Interconnected subjects – Interconnected public. The Internet as a platform for a European societal consciousness

The MEDIADEM project and the University of Bielefeld, online in cooperation with the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation, rx organised a conference entitled ‘Interconnected subjects – Interconnected public. The Internet as a platform for a European societal consciousness’. The conference took place on 9-10 November 2012 at the premises of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Berlin.

The aim of the event was twofold: first, to present the findings of the MEDIADEM project, focusing on those aspects of the German media policy that have a bearing on the development of free and independent media; and second, to engage in a wider discussion about the Internet as a democratic debating space. The conference, thus, embraced the interrelated and complex nature of daily affairs affecting our lives, the Internet as a communicative backbone, the participatory potential of the Internet in democratic decision-making processes and the question of whether the Internet can create a European understanding of societal developments.

On the first day, Prof. Barbara Thomaß (Institute for Media Studies, Ruhr University Bochum), in her key-note speech ‘Possibilities and limits of a European space for public discourse’, talked about the dynamics of a European public space from a media studies point of view. Starting with an overview of the national debate about how to achieve a European communications space, she then discussed media markets, language barriers, legal requirements and the practice of editorial offices. While the need to embrace a European public space is palpable, mass media structures have not lived up to this. The Internet has created a new discursive space, but it is unclear whether this space is used for societal and political debate.

The first panel focused on the MEDIADEM project.  Dr. Rachael Craufurd Smith, Dr. Pierre-François Docquir and Dr. Dilek Kurban presented the findings of the project’s empirical research in the United Kingdom, Belgium and Turkey respectively. The three speakers discussed, among others, whether the Internet has facilitated the development of a democratic public space around European issues. Overall, two streams of developments could be ascertained: the traditional stream and the evolving stream. First, the traditional media landscape and the domestic media culture very much shape the way that online communication takes place. The reserved attitude towards the EU that characterises the offline media in the UK is also reflected online, while in Turkey, state efforts to control the media are also evidenced in the online environment. In Belgium, offline media do not even provide for a national public space. Internet-based communication seems to challenge these structures. Issues, for instance, that arise in the social media are then reported on television or in the press. Communication between politicians and the public taking place on twitter influences political processes. Finally, blogs seek to provide analysis and debate around European issues.

The second panel on ‘Interconnected public and citizen participation’ featured presentations by Ute Pannen, spokesperson of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Berlin, and Dr. Konstantin von Notz, member of the German Federal Parliament for the party Alliance 90/The Greens (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) and member of the parliamentary commission on Internet and Society. They discussed the practical implications of Internet’s new communications pathways for politics and for citizens’ participation in decision-making processes.

The second day of the conference started with Prof. Jürgen Neyer (European University Viadrina, Frankfurt, Oder), who talked about decision- and law-making processes at the EU level. Prof. Neyer questioned the applicability of the model of representative democracy found at the national level to the EU. While the parliament plays a crucial role in national decision-making, decision-making within the EU is intergovernmental, with the Council of Ministers being at its core. The European Commission is then the main executive body. Internet-based communication has the potential to increase citizen’s interactivity with the EU institutions but, for the time being, such an influence is limited.

The last session of the conference was devoted to a discussion about European legislation and its contribution to the creation and regulation of a European space for public discourse. Prof. Dieter Dörr (Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz) presented the main aspects of the EU’s legislative state of the art. He focused on the Audiovisual Media Services Directive and stressed that regulation is required for a healthy public space for democratic discourse. Prof. Hannes Tretter (Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Human Rights, Vienna) focused on the standard-setting activities of the Council of Europe. He highlighted the approach of the Council of Europe on issues of media and democracy and referred to the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights.

Overall, the conference provided an opportunity for lively debate and reflection. Over 80 media politicians, scholars, students, state representatives, academics, journalists, NGO representatives and legal practitioners contributed to the discussions held during the conference.

The Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung is going to publish a comprehensive report on the conference (in German) in due course.

The agenda of the conference is available in German and English.

See the flyer here (in German).

For more information you may contact Sebastian Müller.