy depends on a shared culture expressed and reproduced in a rhetoric common to the community in question, a rhetoric which moreover differentiates that community from others. And third, that there is a general human entitlement to a shared identity and to its renewal through collective consumption and self–expression.

Media Effects: the unproven case

The first assumption, of strong media effects, need not detain us long. Suffice it to note that there is no consensus among researchers of media audience and effects on this proposition. Moreover the surprisingly slim body of empirical evidence on the effects of foreign television on sentiments of identity and affiliation among TV viewers lends little support to a strong effect hypothesis. Anna Melich’s (1990) study of Swiss children is almost the only empirical study. Melich found that in spite of high levels of consumption of foreign television (of French services by francophone Swiss children, Italian services by Swiss Italian native speakers etc) sentiments, in the children studied, of a shared, Swiss, national identity remained strong. Proponents of a strong effect hypothesis have yet to prove their case.

The social glue hypothesis

Second, the pragmatic question: Can societies hold together without a shared culture as social glue? Certainly, there are uncomfortable recent instances of failed states which, because multi-national and multi-lingual, lacked this putatively necessary centripetal force. The cases of the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia might seem to tilt the balance of the argument decisively. But there are salient counter examples such as the European Union itself, Canada, Finland, India and Switzerland. None of these are without their internal, potentially disintegrative, tensions. But disintegrative tensions are not, of course, the exclusive prerogative of multi-national and multi-cultural states.

Moreover, both the UK and France, in varying degrees and with greater or lesser length of tradition, exemplify states which have recognised that the polity is more, not less, likely to hold together if cultural and linguistic difference is accepted (indeed, supported) than if it is anathematised and suppressed. The UK has practiced a kind of asymmetrical federalism since the Act of Union – a federalism recently reinforced by devolution. UK federalism has increasingly acknowledged the status of minority languages such as Welsh and Scots and Irish Gaelic. Even strongly Jacobin France, whose constitution asserts that the language of the Republic shall be French, has acknowledged the status of minority languages. Lionel Jospin’s Prime Ministerial inaugural speech to the National Assembly in 1997, for example, gave unprecedented support for Corsican.

The ‘right’ to collective identity

But the third assumption – the presumption of entitlement to collective identity – merits more attention. This, putative entitlement (or “right”) was well stated by the President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, at the Assises de l’audiovisuel organised by France during its European Presidency in 1989. At the Assises, Delors affirmed that “Culture is not a piece of merchandise…we cannot treat culture the way we treat refrigerators or even cars… I would like to ask just one question of our American friends… Do we have the right to exist?”

The philosopher Charles Taylor has argued Delors’ proposition with equivalent eloquence and a higher degree of theoretical generality. In his book of essays Reconciling the Solitudes (1993) Taylor stated “the core of the modern conception of rights is that respect is owed to the integrity of the human subject…[who] has a right to life, to liberty…[and] also to property. But, if we add the Romantic understanding of identity, as essential to human subjecthood, then plainly there is something else here to which we have a right, namely, that the conditions of our identity be respected”.

Taylor’s argument may seem a decisive justification for societies, national states, based on, and guaranteeing, shared culture and language. For, he argues, it is only in such societies that our putative entitlement to full realisation of our, necessarily social, identity can be achieved. Certainly, if Taylor’s (and Delors’) arguments are valid, support for indigenous audiovisual works, and quotas against the ingress of exogenous works, seem to be justified.

But the conditions, surely, for realisation of the sort of identity entitlement proposed by Taylor are quite specific. They depend crucially on a common language for, as Elie Kedourie argued in Nationalism (1966), “language is the means through which man becomes conscious of his personality. Language is not only a vehicle for rational propositions, it is the outer expression of an inner experience”. A multi-cultural and multi-lingual polity would be unfriendly to the full Taylorian realisation of a human personality and identity.

So, in a world of global information flows, mass migration and multi-cultural/multi-lingual societies, the entitlements advocated by Taylor and Delors seem better realised in the private rather than public domain. For, they can only be reconciled with the imperatives of rights to freedom of expression and information and to undifferentiated citizenship in very specific kinds of societies – monoglot, culturally homogeneous nation states where, as Ernest Gellner put it, polity and culture are congruent. This is now too narrow and exclusive a social model to be confidently advocated.

In the context of European Union audiovisual policy, such a model would mean, if strictly applied, prohibition of Arab, Chinese and Hindi broadcasting in Europe. Clearly neither Taylor nor Delors would wish for such an outcome. But, if policy and regulation are to be framed and implemented in such a way as to legitimise such services it is hard to see how, with consistency and justice, they could not also legitimise the American services, which Delors thought inimical to a European right to cultural survival.

It’s worth noting here one counter intuitive truth. A stronger requirement in TVWF for European content would effectively displace American material on the screens of the EU’s smaller member states by programmes produced in the larger. Producers in France, Germany and the UK might benefit but it’s not clear that consumers in, say, Denmark and Ireland would welcome reduced access to The Simpsons, Friends, or The Sopranos in favour of, say, the UK’s I’m a celebrity get me out of here or the German soap opera Gute Zeiten, Schlechte Zeiten.

The EU and the US

Pervasively, European media markets have expanded – more and more channels are available, with a consequential massive increase in demand for programming, but without a commensurate growth in broadcasting revenues. This has increased the proportion of foreign, often American, programmes on European screens. Europe wide, the European Audiovisual Observatory estimates, the EU trade deficit with the USA in 2000 on the audiovisual account amounted to 8.2 billion dollars – a deterioration of 14% from the previous year.

That France and the UK have differed, and continue to do so, on the recent transnationalisation of European television, to which TVWF has decisively contributed, is both a matter of different attitudes to the US and its media, and of the realities of the modern TV market. Simply put the French are concerned about American cultural imperialism, and do not stand to benefit economically from market liberalisation. France, and it is not alone in this, fears that the penetration of European markets by American films and TV programmes inhibits European identity and denies Europeans their entitlement to a collective identity. Their response is to pour state support into its own media production.

In 1994, for example, (a year chosen because the most recent for which WTO statistics come to hand) France committed, in absolute terms, more financial support to film and video than any other European country (124,950m ecu). This contrasts sharply with the UK which committed less than any other European country to supporting their own film and TV production (1,888m ecu), Ireland excepted. Even Iceland seems to have spent more than the UK did!

More than one European identity

Although both the trade statistics and France’s advocacy of European identity are eloquent, there is more than one European identity and more than one European interest at stake. For whilst, in aggregate, Europe has experienced an increasing penetration of offshore content and services, some European states, and the UK is the most striking case in point, have benefited from liberalisation of audiovisual markets. TVWF has, for example, made London the centre of a Europe wide satellite television industry – of circa 100 transnational European channels about 80% are London based.

And the expansion of European audiovisual markets has, by and large, also served the UK well. The UK’s audiovisual trade balance is in overall surplus – in 2000 by £137m. True, this followed three years of deficit. But over the last six years the UK has had an overall surplus on the audiovisual trade account.

Moreover, trade has increased strikingly in volume – both exports and imports have risen by 20%. The UK’s two major audiovisual trading partners are the EU and the USA. The majority of the UK’s film exports go to the USA (followed by Europe) and the majority of film imports come from Europe (followed by the USA). In television the reverse is the case – most exports go to Europe, most imports come from the USA. In economic terms it’s clear, the current regime, un-strengthened by any further quotas, suits the UK well enough.

The UK has not characteristically seen its national identity challenged by the presence of American programming on its screens. Indeed, the UK Government proposes to abolish national ownership restrictions for the UK media sector (as inscribed in the Communications Bill currently before Parliament). UK preoccupations thus seem far from the anxious quantification of, and agonising over, foreign ownership of European media companies, which animates other EU member states.

Not surprisingly the UK is notorious among advocates of tighter European regulation of the audiovisual sector (and a tougher new version of the TVWF Directive) for acting as an American aircraft carrier threatening European identity and economic interest. It was, after all, the UK that successfully led the faction among member states that successfully introduced the wrecking “where practicable” condition into the text of the TVWF Directive. And the UK has used the “where practicable” condition to argue the impracticability of requiring, for example, movie and children’s satellite television channels, to be programmed with a majority of European works.

The format of identity

Much more could (and doubtless will) be written around the renewal of Television without Frontiers and the relationship between identity and media. Of culture as adaptive and synthetic rather than fixed; of the benefits of adoption and appropriation of foreign practices and models to strengthen industrial competitiveness; of the advantages of weak and pluralistic, rather than strong and restricted.

Looking backward, there are good grounds to question the validity of the economic, pragmatic/political and ethical arguments which have hitherto been advanced in favour of a stronger TVWF and in favour of less foreign television in Europe – whether practicable or not.

Looking forward this debate may have to recognise, ultimately, the futility of government or EU regulation in the face of all-conquering formats. The success of Endemol, the producers of Big Brother and Europe’s biggest independent television producer, based in the Netherlands, suggests that economic success in Europe’s audiovisual markets may depend neither on Government support nor size of home market. It may be a matter of finding the winning, eminently transportable, format.

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