Last Wednesday, 6 July, corporate lobbyists, public affairs directors, independent producers and politicians came together in a Westminster Media Forum to debate ‘industry priorities for the new Communications Bill’. In the introductory session, top figures from the BBC, BSkyB, Channel 4, Google, Virgin Media and COBA (Commercial Broadcasters Association) all agreed that the forthcoming legislation needed to focus purely on strategies for stimulating growth, competition and deregulation. There was not a dissenting voice. I asked from the floor whether, given the ongoing public scandal concerning phone-hacking, there were any non-economic priorities, for example the promotion of ethical behaviour, that needed to be a policy focus.
The question was met with stunned silence and some embarrassment that such a question could be asked. Eventually, John Whittingdale, the session chair and also the chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, replied that he could not see how Parliament could legislate on matters of ethics. The only panel member to reply was Google UK’s director of public policy, Sarah Hunter (formerly a media policy adviser to Tony Blair), who insisted that the idea that, in the digital age, media could be required to act in a particular way was "old-fashioned".
Twenty-four hours later, the prime minister, David Cameron, launched a public inquiry into the ethics and regulation of the press.
I present this anecdote because it reveals a number of significant points.
First, it demonstrates just how out-of-touch leading industry and political figures are. Despite the revelation two days earlier that the News of the World had published articles based on material stolen from the mobile phone of a murdered teenager and despite increasing allegations of complicity between politicians, press figures and the police, the communications industry was determined to ignore this growing scandal and to continue pursuing a resolutely economic agenda entirely based on ‘opening up’ media markets and promoting ‘light-touch’ regulation. It was as if media content and media structures inhabit two separate worlds where the former is linked to the idiosyncratic behaviour of ‘creatives’ and journalists while the latter is a more sober universe based on scientific modeling, business imperatives and sound economic logic.
Since then, the enormous public response to the disgraceful behaviour at the heart of the UK’s (then) best-selling newspaper has demonstrated to even the most hardened market liberal that issues of content, responsibility and ethical behaviour are central to the media industry’s capacity to retain legitimacy and the trust of the public.
Second, the fact that the Culture Secretary has launched a Communications Review in preparation for a new Communications Bill in 2013 has been entirely absent from the torrent of comment on the phone hacking scandal and the public inquiries that are to follow. It appears that we are about to have the most substantial investigation into the practices and regulatory models of the press yet one that is insulated from the cold, hard business concerning the future of the communications industry as a whole. This is precisely the separation between content and structure that industry figures, and it seems policymakers, are keen to enshrine.
The events of the last week have demonstrated the importance of having a robust and independent news sector, or rather have shown the implications for democracy of having a corrupt news culture. Yet the whole question of news is entirely absent from the Culture Secretary’s open letter, published last May, that asked interested parties to respond to the forthcoming communications review (the deadline was 30 June). There is no mention of the potential threat to plurality posed by the takeover of BSkyB by News Corporation, no mention of the legal and regulatory uncertainties posed by the emergence of social media like Twitter, no mention of the performance of the Press Complaints Commission in ensuring ethical behaviour by the news media, and no mention of the crisis facing many news organizations let alone the government’s responsibility to react adequately to this crisis.
Instead, the emphasis in the letter, just as it was in the industry seminar, is on growth, innovation and, in particular, deregulation at the expense of other socially and politically desirable objectives. While ‘pluralism’ is mentioned once, ‘growth’ is referred to 21 times and whereas the ‘public interest’ merits a single mention, ‘competition’ or ‘competitive’ is referenced eight times. This approach runs counter to the evidence of research in the Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media Research Centre which suggests that, without suitable regulatory rigour, corporate models are failing journalism because a priority on the bottom line, on high profit margins and shareholder returns, has resulted in fewer journalists and a culture of doing more work in less time. The net result is damaging both to the professional life and integrity of news journalists as well as to the financial stability of some of our leading news organizations and ultimately to the health and well being of democratic life. It is precisely this culture that has been so brilliantly revealed in the phone hacking scandal: of titles pursuing any means necessary to secure the scoop that may yield a few additional readers. This isn’t about the market malfunctioning but the logical result of a system which chases ratings and readers above all else.
However, the culture secretary’s approach to the communications policy is flawed not simply for excluding news as a central issue but for putting the cart before the horse. It assumes that deregulation is the sole, or even preferred, route to ensuring growth and innovation when the picture is far more complex. For example, the Secretary of State wishes to see UK content thrive in export markets but the reason why British television—and for that matter, British theatre—has strong international appeal is that it is largely the product of a highly regulated, not deregulated, environment (or, in the case of theatre, of a system that depends on state subsidies). Jeremy Hunt’s approach buries the possibility of finding modes of regulation that combine the promotion of independent, creative media with the pursuit of democratic objectives and the protection of the public interest.
The third point that arises from the industry’s attempt to insulate questions of content and structure is how quickly things can change. Now, the same institutions whose representatives on Wednesday shook their heads in amazement at the idea of being required to act ethically will, in all likelihood, be running around drawing up ethical codes and conduct and ‘corporate social responsibility’ models that ensure they are seen to be acting unimpeachably. What transformed the situation was not the innate good sense of the media establishment but a combination of the tireless efforts of several individuals—including Nick Davies, Tom Watson, Chris Bryant, Henry Porter, Peter Oborne —and a public backlash against corruption and the abuse of power at the highest levels.
This presents those who want to see a different kind of media—a media that is creative, imaginative and relevant, one that is willing to take risks and is also determined to hold the powerful to account—with enormous opportunities in the next few months. We need to press for a public inquiry that is not confined to a narrow discussion of which individuals were culpable of criminal behaviour inside Number 10, the Metropolitan Police and News Corporation (as welcome as that will be) but addresses more structural factors which allowed the complicity between these different institutions. Indeed, we need a full Media Commission, as recommended in a recent report for the Open Society Foundation on the state of the UK news media in a digital environment, which considers the causes of the deep-rooted problems, draws up regulatory solutions that protect media independence and the public interest, and starts to develop practical alternatives to the ratings-led, profit-obsessed and all too often irrelevant news culture that has been allowed to develop.
The phone hacking inquiry has generated a huge political crisis. Unlike the banking crisis and the MPs’ expenses controversy, both of which resulted in only minimal changes to elite power, we cannot afford to waste this opportunity radically to restructure the British media and to break the consensus between media owners and the political elite that has dominated for too long.