Power and the Media in Britain - where do we go from here?

The media are a power in their own right, and are connected to political, economic and social forms of power. OurKingdom launches a new debate to probe this relation, with an aim to discover what we want from our British media - and how to get it

The media constitute an important power in their own right and they are also intimately connected to other kinds of power, whether political, economic or social. Indeed, in a democracy the ability to shape public opinion is fundamental to power.

Yet the media rarely feature in our debates about power. Their power to describe is matched by their power to evade description. The aim of this OurKingdom project is to change that – to bring the producers and impresarios of public discourse centre stage, and to engage with them as citizens.

Over the next three months, we will bring together a wide range of opinions, from media professionals and academics to politicians, activists and engaged citizens. We’ll look at how media institutions are structured and how they relate to other institutions of power, and ask what we should preserve in our current arrangements and what we should change. We’ll examine what we want from our system of communications, and, crucially, how to get it.

While global forces and international ownership necessarily shape British issues, this will not be a ‘global media’ debate. Rather it will focus on the overall political economy of the British media, and examine this with a view to deepening democracy and self-government.

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This debate comes at a critical moment. Digital technology is bringing rapid and often destructive change to all forms of publishing and broadcasting. The news media are in deep difficulty. The advent of the internet has brought unprecedented pressures to bear on the business models. Total newspaper circulation overall has fallen by more than 25% since 2007. Book sales in Britain fell by 3.2% in 2010 against the previous year. So far, online advertising has made up only a small fraction of the revenues lost. Digital television has created analogous problems for the old ITV network’s news and current affairs operations. The question ‘who pays?’ has never been more pressing.

The commercial crisis runs parallel with a crisis of plausibility. Over the past decade newspapers and broadcasters watched impassively as the global financial system shook off effective regulation, generated vast private profits, and then collapsed. Since the crisis broke they have remained almost silent about the massive transfer of wealth from taxpayers to the financial sector. At the same time, the discovery of widespread criminality in parts of the British print media has undermined the authority of long-established players. Wikileaks, twitter and the blogosphere are challenging the monopoly of the traditional media over the news and undermining their ability to act unaccountably.

This inability to provide an adequate account of political economy extends to the media’s coverage of its own operations and interests. There is the noise and narcissism of the media torrent, of course, but media chat about the media can distract from understanding the novel issues and deep vested interests at work. 

Until very recently, critical voices could be kept to the margins with little difficulty. The radical challenge to the industry that emerged in the 1970s in Britain did not succeed in forcing the media to change the terms on which they discussed their own operations. Reliable access to mass audiences – and to consequential niche audiences, for that matter - remained the preserve of a handful of institutions. Unsurprisingly they neglected to give expansive coverage to their most serious critics.

The internet has made it much more difficult for newspapers and broadcasters to act as judges in their own case. Blogs, online video and social network software have given individuals and groups unprecedented publishing power. Knowledge communities online have been able to assemble and re-present the findings of the conventional media and in so doing highlight stories that might otherwise have passed into obscurity. A Private Eye article on Vodafone’s tax arrangements became, through the efforts of UK Uncut, the basis for a national campaign against tax avoidance and tax evasion. This campaign in turn compelled national broadcasters – the BBC in particular – to give the issue far more attention than had been the case in the past. The coverage of Bradley Manning’s case has similarly been shaped in important ways by a vociferous British web-based campaign.

Resources remain to a very large extent in the hands of the traditional news media and the digital publics that are emerging are heavily dependent on their reporting.  Nevertheless, the ability of the major media to establish and maintain orders of priority is open to scrutiny as never before. 

Over the coming weeks we’ll publish a series of articles about the current state of the media industry, about its relations with other forms of power, and about the opportunities we now have to re-shape what J. A. Hobson called ‘the main avenues of intelligence’. Along the way I hope we’ll have a chance to explore what we mean by the public and public service, building on the findings of the Public Sector Broadcasting Debate. 

We’ll organize the project around eight themes. They aren’t meant to be exhaustive, but are intended to help us frame both our critique and our proposals for change.

1.)  Business Models – analysing the current state of the media

2.)  Shortcomings of the current system – the media’s relationship with other sources of power

3.)  What do we want to keep from this system?

4.)  Community, local and regional media

5.)  The digital public sphere and the importance of networks

6.)  Programs for reform

7.)  The notion of the public

8.)  Entertainment and democracy

The project will begin with an article by Greg Dyke, to be published on Friday, and a subsequent piece by David Elstein – both on the future of local media provision.

Profound changes are taking place in the media, whether we like it or not. It is time we asked what we are going to do about them. That’s what the Power and the Media debate aims to do. We hope you’ll join us, in the spirit of a new kind of media that invites interaction, welcomes criticism, and engages with its audience as citizens, not consumers.