For the last piece in our Media Plurality Series, LSE MSc student Emma Goodman interviewed Robert Picard, Director of Research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, and one of the foremost experts on media economics and business.
You said earlier that the UK tends to use a more narrow definition of plurality than that employed in other countries. Would you suggest a wider definition, and if so what would that be?
The question is: what are you trying to achieve? The definition of plurality used in the UK is designed to try to maintain an existing range of plurality, primarily in the press, and a range between Conservative party views and Liberal/Labour views. It doesn’t really worry about other parties’ views. It doesn’t really care if the Greens or UKIP have anything to say, so in that regard it’s problematic, because it’s essentially designed to maintain existing power relations among the parties, and that’s not a really effective policy. It only concentrates on political plurality and ignores all other aspects. There are many other aspects of plurality and many other influences on plurality besides just ownership. If you’re not really looking at plurality in terms of how varieties of cultures and classes and varieties of ethnic groups in the country are covered, you are taking a very narrow view of what society needs to do to be able to discuss itself, understand its identity and explain its problems to each other. That is why I say there is too narrow a conceptualization in the UK. And it’s not that the ownership of the press isn’t a problem, that’s just part of the problem.
While citizens of a country all share a particular culture as national citizens, there are often several sub-cultures within a country that need to be well represented. For Britain this is a particular problem now, as we have devolution going on and other such things – how do you represent that but still maintain some sort of broader national identity? That’s a huge problem. You can only do that if you’re not just looking at politics.
Does increasingly widespread Internet access make plurality of traditional media ownership less important? Is there inherent plurality on the Internet?
There’s no question that there’s the opportunity for more people to express their views on the Internet. But it does not increase the opportunity to be heard, and in fact much of what goes on on the Internet actually restricts the ability to be heard. We know that the majority of people go to the sites that are primarily the big brands of offline media, and when you use search engines, the first results they give you are companies that pay them money – usually people with a good deal of money. The second thing they give you are sites that don’t pay them money but are the most visible. So the algorithms tend to promote established powerful organisations rather than the alternatives. And when you get a page of search results, about 90% of people will go to the top 10 sites. A lot of people don’t realize how skewed those searches are because of the algorithms.
Are we better off than we were? Yes. Is it dramatically better in terms of what the other person sees and hears, no. The traditional media is still very, very important.
There has been a lot of focus on how to measure plurality – but more importantly: who decides, and on what basis, when it’s enough?
We, as human beings, tend to read the things that are most comfortable for us or tend to reflect our viewpoints the most. One of the terrible limitations of the human mind is that a lot of us don’t want to be confronted by other ideas, although of course there are some who seek out other ideas and want to hear debates. So you have a problem: can you force people to listen to views they don’t want to listen to? You can’t force people to read a particular newspaper or magazine. But you can ask broadcasters to make sure that they show a range of views. Right now the range that’s demanded is pretty small, and in fact the broadcasters get yelled at if they go too far outside the normal range. UKIP, for instance, for all those people who think it’s racist and xenophobic and all of those things, does have some interesting arguments about whether Britain is losing sovereignty because of the EU – a reasonable question for any citizen anywhere to ask. But it’s hard of them to get their voices heard. That is problematic and it means that certain debates won’t take place. It’s very difficult in this country to have a debate about a topic like euthanasia, for example.
What should be the no 1 priority for policy makers going forward?
I think the biggest problem that policy-makers in the UK have to look at right now is what they are going to do about cross media ownership, the range of cross media ownership that is occurring and growing, and those who want to go further. Currently today nobody has effectively come up with a measurement system that really works. Some of the best ones, I think, ultimately come down to audience measures rather than ownership measures, because ownership isn’t the issue, the effect on the public is the real issue. So I think audience measures make sense, there are different ideas as to where the limits should be placed or how you should measure them – those are up for debate and should be discussed.
I think the second thing that needs to be discussed is how to meet the needs of many urban areas today where there are large communities of people who never see themselves in the press, or on television, unless there is a riot or some sort of problem. That is bad for society: somehow, we need to solve that. It’s not a peculiar problem for Britain. It is a problem for many countries, but it is one that needs to be addressed in policy because it is so important in a pluralistic society to make sure that they are represented. Because if they don’t see themselves in the media, in the news, in the issues that are put forward, they can never integrate, they can never fully become part of society.