Dan Hind has produced many stimulating calls for radical media reform. He has most recently argued that, faced with Jeremy Hunt’s proposal that Ofcom should measure the power of all news outlets, we are faced with a clear choice: either ignore the BBC in the wider debate or ‘recognise that public service provision must be included in any meaningful debate about media and power in Britain’. That is a false dichotomy and it leads to a dangerous argument. I’m all for discussing precisely how the BBC should be held to account as the UK’s most influential news provider but this is a different proposition. After all, it wasn’t the scandalous practices in BBC newsrooms that led to the phone hacking scandal but a deeply corrupt relationship between corporate media, senior police officers and a compliant political class.
The culture secretary’s decision to include the BBC in any Ofcom-led investigation into how we might curb unacceptable levels of media influence is a deliberate strategy to turn the specific problem of corporate media power into a more general discussion about the behaviour of ‘big’ media organisations. This is a response partly to those people like the FT’s Philip Stephens who argues that Murdoch ‘has never been as powerful as his enemies imagined’ and partly to voices like that of the Daily Mail’s Melanie Phillips who asserts that the problem lies explicitly with the BBC and not with Murdoch. There is, she says, a ‘media oligarchy which exercises far more power in Britain than News International. And that is the BBC.’
Accepting that the BBC is part of the same problem of unaccountable media power as DMGT, News Corp, Google and Pearson plays into the hands of people who want to minimise prospects for reform and treats the bureaucracy of the public sector as an equal threat to democracy as the frantic chase for profits that we see in the commercial world.
The NHS, after all, has long had a virtual monopoly on healthcare in the UK. Of course, there have been (and continue to be) many problems with it but does anyone (the health secretary excepted of course) believe that taking money away from it to give to private providers will truly improve the nation’s health? Universities are hardly bastions of democracy and accountability and, through quangos like Hefce, have hegemonised public funding of higher education for many years. But, again, few believe (the VC of the private University of Buckingham excepted of course) that the government’s proposals to cut public funding and to encourage private colleges to compete will actually raise standards and increase social mobility.
Equating public bureaucracies with transnational conglomerates does little to challenge either the power of the latter or to improve the accountability of the former.
Dan suggests that cash ‘taken away from the BBC in order to increase plurality must be spent in accordance with the wishes of democratically organized publics’. I have no argument with the need for a more democratic commissioning process but why does he assume that the money should come from the BBC and not private providers? Indeed, cutting the resources of the BBC won’t help prospects for a more robust, independent and fearless newsgathering operation (which I certainly agree is required) but precisely the opposite: hand power to managers to demoralise staff, increase caution and internalise the very idea that the Corporation is too powerful for its own good.
In the current climate, therefore—of the near-implosion of the one of the world’s largest media companies, the Leveson Inquiry, the Communications Review and the galvanising of civil society opposition through groups like the Coordinating Committee for Media Reform - it would be a mistake to be sidetracked into a discussion about the influence of the BBC. Damian Tambini argues that by handing over the problem of measuring media concentration to Ofcom, the culture secretary is effectively kicking the issue ‘into the long grass’. That may well be true but, by including the BBC in the analysis, Hunt’s manoeuvre also has the more immediate impact of deflecting attention away from what we can do to tackle private media power in the short term.
Avaaz, the online campaign group, has a neat and accessible campaign on this issue. They have launched a petition demanding ‘strong media regulation legislation which ensures that no single private company or individual controls more than a fifth of our media’ (my emphasis). Should we oppose this because it doesn’t mention the BBC or should we support a simple and fairly modest demand, aimed at private media organisations who are accountable to no one bar shareholders and family members, that says ‘hands off our media’?
In response to Natalie Fenton’s claim that the government has a responsibility to put in places the conditions for a democratic journalism and that this is something we should fight for when they do not do this, Dan then argues that regulation is not the answer because it simply ‘pits a financial elite against an elite of administrators and auditors’. Would he really argue this if BUPA was trying to buy up his local hospital but was prevented from doing so because of some annoying rules presided over by administrators and auditors?
I don’t think that regulation is the answer but, in the present climate of a sustained neoliberal attack on virtually all areas of public life (I am not aware of any proposals to introduce competition into the military), it is certainly an answer. It depends, of course, on what kind of regulation you have in mind. Instead of the ‘market enhancing’ regulation that we have seen for too long, I would like to see the imposition of some fierce ‘market negating’ regulation that tackles the power and confronts the legitimacy of unaccountable private forces to control crucial parts of our culture and society—particularly when it comes to my right to be informed about events of public interest. In the coming months, we will have plenty of opportunity to make a case for radical media reform including tough ownership restrictions, new forms of funding to sustain public interest news, a conscience clause for journalists and tough rules on the lobbying power of media moguls and the provision of conditions (and not just codes) for ethical practice in journalism.
The BBC should be part of the current discussion about media reform but not in relation to an agenda which serves the interests of forces, including the government and the Daily Mail, to use this crisis to strike a below against an organisation which—for all its occasional crimes and misdemeanours—did not hack into the phone of an innocent murder victim, did not systematically pay off police officers and did not use its influence to advance the political agenda of its chairman. Private media power has been found out and we need to build a movement that challenges it.