Liberal legacies and media reform after neoliberalism

Liberalism cannot secure the media pluralism it wishes. To address the failures of both liberal and neoliberal approaches to media plurality we need the insights of the radical tradition.

Jonathan Hardy
18 August 2014

In the West, the governing values forming twentieth century communications were liberal, albeit split into its libertarian, private-property-protecting and more interventionist, social market variants. Modern liberalism supported measures to ensure public value, from obligations on private “trustees” of the airwaves in the US, to public service media, and measures to safeguard political and, later, cultural diversity, ranging from press subsidies to ownership controls. Over the last four decades neoliberalism has become the dominant value system, favouring “deregulation” and free markets, although it has not supplanted entirely the justifications for positive intervention for social and cultural ends, or indeed allowed free market rhetoric to hamper statist action on behalf of capital and social control. Liberalism has been displaced, but challenging neoliberalism requires acting on radical critiques.

Liberalism values a plural media but, in general, has wished the ends while restricting the means. Classic liberalism made the values of free speech conditional on private media ownership. Twentieth century liberalism remained troubled by state intervention in media markets, but, grappling with corporate combinations and commercialism, built a case for states to use the wealth of government and the rule of law to support public service media, subsidies, and obligations on private providers. Accompanying social welfare policies and the socialisation of rights, there have been demands for the providers of communication services to serve society as a whole, justifying action to tackle ownership and regulate services. But on the whole, liberalism has favoured non-intervention to protect press freedom, while its more technical justifications for public service media are widely regarded as having lost salience in a putative digital marketplace of ideas. Neoliberalism has fused the various grounds for non-intervention with a more strident form of re-regulation which favours commercial market actors and attacks public interest regulation as out-dated and unnecessary paternalism. Liberal approaches are still embedded in institutional arrangements but face a variety of crises of effectiveness, reach and legitimacy across media systems.

The radical tradition has tended to make three key critiques of liberal media policies. Firstly, the “free press” model makes liberal values contingent on privately owned and controlled media. Second, liberalism discounts the structural imbalances of power in capitalist media systems which amplify the voices and interests of elites and pro-system values through corporate ownership and control, the influence of public relations, a reliance on “official” sources, and the selection, management and socialisation of media professionals. It is not only state actors who implement censorship: the market too serves to censor and organise speech rights. Third, plurality needs to extend to groups and interests marginalised within prevailing systems and cultures which requires more thoroughgoing intervention than liberalism generally sanctions. Recent studies have highlighted the marginalisation of women in film-making, of BME workers in the creative industries, and of limited working class access to industries that continue to shred the employment rights gained through unionisation and anti-discrimination efforts.

Reform agendas needs to identify the problems that need to be tackled and the scope for action, which varies considerably across media systems, where the state-party-market tripartite relationship ranges from neoliberal “light touch”, to social market, to market authoritarian and statist. Building policies and wider support for reform also requires understanding how neoliberalism infuses communications, not just via regulations but also through content and conduct in communications environments.  We need to know how neoliberalism is articulated, to use Stuart Hall’s resonant attempt to think through linkages without sacrificing complexity for determinism.

Take Channel Five in the UK as an illustration. At the governance level, Channel Five is the result of 1990s liberalisation, constrained within a progressively weakening public service framework. At the corporate level Channel Five’s £450m sale to Viacom will shift control to a US-based top-tier global media firm, from the national capital empire of Richard Desmond’s Northern and Shell, which owns the Express and Star newspapers, OK magazine, and Channel Five’s suite of channels and VOD services (which include porn), amongst other holdings. The drives for profitability that are integral to this capitalist media model have their more complex articulation in the particularities of Desmond’s management, mixing cost-cutting with cross-promotion, chasing a commercially successful, celebrity-laden entertainment formula and enthusiastically integrating ad-financed shows and product placement. But the other side of this neoliberalism is the advancement of a small state, anti-welfare and anti-immigration agenda, sustained in the Express and Star, and introduced into Channel Five through such “poverty porn” productions as Benefits Britain, and Gypsies on Benefits and Proud. One schools trainer, Rhiannon Colvin of MyBnk, noted of the children she teaches that “when you ask them what the government spends its money on you'd think that the first thing they would say is schools or hospitals but they say people who are not working. Those media messages filter down”. Former Star journalist Richard Peppiat has dramatically revealed how the paper’s managers routinely enforced a narrow, derogatory framing of Muslims, while its reactionary stance on issues including race, immigration, sexualities and feminism have drawn repeated and widespread criticism. The problems of media ownership and control that troubled early twentieth century liberalism are all present, and will not be tackled simply by swapping corporate owners.

More broadly, there are complex patterns of corporate convergence and de-convergence, yet concentration of media ownership remains a persistent feature and pervasive critical issue. Google, now the world’s largest media company by revenue, accounted for 49 per cent of internet advertising revenue worldwide and 65 per cent of search in December 2012, with an estimated 82 per cent share of paid search expenditure. Apple’s iTunes has some 70 per cent of the music download market; YouTube 73 per cent of online video; Facebook  52 per cent of social networking traffic. Networked communications have transformed the capacity for messages to be created and exchanged, yet problems of scarcity and control remain evident. It would be wrong to conclude that the massively increased availability of digital content of itself diminishes concern about the sources and supply of news, controls over access to films or sports, or the multiplatform share and reach of large media companies.

Beginning in the late twentieth century, James Curran in Media and Power (2002), Edwin Baker in Media, Markets, and Democracy (2002) and others advanced the case for a plural media system, with a public service media core and various surrounding sectors: commercial, civic, social market and professional. This blended liberal concerns with protection against statist power with radical democratic attention to corporate power and to the many “jobs” required of a media system, including self-constitution as well as sharing, antagonism as well as consensus-building. It combined a multidimensional assessment of state and market with an appreciation that the different purposes required in turn a mix of forms of organization and finance, generating different communication spaces and styles. Such normative models were constructed to address problems in Anglo-American media systems, and while their authors would reject universalising them, these systems also need to be revised and refreshed beyond their mass media presumptions in order to assist reformers in communications environments today, as I argue in Critical Political Economy of the Media: An Introduction (2014).

Working on media plurality issues in the UK for the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, I have contributed to proposals that would set limits on the maximum market share of private enterprises but which are guided by

a broader principle: for media that serve public audiences, with size and reach come responsibilities. Private providers with significant market share should meet requirements and obligations to safeguard our communication rights. Above the level of caps set for total market share by companies operating in key media markets, or when democratically responsive regulation demands it, communication services should be provided by public trusts or similar non-profit, publicly accountable arrangements, not by commercial providers.

Radical reform is required. Liberalism’s presumption that commercial media could safeguard citizens against the state has not travelled well across two centuries. From Putin’s market authoritarianism, to the US military-media complex integrating telecoms, media and internet giants in mass surveillance, state and market can become fatefully entwined. We have had authoritarian, paternal and commercial media systems, and it is surely time, as Raymond Williams suggested, to try the democratic one.

But liberalism is needed for at least two main reasons. The first is that the values for communications that arise from the complex confluence of liberalism, including promoting conditions for mutual exchanges of a plurality of information, ideas and imagery to safeguard democratic rule, strengthen social understanding and co-operation and enrich cultural life. The second is that reforming media systems, such as that of the UK, will require a coalition as broad as that of Chartism two centuries ago. Liberals and radicals need to work together, because doing so enhances both the goals of and the steps towards communications reform.


This article is part of the Liberalism and the Media strand of the Liberalism in neoliberal times series that OurKingdom is running in partnership with Goldsmiths, supported by the Department of Sociology. You can read Gholam Khiabany's introduction to the whole series here.

Liberalism in neo-liberal times - an OurKingdom partnership with Goldsmiths, University of London

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