So far, any analysis of the role of the media in the forthcoming UK election has focused overwhelmingly on the leaders’ debates and on the 'horse-race' coverage. But very little has been said about the crucial issue which underpins the agenda-setting power of news organisations—the domination of the media by a handful of giant corporations.
A new poll conducted by YouGov for the Media Reform Coalition has proved what campaigners have long been arguing: there is strong public support for measures to tackle media concentration, to make proprietors more accountable to their audiences and their journalists and to secure funds for new forms of local and investigative journalism.
Nearly three-quarters (74%) of those polled said they support controls on media ownership, while a substantial minority, some 41%, believe that existing rules should be strengthened by setting fixed limits on the amount of media any one proprietor or entity can own. Similarly, 74% believe that owners of UK media should be required to have UK residency and pay full UK taxes, while 61% would support compulsory rules or structures (such as genuinely independent editorial boards) to limit the influence of owners over editorial output.
Peter Oborne’s resignation from the Daily Telegraph, in protest at the title’s downplaying of HSBC’s involvement in tax-avoidance schemes so as not to jeopardise its advertising with the bank, seems also to have influenced public opinion. Some 64% of those polled would support an inquiry into the relationship between news organisations and advertisers. Only 7% said they were unconcerned about the rise of 'branded content' and the breakdown of the distinction between editorial and commercial output.
When asked whether they would support a levy on the profits of social media and pay-TV companies to support new providers of independent journalism, 51% agreed and only a tiny minority, 9% of those polled, rejected the idea. Given that Google has already agreed to a £52m 'contribution' to a 'digital publishing innovation fund', this is not as controversial as it sounds. It’s high time that a British politician make this demand of Google and other internet companies.
But which leading politician will dare to challenge the power of organisations whose support they believe will be crucial to securing votes? Perhaps it is worth remembering that the popularity of the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, soared both when he threatened to “break up” the Rupert Murdoch empire and when he accused the Daily Mail of smearing his late father as a “man who hated Britain”.
Indeed, cracks have started to emerge in relation to media ownership. The Greens recently announced that a commitment to limit ownership in any individual media market to a maximum of 20% would feature in their election manifesto. Meanwhile the Lib Dems have called for an end to the ability of ministers to rule on media takeovers. This was a clear reference to News Corporation’s attempted acquisition of BSkyB, a deal which was waved through by then culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, before it was withdrawn once the phone-hacking scandal blew up.
The Barclay brothers, owners of the Telegraph Group. Michael Stephens/PA.
Perhaps it is significant that the Labour peer David Puttnam used his recent speech to the Media Trust to criticise David Cameron for “bottling” his chance to force proprietors to accept a genuinely independent form of regulation and to condemn the complicity between politicians and the media—a situation made worse, according to the Guardian, by the “moral airlock that allows companies to prioritise profits over broader values".
Lord Puttnam is right to focus on the underlying structures of media power at the heart of the unethical and ungratifying behaviour of too much of the media. Revelations of widespread phone hacking at the Daily Mirror and allegations about what would appear to be a degraded editorial policy at the world’s most popular online title, DailyMail.com, are just some of the more recent manifestations of the abuse of this power.
The point is that influential media organisations in highly concentrated online and offline markets distort democratic debate. They routinely privilege issues and agendas which suit the interests of proprietors and advertisers. They foster questionable relationships between public officials and media barons. And they put (what appears to be) irresistible pressure on compliant politicians—who are increasingly nervous to upset such influential gatekeepers.
How can citizens expect fearless and robust coverage of climate change, financial scandals, austerity policies, policing, immigration and foreign affairs, when so much of the established media are in hock to vested interests? And how can they expect coverage of the UK election to go beyond an obsession with personalities on the one hand and the issues which party leaders want to focus on on the other—without first challenging, and ultimately changing, the intimate relationships between the media and the political establishment which they are supposed to hold to account?
Media power ought not to shape this election—it should be a central policy question which features in it. Who will be brave enough to say this the loudest?