Natalie Fenton, Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths and a founding member of the Media Reform Coalition, looks at what the UK parties’ election manifestos say about media ownership.
In a recent article the Press Gazette pointed out that in 60% of the UK national newspaper market the election campaign coverage has been pro-Conservative compared to 33 % of prospective Tory voters. Research by the Media Standards Trust also points out that the Conservative party gets the most positive coverage in newspaper leader columns and Labour the most negative. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that the Conservative Manifesto published this week says nothing whatsoever about the need to ensure that a democracy is supported by a plural and diverse media. And it’s not just Labour that is under-represented and subject to hostile coverage. Almost all of the other parties who have also recognized the need to encourage a fair and thriving media market albeit in differing ways in their manifestos (the SNP have not yet published theirs) are pretty much squeezed out of the picture too. No wonder David Cameron felt like he didn’t even have to join in the BBC Leaders debate on television on Thursday night.
So what do the manifestos actually say about media ownership and power?
The Lib Dems get the prize for the most detailed proposals on media reform in terms of plurality following the line of the 2014 Lords Communications Select Committee report. Their manifesto talks about giving responsibility to Ofcom to “set down conditions to prevent the reach of any media company damaging the public interest” while also stating that “any conditions or requirements that Ofcom lays down following a plurality review can only be vetoed or interfered with by a Minister after a vote of both Houses of Parliament.” They also want to support local and hyperlocal media by redirecting the subsidies currently given to Jeremy Hunts’ local TV vanity project, extending Ofcom’s community radio grant support to online hyperlocals and “allowing non-profit local media outlets to obtain charitable status where the public interest is being served.”
Labour, emboldened no doubt by Ed Miliband’s popularity surge when he stood up to the Murdoch empire and took on the Daily Mail for smearing the name of his late father, takes the bold step of saying that “No one media owner should be able to exert undue influence on public opinion and policy makers. No media company should have so much power that those who run it believe themselves above the rule of law”. And as their coverage in the press is so poor, Labour have realized that they have nothing to lose and everything to gain by stating that they will “take steps to protect the principle of media plurality, so that no media outlet can get too big, including updating our rules for the 21st century media environment.“
The Greens get the bravery award for being the most specific – they will tighten the rules on cross-media ownership and ensure that no individual or company owns more than 20% of an individual media market.
Plaid Cymru want to ensure that Wales can make their own licensing decisions by federalising the work of Ofcom in a UK context and help protect against the demise of the local press by giving “local newspapers the status of ‘community assets’ so that owners could not close them without communities having the opportunity to keep their paper.” They focus their plurality concerns directly on Welsh-produced media content rather than ownership stating that they would oppose any reduction in this area.
Further analysis from Loughborough University Communication Research Centre reveals how the Conservative Party has not only had the greatest amount of press attention directed to both the party and its leader but has also been directly quoted the most. Rather paradoxically the Conservative manifesto states that “A free media is the bedrock of an open society” and then goes on to state how the Conservatives will “deliver a comprehensive review of the BBC Royal Charter, ensuring it delivers value for money for the licence fee payer, while maintaining a world class service and supporting our creative industries”. But then Murdoch has never liked the BBC anyway. They do offer a fig leaf of hope to some local press by saying they will “consult on the introduction of a business rates relief for local newspapers in England”. But pledging to consult doesn’t even amount to a four-leaf clover, never mind a fig leaf.
And then there’s UKIP who come out third in the amount of media coverage received per party and make their position quite clear by stating that they will abolish the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and merge its powers and functions into other departments. So maybe the media will end up being a concern of the Ministry of Defence or the Department of Health. What it’s really saying is that the media will be left alone to do entirely as they please. And what do you know, but the very next day we discover that Richard Desmond, the owner of Northern and Shell Media Group that publishes the Daily Express, Sunday Express, Daily Star and Daily Star Sunday has just donated £1.3 m to UKIP’s coffers. This is because, as Desmond himself is quoted in the Express (17 April) “It’s a party for good, ordinary British people…When I read the Ukip manifesto, I found it very sensible”.
Despite the negative media coverage of the Labour Party, and Miliband in particular, it doesn’t seem to be doing Labour too much harm in the polls. This shows that there is not a direct relationship between media coverage and voting and there never has been, regardless of what certain newspapers may claim. Many factors contribute to why we vote, not least an increasing distrust of much of what we read in certain papers. But that doesn’t mean that market dominance of news media doesn’t matter. The press still influence television news and most people still get most of their news from TV. The internet may be growing as a source of news but it too is increasingly dominated by the big players. And as long as politicians think that the media matter, then they will continue to have undue influence over what they do. The more concentrated a media market becomes, the more government will be distorted by the private interests of multi-media conglomerates. After all we learnt from the Leveson enquiry, surely now it’s time for change.
This post was originally published on the Media Reform Coalition blog and is reposted with permission and thanks. It gives the views of the author and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.