The Hunt Trap: the UK's minister of culture wants to disable democratic debate of the media

The Levenson Inquiry has been created to look at the media in Britain. Many want to seize the opportunity to limit the influence of those like Murdoch. Now the Tory minister has brought the BBC into play. Democrats should beware of resisting this, if so they will be trapped and destroyed. The BBC is indeed a monopoly provider even if its publicly own and regulated in 'the public interest'. Now, the public should have a say in what this interest is.

The UK's Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has asked its media regulator Ofcom to examine the reach of media groups across different platforms, and to look at the idea of setting limits on total audience share. On any measure of cross-media reach the BBC will loom larger than its nearest commercial competitor News International and it will dwarf the rest.  So Hunt’s initiative presents media reformers with a stark choice. We can either insist that the BBC be left untouched as the sole provider of publicly funded news content, or we can take him at his word and recognise that public service provision must be included in any meaningful debate about media and power in Britain.

If we leap to defend the BBC as the sole provider of public service content we will fall into a trap. The figures Ofcom produce will make it easy for Murdoch’s many defenders to pose as the agents of disinterested rationality. ‘You claim to worry about media plurality’, they will say, ‘yet you are happy for one organization to capture so much of the market for news. Your principles are a sham. You dislike Murdoch’s politics and you despise the audiences that freely pay for Sky television and the Sun. Your calls for reform of the media are nothing but a cover for a paternalism you dare not publicly acknowledge’.

It is true that the corporation does not behave in the crassly partisan way that we expect from privately owned newspapers. The comparison with News International is, in some respects unfair. To take only one example, the BBC’s Torin Douglas has, very properly, reported Hunt’s instructions to Ofcom. Most media outlets would not behave in so principled a fashion, I suspect.

It is extremely important, too, for reformers to point out the extent to which BBC news takes its cue from the newspapers, and from News International newspapers in particular. There are metrics that can vividly demonstrate how the privately owned media shape the BBC’s coverage and tip the scales on matters of peace and war, on social policy, and economic management. All too often it seems that Fleet Street provides the BBC with a proxy for public opinion. The resulting media consensus and its articulations can often appear alien, irrelevant and artificial to those outside. Researchers with relevant data on this might want to be in touch with the Coordinating Committee for Media Reform. (We are a media partner of this excellent iniative.)

Natalie Fenton, one of its organisers, has put forward an overview of the questions being raised as it seeks to bring together responses for the Levenson Inquiry.  It is published here as part of our Power and the Media debate.

She does not write about the BBC but it is one of the elephants in the room. She says:

Regulation does not necessarily destroy journalistic freedom. Take a look at public service broadcasters where we see some of the very best in investigative journalism. It may not be perfect but it does expose the nonsense that imposing standards on a news industry inevitably leads to anti-democratic practice and diminishes journalistic integrity….  it’s not unreasonable to accept that it is a democratic government’s responsibility to ensure that the conditions are in place to promote democratic practice.  An excessively liberalised press has failed to provide the freedom to practice independent journalism in the public interest.

But we don't see some of the very best in investigative journalism at the BBC.

Nor do I think regulation is itself the answer, by any means. Politically it pits a financial elite against an elite of administrators and auditors and can block off the contest the country needs between its larcenous elite as a whole and the citizens of a great, albeit incipient, republic.

Meanwhile, BBC will make a vigorous defence of its market share and institutional privileges. Indeed it has already begun to do so.  It can talk about the differences in governance structure and its commitment to balance as much as it likes. But the rest of civil society can afford to take a more balanced view. It is surely obvious that, for all its many merits, the BBC does not function adequately as a patron for investigative journalism. A commitment to balance does not sit easily with the destabilising impact of effective investigative journalism. It is telling that the Guardian, not the BBC, made the running in the hacking scandal. It is telling, too, that the BBC failed to notice that the banking system in Britain was turning into a gigantic bordello-cum-casino. One can make a more extensive case against the BBC in this regard. In fact, I have done so here.

Investigative journalism combined with adequate publicity for, and analysis of, its findings are indispensable in a democracy. I submit that that the current mix of public and private provision is failing to support the deliberations of a democratic public. Managers at the BBC currently control all the license fee revenue available to support investigative journalism. There is no overwhelming reason why they should continue to do so.

Reformers can make a principled case for reform of the public interest sector along democratic lines. It goes something like this:

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Any revenues taken away from the BBC in order to increase plurality must be spent in accordance with the wishes of democratically organized publics. The individual citizen should be given some power to affect the content of the public sphere – by directing funds to journalists and by being having some say in how much publicity is given to their findings.

Such a system would circumvent endless discussions about what constitutes the public interest by the simple device of allowing the public to say what it thinks its interests are. The public is not the same as the sum of consumers. The public is the citizen body given consequential form. The public in this sense has been increasingly absent since the end of the Second World War, ruinously so in these last three decades. Media reform gives us an unparalleled chance to meet each other, and to understand ourselves, as public actors.

If we embrace the cause of democratic control over some portion of public service revenues we can demonstrate that commitment to the BBC is not the same as uncritical adoration or covert paternalism. We can also ask the many boosters for active citizenship and vibrant communities to join us in the cause of media reform. Giving currently marginalized groups the power to bring their concerns to a wider public would surely encourage civic engagement, after all. And what could be more empowering than, well, power? Isn’t this what the advocates of a Big Society want – a country we all have some effective say in the constitution of the public sphere?

In democratic control of funding for journalism we have a cause that can expect support from those who think the media are dominated by socially liberal Trotskyites and those who think that the current system is a racket run by financialized capitalism. The language of freedom has been spoken for too long with the accents of the corporate lobbyist. Freedom without the shared power to shape and refine our common stock of knowledge is license for Murdoch’s creatures to bug, burgle and blackmail with impunity. Without adequate knowledge freedom is the freedom to be abused. The freedom we demand is the freedom that matters most – the freedom that media moguls and politicians secretly covet – the freedom to order the world in our own interests.

Those who want to tamper with the BBC must either accept democratic reform or explain why they want to exclude the population from decisions about how its own money is spent. We want to reform Britain’s media and begin the long overdue work of restoring constitutional rule in this country. The price of this is that we are honest about the shortcomings of the BBC.

Those who want to protect Murdoch and the rest of the corporate media will seek to use the BBC as a shield. We need not let them. They think they can persuade the public we are partisans for paternalism and elite control while they pose as the champions of consumer choice. They are wrong. We are partisans for effectual freedom and can demonstrate as much.

I said earlier that Jeremy Hunt is setting a trap. It may yet catch him – and his whole crew - in its jaws.