Rupert Murdoch is only part of the problem. Vanessa Baird reports from the Media Democracy Festival in London.
Media outlets that lie, bully and engage in unethical and even criminal activity are about to become even more powerful and less accountable if we don’t act now.
That was the message from the Media Democracy Festival, packed to capacity by media workers and activists at London’s Birkbeck College on Saturday.
A recent survey shows that public trust in the British media has slipped even further. Only politicians now are less trusted. Currently a handful of men own and control most of the British media and this is set to get worse.
An already fragile media democracy faces a set of new and interconnected threats.
First and most immediate, is a bid announced by Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox to buy Britain’s largest broadcaster, Sky, in which it has a large share. Murdoch’s massive media empire already includes News Corp, The Sun and The Times titles in Britain, the Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones and Fox News in the US and a long string of papers in Australia.
Apart from giving Murdoch an even larger share of the market, there are serious doubts as to whether Rupert Murdoch is a ‘fit and proper person’ to take further control of the media. A petition has been launched to stop him.
The billionaire media baron was the first person that Theresa May, on becoming Britain’s Prime Minister, visited in New York.
‘If this [Sky] deal goes ahead,’ said Labour MP John McDonnell, ‘it will prove that the intimate relationship between political and media elites has been re-established.’
In spite of declining sales, and the rise of the digital titans, newspapers remain disproportionately influential in shaping public and political opinion. Newspaper journalism is the original source of a large proportion of the stories that are broadcast.
‘These newspapers set the agenda and dominate what circulates online,’ said Natalie Fenton, author of Digital, Political, Radical.
Second, the British government appears to be back-peddling on the recommendations of Lord Justice Leveson to tackle the abusive, unethical and even criminal culture of the British tabloid media – exemplified by the hacking of the phone of murdered teenager, Milly Dowler.
The government was due to implement Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which has been voted into law with approval of all political parties. This would provide members of the public with a new access to justice when they become victims of abuse by the press. But instead of triggering Section 40, culture secretary Karen Bradley has bowed to pressure from media bosses and put it out to a complex, unnecessary and, some say, ‘deliberately misleading’ process of public consultation. The deadline is 10 January 2017, with the corporate media lobbying hard for its rejection or watering down.
The government also appears to be dragging its feet on the second half of the Leveson Inquiry, which should have started this summer after the last trials into phone hacking and bribery of public officials were concluded. The next stage will examine collusion between police, media and political elites.
More serious wrongdoing (including the conduct of murder inquiries) will come to the surface through this process. ‘It’s not just a case of rogue reporters. No newspaper culture is as criminal as [Britain’s],’ said Peter Jukes author of The Fall of the House of Murdoch.
There are strong incentives for the tabloid media, the Metropolitan police and the government to stall it and work public opinion against the Inquiry on the basis of cost.
Third, corporate media editors are engaged in a campaign to discredit and disable Impress, the independent regulator that recently gained authorization from the Press Recognition Panel. Corporate editors from The Sun, The Daily Mail and others have routinely attacked both the Leveson process and Impress in order, they say, to defend the ‘freedom of the press’ from ‘state interference’.
Commenting on tabloid claims to be defending press freedom, writer Jukes said, ‘Free-speech absolutists often turn out to be Nazis. We have to fight the stupid idea that a “statute” is somehow the same as “the state” and that all law is state control.’
The tabloid editors are urging their readers to, in effect, deny ordinary members of the public access to affordable justice when victimized by a press spreading falsehoods. Impress tries to resolve complaints through arbitration rather than costly court cases, which only super rich individuals or large media corporations can afford.
Via their front organization the News Media Association, the corporate bosses have now launched a judicial review against the approval of Impress.
‘There is no threat to freedom of expression presented by Impress,’ said Brian Cathcart, professor of journalism at Kingston University. ‘The only freedoms that are being challenged are the freedom to bully and to lie.’
Impress is not about censorship but about accountability. It cannot prevent anything being published. But it does hold the media accountable for any lies or inaccuracies it publishes.
The regulator has won the backing of the National Union of Journalists, welcoming the whistleblower provision for reporters pressured by their bosses to act unethically. New Internationalist joined Impress several months ago, on the basis that the media environment is a common good that must be protected, and not just the domain of companies and owners that pollute it with bad practice.
Among the corporate media opposed to Impress is The Guardian – although many of its reporters privately support it, including investigative journalist Nick Davies. The Guardian’s commercial ambition to capture the US market is reckoned to be a major factor in its reluctance to sign up to a British-based regulator, those attending the Media Democracy Festival heard.
The biggest selling media, including The Sun and The Daily Mail, have signed up to an alternative pseudo-regulator – the Independent Press Standard Organisation (IPSO). This toothless, unrecognized body, which is not Leveson-compliant, is set and run by newspaper bosses and editors themselves. It is no better than the defunct Press Complaints Commission it replaces.
IPSO’s effectiveness was on display recently when 400 people complained about Sun columnist Katie Hopkins’ description of immigrants as ‘cockroaches’ – and a further 200,000 signed a petition calling for her to be sacked. IPSO responded by saying that ‘bad taste’ was not within its remit. More than 2,000 complaints about Sun columnist Kelvin McKenzie’s Islamophobic attack on Channel 4 newsreader Fatima Manji for wearing headscarf, were also dismissed.
The way forward
The aim of the Media Democracy Festival is to build a movement for democratic and accountable media and provide a forum in which media workers and activists can exchange ideas.
If you care about media democracy, here are a few things you can do.
- Sign this petition to stop Murdoch’s Sky bid.
- Tell the government to get on with Leveson, including implementing section 40 in full and starting the second part of the inquiry. There’s a handy template here.
- Write to the editor of the Guardian and urge it to join Impress: [email protected]
- Tackle racist and sexist reporting in papers such as The Sun, The Express and The Daily Mail by urging big brands to stop advertising via the Stop Funding Hate Stop Funding Hate | Facebook Lego has scrapped contracts with The Daily Mail thanks to SFH.
- Call for media reform and caps on concentration of media ownership and to encourage pluralism.
- Join the call for a levy on digital giants to support new news providers.
- Support media pluralism from the bottom up too, calling for policies to help smaller, independent media, especially co-operatives.
At the festival, New Internationalist was involved in workshops on Real Media Training and on Media Co-ops. The latter featured speakers from The Ferret, Positive News, Bristol Cable, and Sheffield Live as well as New Internationalist, possibly the longest surviving media co-op in Britain.
The big challenge, especially for alternative and independent media, is sustainability. Increasingly, the idea of shared ownership is gaining traction, as a means of financing decent, ethical, independent journalism in a hostile landscape.
This is the route that New Internationalist will be taking in Spring 2017, when we launch a Community Share Offer. The idea is to expand our co-operative and global justice mission, enabling our readers, collaborators and supporters to invest in a media environment in which they want to live and to become part owners of New Internationalist. You can find out more about this on our ‘Own us’ page.
A previous version of this article stated PM Theresa May had hired Craig Woodhouse, from the Murdoch-owned Sun, as her special adviser. In fact, he’s adviser to the culture secretary, Karen Bradley, not the PM. The article was edited on 13 December 2016.
A previous version of this article stated Impress gained authorization by the Press Regulation Panel. In fact, the organization is called Press Recognition Panel. The article was edited on 13 December 2016.