James Curran of Goldsmiths College lays out options for limiting media concentration.
As the Leveson Inquiry reaches its twilight stages, we have heard very moving, eloquent testimonies about press abuse both within and outside of its walls. However, the problem is not only that newspapers can lie to sell copies. Or that they can trample over peoples’ lives without any real public interest justification. Or even that it has become acceptable in some newspaper offices for journalists, and their private investigators, to blag, bribe and, in effect, blackmail.
The problem goes further than this. Most of the press is no longer fighting in our corner: press controllers are the friends and intimates of the powerful, make tacit deals with governments, and were central to supporting the bi-partisan consensus that allowed banks to lend recklessly – in Britain’s case five times our GDP – with disastrous results.
We need a policy that shrinks the power of media moguls to set the terms of public debate. First, we need to curb overall media concentration: no company should be allowed to control more than 15% of the revenue of the core media industry. This is a minimum demand, proposed by Enders, and should be utterly un-contentious across the political spectrum.
Second, we need to limit control over sub-markets, such as national newspapers. This is more difficult and we need to face up to one uncomfortable fact: no major media merger or acquisition has been prevented by anti-monopoly legislation in the last 46 years. This is for two reasons: ministers are more inclined to be cowed and intimidated by the media than Hugh Grant, and the alternative to merger can sometimes be presented plausibly as closure.
Our answer to this is that politicians should be removed from initial, front line decision-making on media concentration, and a more flexible regime of monopoly control should be introduced that actually works. This more flexible regime means imposing public service duties on large media corporations as a condition of their being allowed to retain a leading but limited market position. These duties are not about regulating content but changing the workplace in which content is produced. Their main objective is to limit the centralisation of power within large media corporations, for example by including elected staff representatives on the board of directors.
Third, we need to limit media concentration by encouraging new media ventures to grow. Journalism takes time, and costs money, though less so with the internet. We propose the setting up of a Public Trust to support the creation of news ventures and jobs where there is a demonstrable need for greater media diversity. Funding could come from a levy on online search advertising and the profits of dominant media groups. This approach – using the profitable parts of the media to support greater diversity – draws on what is happening elsewhere in the world. It is also an updated version of the Channel 4 model set up to promote minority perspectives, initially funded by the advertising rich ITV. Channel 4 was established by a Conservative government in response to a broad based campaign.
Fourth, we need to replace the Press Complaints Commission with something that works. There is a growing consensus that co-regulation, i.e. self-regulation with state back-up powers, is needed. Media Reform’s version is a News Publishing Commission, which would authorise a right of reply, in certain circumstances, for victims of misrepresentation, and a fast track complaints adjudication tribunal. It would also support journalists by establishing a public interest defence in legal proceedings, and a conscience clause in journalists’ contract of employment.
Ultimately, our concern should not be confined solely to individual abuses, but should extend to media moguls who sanction unethical working practices, and distort the national conversation. To do something about this, we need not only protest and indignation but support for practical remedies to curb their power, and to promote alternatives.