Breaking the taboo of media ownership
20 March 2015
Anger and disgust at the antics of Big Media is high in Britain today – thanks to scandals over phone hacking and more recently the Daily Telegraph’s inadequate coverage of the fraudulent activities of one of its major advertisers, HSBC.
The Leveson Inquiry proposals are meant to address poor media ethics, but they stop short of tackling the key issue that enabled abuses to continue with impunity – the concentration of media ownership.
In spite of the growth of digital media, pluralism does not rule and ownership within news and information markets remains highly concentrated in the hands of just a few big players.
But a new Manifesto for Media Reform launched this week, ahead of Britain’s 7 May general election, is calling upon politicians to pledge their support for a raft of changes, including restricting the share of media any one company or individual can hold (to around 20 per cent) and promoting the growth of a more pluralistic media environment.
Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, for example, enjoys a 34 per cent share of the national newspaper market in Britain and a 39 per cent share in BSkyB, as well as interests and investments in a host of other media.
The SkyNews website is one of the six most viewed, as is the Daily Mail’s online version. People may be getting half their news online, but most comes from just a few media corporations. The regional press is also dominated by just four big companies, which are closing down titles across the country to boost their profits.
‘Up to now the power of Big Media have frightened off all politicians and parties from taking action,’ said Tim Gopsill for the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom at the Manifestos’ launch in London on Wednesday.
‘Following through on Leveson is not enough… The problem is ownership and the power that media owners have over the journalists who work for them.’
There is now an opportunity to break that hold if the politicians and the parties have the courage to go with it, he added.
One party that has shown that courage is the Greens. Deputy leader Amelia Womack announced that the Green Party was pledging to ‘tighten the rules over cross-media ownership and make sure no company owns more than 20 per cent of the market.’
Other supporters for media reform include members of the Scottish Nationalist party (SNP), Liberal Democrats and progressive members of the Labour party, such as Tom Watson, John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn.
Apart from controls over ownership the Manifesto also calls for:
* Independent, trusted and effective regulation of the press – that would include a requirement that publishers operate a ‘conscience clause’ that enables journalists to refuse to work unethically without being punished for it.
* Well funded, independent public service media – including the proposal that the BBC should be funded through a progressive household tax and that the ‘creeping privatization’ of the broadcaster be reversed.
* Protection for communication rights – for example protection of journalists’ sources, whistleblowers; and freedom from surveillance carried out without judicial oversight. There is a growing threat coming from private companies (Google, Facebook etc) whose business models are based on economic surveillance, and which gather information on users as a commodity for marketing purposes.
* Action on lobbying and transparency – political lobbying for powerful interests and corporations is a $3 billion industry in Britain. There are few rules governing its activities and, unlike in the US, no requirement for lobbyists to disclose their clients or activities.
To encourage media plurality, the manifesto calls for charity law to be amended to allow some media to operate as charitable enterprises and obtain funding. This media could include local news, investigative journalism, youth media and digital innovation.
Independent alternative media (such as this publication) might also benefit from changes in law, as they struggle to survive in an increasingly hostile media landscape.
There have been numerous attempts over the years to reform the media. But this time is different, says John McDonnell: ‘I’m a pessimist by nature, but I feel optimistic. It is “doorstep” issue for many voters now.’
And for those who feel all media is tarred by the same dirty Big Media brush, Tom Watson has this reminder: ‘It was courageous journalism that exposed corrupt journalism.’