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Giving a damn for the media

Typically missing from most of the plans put forward in the UK media debate is any really innovative thought about how to raise new resources to support high-quality journalism in new times
Joyce Mcmillan
18 March 2010

Back in January, while the Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society was preparing its final report, the centre-right think tank, Policy Exchange, issued a report of its own, which reflected on some of the same issues that the inquiry had addressed in its work on the media and their role in supporting and informing a strong culture of civic and political engagement.  The Policy Exchange report, titled Changing Channels, proposed a radical shakeup of public broadcasting in the UK, including opening up the BBC’s licence fee funding to ‘third party’ public service output, and excluding the BBC from high-cost areas of popular broadcasting such as the coverage of major sports events, and the recruiting of popular entertainment talent.  It also - perhaps most interestingly - suggested the setting up of a national Public Service Content Trust, to promote public service broadcasting across all television, radio and broadband; however, its suggestions for what this board might do were limited mainly to its relationship with Channel 4, and with existing commercial broadcasters. 

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The report seemed, in other words, fairly typical of the mainstream debate about the future of the media in the UK.  On one hand, there is a BBC model - licence-fee funded, and with a strong remit to provide both public service broadcasting and popular entertainment - that is actually going from strength to strength, in a media landscape where such major centres of production are increasingly difficult to sustain.  Occasional failures of journalistic or creative judgment at the BBC, and the unimpressive and apologetic public face of its current leadership - all prominently covered, for obvious reasons, by the rest of the media - tend to mask its continuing huge success as an organisation, the high respect in which it is still held worldwide, and the extent to which it has become difficult to imagine how British public life would function in its absence. 

Then on the other hand, there are the existing commercial broadcasters, facing the decline of what was once a hugely lucrative business model, and frankly desperate to extend that model’s lifespan, even if only by a few years, by breaking up at least some elements of the BBC’s operation and getting their hands on the audience. No-one can doubt, of course, that the media industry, including commercial broadcasters with public service commitments, face huge challenges as we emerge from recession. The impact of new media on traditional advertising revenues has been well documented, as has the decline of local newspapers, and the growing threat to regional broadcast news; and consumers are increasingly reluctant to pay for news content which they can access free on line. 

What is typically missing, though, from most of the plans put forward in the UK media debate is any real innovative thought about how to raise new resources to support high-quality journalism in new times; as for the voice of the communities whose democratic future depends on the continued presence of vibrant, independent broadcast news and analysis, that is usually completely absent, and unheard. Instead, most of the ideas under discussion seem designed to keep the same group of providers at the party, and to redistribute the existing resources cake by allowing others to break up and weaken the BBC, without developing any new streams of income.  

If people are serious about improving and sustaining high quality public service broadcasting, in other words, it would make far more sense to leave the BBC alone as a point of stability in troubled times, and to start thinking laterally about how to release new resources into the provision of high-quality news and analysis, and other forms of media content that genuinely serve the interests of global, national, regional and local communities. In our report, we examine some of these ideas. For example, we explore the possibility of new industry levies on various forms of popular media hardware, software, or successful web giants like Google, which typically recycle journalistic content without paying those who originate it. 

We explore the idea of releasing public funding, perhaps on an arms’-length basis, for consortia of media organisations prepard to commit themselves to providing serious local and regional news and analysis.  We suggest the possibility of changes in the regulatory framework that would make it easier to run media companies on a non-profit model; and changes in the policy of philanthropic trusts, so that they can begin to play a role in Britain, as they already do elsewhere, in funding responsible investigative journalism. We suggest that future legislation might require media groups to engage with communities and their representatives in civil society; or that successful bids for regional TV franchises should be made conditional on the formal involvement of civil society.  

The Inquiry Report’s central argument, in other words, is that since news media are a vital component of a thriving, democratic society, it is incumbent on policy makers to look beyond the usual suspects, and involve the people who matter - the listener and the viewer - in developing new models which will promote the survival of strong, independent news and analysis, at all levels. It argues that civil society groups have critical roles to play in democratising media, and in finding creative ways to develop a thriving media culture for the 21st century. 

And it is finally worth noting, I think, the extent to which this vital debate about the future of the media reflects much more general weaknesses in current political debate, in which powerful public and private-sector players fight a sterile zero-sum game over a dwindling pot of power and resources, while the voice of ordinary citizens is largely marginalised, and their creative power - to generate new ideas, build new audiences, invent new forms of wealth, and help create a vibrant political and media culture for the 21st century - goes untapped. 

Canon Kenyon Wright, the Convener of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, used to be fond of remarking that power is like love; in order to have it, you need to know how to give it away. The Making Good Society report strongly reflects that principle. And the major players in the media now need to change their mind-set, and get behind some innovative ideas for handing more media power, resources, and access back to communities and citizens; or watch their fragmenting industry gradually die on its feet, bereft of a grassroots public that trusts it, that values it, and that finally gives a damn about what it publishes, and what it puts on the air.  

 

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