The evidence just keeps mounting up: from the testimonies provided to the Leveson Inquiry to Peter Oborne’s resignation from the Telegraph. Powerful media organisations in highly concentrated markets – whether online or offline – distort democratic debate by privileging issues and agendas that suit the interests of proprietors and advertisers, fostering corrupt relationships between public officials and media barons, and placing even more pressure on compliant politicians who are increasingly nervous to upset such influential gatekeepers. How can we expect fearless and robust coverage of financial scandals, austerity policies, policing, immigration and foreign affairs when so much of our established media are in hock to vested interests?
Leveson himself spent a significant amount of time assessing the implications of the proposed acquisition by NewsCorp of BSkyB of those shares that it did not already own and included questions of ownership and proprietorial influence in his assessment of press ethics and standards (Leveson 2012). He concluded that these were matters for regulatory action and indeed recommended, much as the Lords Communications Committee has recently done in its report on media plurality (House of Lords 2014), that there should be periodic plurality reviews. He also concluded that ‘it will be important for the regulatory authorities to be able to impose structural remedies and remedies [with respect to plurality] which will change behaviour which can relate, if appropriate, to editorial independence and journalistic standards’ (Leveson 2012:30).
Yet, despite these words and despite the continuing abuse of media power that includes, for example, revelations of widespread hacking at the Mirror (Halliday 2015) and a degraded editorial policy at the world’s most popular online title (King 2015), there has been little movement towards securing the sorts of remedies needed to protect plurality and to enhance the number of distinctive voices in the communications environment.
Let us remind ourselves of the problem. We have an environment in which three companies control some 70% of daily national newspaper circulation, five companies control 70% of regional circulation, a single news wholesaler provides bulletins for the vast majority of commercial radio stations and where, in 35% of local communities, a single daily newspaper has a 100% monopoly (Media Reform Coalition 2014). We have an environment in which ‘media freedom’ is increasingly defined by billionaire proprietors, most of whom are then happy to sanction widespread surveillance and attacks on civil liberties that affect the rest of the population.
The government’s response to its own ownership consultation (DCMS2014) fails to address the urgent need to secure plurality. It has commissioned Ofcom to develop indicators that can show the extent to which the UK is sufficiently pluralistic and has additionally confirmed that online news should be included within the scope of any new framework for measuring plurality, that news and current affairs are the most important genres in considerations of plurality, that the BBC should be included in an assessment of plurality, and that there should be at least some consideration of local and regional markets as well as the national picture. It has, therefore, effectively shunted the need to find remedies to the problems identified by Lord Justice Leveson well into the future.
In this situation, the Media Reform Coalition has launched a campaign throughout 2015, funded by the Rowntree Reform Trust, to highlight the need for systematic reform of our media ownership rules, for more stringent democratic obligations to be imposed on some of our largest news providers, for new sorts of funding sources to secure and sustain public interest journalism and for an approach to plurality that highlights the need for diverse voices to be equipped to participate fully in mediated conversations. This is not about restricting a free press but about finding ways to liberate our media so they can be more effectively free to hold power to account and to address the needs of the public, as opposed to shareholder, interest.
The targets of our campaign are not only political parties and MPs, MSPs and Assembly Members but civil society organisations engaged in issues where media representation is part of the problem: from unbalanced coverage of NHS reforms to the demonisation of Muslims, from the stereotyping of women to the marginalisation of environmental threats.
So far we have produced a statement – sent as a letter to the Guardian – on the need to make media reform ownership an election issue that has been signed by academics, journalists, trade union leaders and celebrities including Nick Davies, Frankie Boyle, John Cleese and George Monbiot (Jackson 2015). We have sent a letter to Labour leader Ed Miliband calling for Labour to make a manifesto commitment to ownership reform that was signed by 9 union general secretaries and have met with members of Labour, Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru with many more expected in the coming months. We intend to secure pledges on media ownership reform from as many politicians, civil society organisations and activists as possible in the coming months and will publish a draft plurality bill towards the end of the year.
We would welcome your suggestions, support and participation. If you want to organise an event at your institution on some of these issues, please get in touch with us: firstname.lastname@example.org
Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Media Ownership & Plurality Consultation Report, 6 August 2014. Available at www.culture.gov.uk
Halliday, Paul (2015) Phone hacking at Mirror titles was on an industrial scale, court told. Guardian, 4 March: 1
House of Lords Select Committee on Communications (2014) Media Plurality. Available at https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201314/ldselect/ldcomm/120/120.pdf
Jackson, Jasper (2015) Frankie Boyle and John Cleese back push for media plurality law. Guardian, 4 March. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/mar/04/frankie-boyle-john-cleese-media-plurality-law
King, James (2015) My Year Ripping Off the Web with the Daily Mail Online. Gawker, 4 March. Available at https://tktk.gawker.com/my-year-ripping-off-the-web-with-the-daily-mail-online-1689453286
Leveson, Lord Justice (2012) An Enquiry into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press: Executive Summary. London: TSO
Media Reform Coalition (2014) The Elephant in the Room. Available at https://www.mediareform.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/ElephantintheroomFinalfinal.pdf