Three-D Issue 20: Beyond the ivory tower: media policy academics in the public arena

p3-0Máire Messenger Davies
University of Ulster

For most of 2012, continuing into 2013, and no doubt beyond, media policy debates and events have been dominated by questions raised by the Leveson Inquiry into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press, whose report was published on 29th November 2012 – see http://www.official-documents.gov.uk/document/hc1213/hc07/0780/0780.asp. (For an executive summary see http://www.official-documents.gov.uk/document/hc1213/hc07/0779/0779.asp.) Policy Network members have been actively involved in the debates surrounding the Inquiry – giving evidence, meeting with civil society groups, writing, blogging, tweeting and conducting research. It was seen as important to include Leveson issues as a key strand in our recent 2013 conference, ‘Spaces and Places of Culture’ in Derry (see below) and these issues have also been dominant in other institutions’ seminars and conferences this year.

How is the Policy Network involved?

The Policy Network originally came together after a lively policy session about public service broadcasting, chaired by Voice of the Listener and Viewer President, Jocelyn Hay, at the Cardiff MeCCSA conference in 2008; the network was intended primarily as an online forum for academics to exchange views and research on different areas of media policy – broadcasting, journalism, new technology, audience studies, including children, regulation, censorship and international developments among them. Regular policy exchanges have taken place via the Policy Network list (MECCSA-POLICY@JISCMAIL.AC.UK) and there have been well-attended policy panels at subsequent MeCCSA conferences, including the 2013 conference in Derry.

Joining with civil society: breaking out of the ivory tower

The MeCCSA Policy network has a specific agenda to support engagement with civil society. Since the phone hacking scandal broke in 2011 and Leveson was set up in 2012, these academic debates have spilled over from the academy into the public domain and members such as Steve Barnett, Des Freedman, Natalie Fenton, Julian Petley, Ivor Gaber and James Curran, are becoming familiar media names. (See for example the letters to the Guardian on ‘illegality and cover up at News Corp’ and the letter urging support for the Leveson recommendations, in the Financial Times on November 1st 2012, signed by 26 senior academics, most of whom are members of the Policy Network – see Three-D Issue 19 and also the regular blogs at the LSE Media Policy Project, including a useful Leveson roundup).

Whatever individuals’ differing views about press freedom, and the rights and wrongs of press regulation, it is a tribute to the field that a senior media academic (and former journalist), Professor Brian Cathcart, of Kingston University, the sometimes-maligned leader of the Hacked Off campaign group, has been instrumental in the public debate on journalism ethics and regulation. This allegedly ‘self-appointed’ role has not made him popular with the press, nor with some other academics – this is a fate that media studies colleagues should expect when they venture into the public domain. For a robust riposte to the press’s dismissal of Media Studies and a call for his fellow academics to engage in the debate more publicly see James Curran’s paper from the Derry conference, ‘Mickey Mouse Squeaks Back, reprinted in this issue of Three-D.

Blogging and tweeting

Many media academics have taken to social media to advance policy agendas. A blog from the Media Reform Coalition – a group of academics, journalists and civil society organisations – pointed out some ironies in the press attacks on Hacked Off:

‘Take Andrew Gilligan fuming in the Telegraph about this “fundamental rewriting of Britain’s constitutional liberties”. First, he’s angry that Hacked Off got the same access to politicians as press companies had since January; he calls them a “self-appointed campaign group” (as opposed to state-appointed); “funded by rich celebrities” (unlike the rich owners of newspapers).’

Julian Petley also offers a corrective to press ‘fuming’ and a useful analysis of the recommendations in the cross-party proposed Royal Charter in this edition of Three-D: “The uproar and tumult which the charter has brought about in the press barons’ camp is the clearest possible proof that it has merit.”

Leveson in Derry

At this year’s MeCCSA conference in Derry, at one of our keynote sessions, ‘Journalism Futures’, Roy Greenslade, former tabloid editor, regular contributor to The Guardian, and Professor of Journalism at City University, emphasised the distinction between ‘the press’ and ‘journalism.’ He acknowledged the flaws of the former, and defended the importance of the latter, which in its print version, he argued, controversially, is on the way out. On a more hopeful note, his fellow speaker, Claire Wardle, of Storyful, illustrated some of the blossoming possibilities of online journalism in her presentation.

Roy Greenslade also pointed out, with special emphasis for the local audience, that popular newspapers (despite defending their own role in upholding press freedom) mainly have an eye on what makes money. During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Roy reminded us, coverage of the issues was poor because ‘Ulster doesn’t sell.’ In the panel strand, ‘Journalism and Policy’, several speakers addressed issues of media regulation and ownership, and the programme featured a panel directly addressing ‘Lessons from Leveson.’ In this panel, chaired by Maggie Swarbrick, director of the University of Ulster’s MA in Journalism, Des Freedman drew attention to what he argued is a central issue in the problems identified by Leveson – and one underplayed in the report, he argued: this is the problem of concentrated media ownership, both in the UK and internationally. Natalie Fenton questioned the equation of ‘freedom of the press’ with ‘cosmopolitan capitalism.’ Brian Cathcart, director of the campaign group Hacked Off, passionately defended his cause against some sceptical audience members. To a member of the audience who asked, ‘does the public really care about this?’ he pointed to opinion polls with majority support for the Leveson recommendations. But even without these, he said, he would continue the campaign because: ‘I care.’

MeCCSA’s responses

At the MeCCSA AGM in 2011 the following motion was passed in support in support of the Media Reform Coalition (formerly the Coordinating Committee for Media Reform) – a group of academics, including Network members, journalists and civil society organisations: “This AGM supports the initiative of the Co-ordinating Committee for Media Reform in its submission to Leveson, and further public forums, as a proper and fruitful stimulus to well-informed debate.” This year, (2013), MeCCSA received a message from fellow media and cultural studies academic, and phone hacking victim, Professor John Tulloch, formerly of Brunel University: ‘I do hope that, as the most important communication association in the UK, you are able to offer official and public support to the media reform campaign.’ Although views on press regulation differ, inevitably, it’s good that the MeCCSA Policy Network continues to offer a forum for these views and that media academics’ research and advice are being taken seriously both by policy makers and – judging by the ‘uproar and tumult’ referred to by Julian Petley – in the press too.

Future events and useful contacts

We are keen to have Network events outside London. Volunteers to host these, please get in touch.

‘Strategies for Media Reform: An International Workshop’, an ICA (International Communication Association) Pre-conference meeting in London  on June 17, 2013.

The Media Reform group:
http://www.mediareform.org.uk/
Contact: info@mediareform.org.uk

Hacked Off website: hackinginquiry.org.
Contacts: Phone: + 44 (0) 20 7808 7275
Email: campaign@hackinginquiry.org

Leveson Inquiry:
http://www.official-documents.gov.uk/document/hc1213/hc07/0780/0780.asp

Máire Messenger Davies, March 2013, m.messenger-davies@ulster.ac.uk;
Twitter: @mairemd

Posted by Einar Thorsen