The modalities of media liberalism

What are the values proper to journalism, and how these might best be protected, encouraged and enhanced. Is the market the most effective guarantor of the freedom of the press so highly prized by liberals, or do market forces act as agents of censorship in certain important respects?

Julian Petley
11 August 2014

“Liberalism” is a notoriously difficult term to define, meaning different things in different countries and in different eras. In an economic and “classical” sense it is associated with Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo who, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, advocated the application of market principles to economic life; its modern form, neo-liberalism, calls for their application to all forms of public provision as well. Such policies are generally the province of parties of the Right, although in certain countries they have also been embraced by centre-left parties, most notably in Britain but also in Australia, New Zealand and Germany, for example.

 However, the word “liberal” has also come to acquire quite different connotations outside the economic sphere, where it is frequently used in ways which make it virtually synonymous with “social democratic” or even “progressive”. As Colin Crouch explains in The Strange Non-death of Neoliberalism (2011): “By the end of the nineteenth century, bourgeois property ownership and the associated liberal right to own factories and other bases of economic activity, including that to employ labour, had themselves become sources of domination and power”. Those subject to this process had begun to seek protection from it, just as the bourgeoisie had once sought to be free from the state, and they looked to that state, which was beginning to become more democratic, as a source of countervailing power.  Thus the liberal tradition split in two, with the birth of “social liberalism”, which in the UK was associated with T.H. Green, L.T. Hobhouse and John Hobson and was concerned with efforts to ameliorate the worst consequences of unfettered capitalism, especially for the poor, and which increasingly looked to traditional liberalism’s old enemy, the state, for help in this respect. They argued that the state should intervene in public life so that every individual could exercise that right to liberty so dear to liberals and play their full part in society. In the mid-twentieth century such ideas would find their fullest expression in the notion of the welfare state, but would come to be reviled by the Right in the US, and increasingly by sections of Conservative opinion in the UK, as little short of crypto-communism.

 In media terms, complaints from Conservatives in the US about ‘liberal media bias’ are so commonplace that Joe Conason asked in his book Big Lies (2003): “Is there a literate adult living in this country who hasn’t heard or read that dull, deceptive phrase literally hundreds or even thousands of times?” And this was before the birth of the Tea Party. That this is vociferously supported by the distinctly illiberal Fox News is, of course, conveniently overlooked by Conservatives, as is the fact that one of the main reasons why the phrase has such currency is that it is endlessly repeated in the press and on television by those self-same Conservatives who habitually complain that their voices are routinely shut out of the media.   

 In the UK, the situation is rather different, since so much of the national press is both highly Conservative and, in a social sense, profoundly illiberal. So here the anti-liberal battle is waged ceaselessly against only certain specific media outlets, namely those perceived by the Right to be overly-liberal – that is the Guardian, the BBC and, to a lesser extent these days, Channel 4 – with the right-wing press either leading the charge or amplifying attacks made by right-wing politicians.  However, if journalism is a modern-day expression of the Enlightenment project (which, after all gave birth to liberalism in the first place), and if the core purpose of that project is rational enquiry in order to explain the society, and indeed the world, in which we live, then journalism must surely privilege reason, proof, argument, accountability, accuracy, truthfulness, and scepticism – particularly towards received opinions and ‘common-sense’ explanations of social reality. These are in fact core liberal values in a social sense, and represent the underpinnings of what journalists fondly refer to as the Fourth Estate, but they are more a matter of methodology than of ideology, which is why it’s perfectly possible to be a Conservative journalist or a socialist journalist and to embrace these values wholeheartedly (for example, Peter Oborne and Paul Foot respectively).

 Entirely unsurprisingly, given its political and ideological complexion,  the majority of the national press in the UK defends its freedom not in terms of social but classical liberalism, as has been loudly demonstrated by its daily jeremiads against “state censorship” ever since the Leveson Inquiry was set up. In this view of things the function of the media, in this case the press, is to provide the information, evidence and opinion that people need in order to be able to function as citizens, and also to ensure that government does not abuse its power. Thus freedom from government, along with private ownership, is absolutely vital, and the press must be able to compete freely in an open market. The success or failure of newspapers should depend solely on whether or not they can attract sufficient audiences in order to produce a profit. Freedom to publish in the free market will ensure that the press reflects a wide range of opinions and interests in society. If certain viewpoints predominate in the press then this is because they represent popular opinion, and if others are missing this is down to the fact that they lack sufficient following to sustain them in the marketplace.

 However, critics of this classical liberal view of press freedom argue that it reduces the notion to little more than a property right, that is, the right to own a newspaper and to do with it whatever one pleases. Further, they claim that by concentrating solely on the state as the enemy of press freedom, classical liberalism ignores the ways in which market forces act as serious constraints on the press, and indeed as a form of censorship. Thus there are very considerable economic barriers to entry to the press marketplace, in which certain players are far more powerful than others. Reliance on advertising funding favours certain kinds of readerships and certain kinds of journalism and discriminates against others. In spite of the much vaunted claims of “consumer sovereignty” in the newspaper market, diversity of content, reader choice and public accountability have all been reduced by the dominance of that market by oligopolies.

 However, it is abundantly clear that, for neo-liberals, the press provides the model of how broadcasting too should be organised in future: the BBC licence fee should be replaced by subscription, media ownership restrictions abolished, and regulations strictly limited to facilitating the profitable making and selling of programmes (or rather “products”) in national and international markets. Inevitably such sentiments have found their loudest expression in the pages of newspapers whose owners would stand to gain enormously by the effective abolition of public service broadcasting, and few have noted that such a seismic change in the way in which broadcasting is organised in this country could not be undertaken without massive intervention by the state – intervention of precisely the kind which classical liberals and neo-liberals profess to loathe and despise. But as Jonathan Hardy points out in Critical Political Economy of the Media (2014): “The issue is not state vs. market – but what kinds of state policy interventions are made and on whose behalf  … Marketisation, the opening up of space for private enterprise, is not the result of autonomous, ‘natural’ free markets or the logical outcome of converging technologies, but is constructed by the decisions (or non-decisions) of public authorities”. What lies behind the endlessly repeated demands for the “deregulation” of broadcasting is in fact re-regulation, namely the replacement of regulations designed to ensure the existence of a media sphere whose function is to protect and enhance citizens’ communicative rights by regulations designed to further the economic interests of media corporations whose sole concern is the extraction of revenue from advertisers and “consumers”.

 In this strand, then, I would like contributors to debate what are the values proper to journalism, and how these might best be protected, encouraged and enhanced. Are these liberal values in a social sense, or, if not, what are they? Is the market the most effective guarantor of the freedom of the press so highly prized by liberals, or do market forces act as agents of censorship in certain important respects? And, specifically in the case of much (but not all) of the national press in the UK, how is it that papers so firmly wedded to economic liberalism, in both its classical and “neo” forms, are so profoundly illiberal in social terms?    


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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