Common Challenges, Joint Solutions: Disinformation, Media Policy, and the Future of UK-EU Relations

As the wars in Ukraine and Gaza continue to escalate, accompanied by the intensification of hybrid warfare facilitated by the use of AI and escalating contestation from the Global South over global power imbalances, policymakers might be tempted to see cooperation around culture and media policy as a topic of reduced importance for the future of UK-EU relations and, more broadly, for geopolitical stability. This would be a mistake.

Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia, among other illiberal actors, dedicate substantive and increasing resources to influencing the views of Western and non-Western audiences. In the UK, this includes a recent online campaign targeting the Princess of Wales. In the EU, French government officials recently revealed that Russia has operated an online campaign against Kyiv supporters in France, Poland and Germany. In response to a growing number of similar revelations, the European Commission has strengthened its efforts against disinformation. It has created an Information Sharing and Analysis Centre within the EU’s Diplomatic Service, encouraged all major online platforms to sign a Code of Practice on Disinformation (strengthened in 2022) and, in preparation for the European Parliament elections, released guidelines with suggestions on how search engines and online platforms can mitigate systemic risks in this regard, among other policies.

Meanwhile, alongside attempts to create a climate of uncertainty, destabilise voters and increase mistrust in institutions and democratic forces, illiberal actors have begun to explore the weaknesses of entities that are central to lively liberal democracies, such as media organisations. In the UK, the planned UAE-led takeover of the Telegraph is set to be outlawed following new legislation banning foreign governments from owning newspapers. Reflecting similar concerns in the EU, the European Council recently passed the European Media Freedom Act, which includes transparency requirements for media ownership.

Although they should be lauded, British and European efforts to address disinformation and halt the takeover of key media companies by illiberal actors are mostly reactive. That is, they focus on identifying and responding to ongoing disinformation campaigns or buyout attempts by actors with values contrary to those of the UK and the EU without providing holistic and long-term solutions to the broader problem at hand: an increasingly fragile media and information ecosystem. Only together can both parties make the leap from reactive to proactive strategies.

To a significant extent, the success of disinformation campaigns and the existence of strategic acquisition opportunities in the media sector are symptomatic of decreasing visibility and revenues faced by public service broadcasters and private media companies as a result of the rise of Video-On-Demand (VoD) and intensifying competition from social media platforms. British and European stakeholders could exchange best practices and collaborate in the development of new solutions to this challenge. For example, regulators (such as OFCOM in the UK) struggle to secure the visibility of domestic and European content in VoD catalogues, on which access to fair and well-informed news and current affairs programmes, cultural pluralism, and continued revenues for independent producers depend. The UK government could convene an international forum to support the exchange of information and best practices between media regulators committed to pluralism and cultural diversity, inviting not only organisations from the EU’s Member States (whose regulators meet as the European Regulators Group for Audiovisual Media Services) but also Canada, New Zealand, and other stakeholders. This would foster exchange on a topic with major cultural, socioeconomic, and geopolitical repercussions. At the same time, it would show commitment from the UK to taking a more non-transactional approach to UK-EU relations.

However, disinformation strategies are not limited to the European continent. Russian operatives routinely spread disinformation in Africa while China attempts to “export its media practices” to the region. British entities such as the British Council and the BBC World Service could collaborate with similar institutions from the EU’s Member States to support media and information ecosystems in the Global South. To give another specific example, they could co-develop and make available professional training for journalists in third countries interested in such activities. As a co-convener of the UK Soft Power Group, a responsibility that it shares with the British Council (one of the partners of the Future News Worldwide initiative, which brought together student journalists and reporters from across the globe for intensive training, learning and networking), the BFPG has the networks and the expertise to contribute to the development of these and other strategic solutions.

Whatever shape the future of UK-EU relations takes in the years to come, both parties should join forces to support one of the key pillars of free societies and the liberal order: a free and fair media.

Mafalda Dâmaso

Mafalda Dâmaso is an Associate Fellow at BFPG