openDemocracyUK

Civil society and the media: findings from the Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in the UK and Ireland.

Erin van der Maas outlines the role civil society needs to play to ensure public service media
Erin van der Maas
7 May 2010

A thriving civil society has always been dependent on free, strong and critical media. They enable us to know, to imagine and to organise to make the world better[1].

When asked at the recent Oxford Media Convention how much public sector broadcasting society should subsidise, Lord Puttnam responded with a question: what sort of society do we want to live in? In his view, given the increasing failure of the market to invest in quality news journalism and production, particularly at a local level, the question of how (or if) we subsidise public service content depends entirely on what kind of society we want to live in and how critical the qualities of scrutiny, holding to account and reportage are to this view of a society.

The Commission of Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society, supported by the Carnegie UK Trust, looked across four important and interconnected themes (democracy, economy, media and climate change) and their findings paint a picture of the kind of society they wish to see. A society where the powerful interests of market and state are scrutinised, held to account and challenged by a more robust, more influential and more powerful civil society. As providers and owners of alternate models of production and exchange (coops, mutuals, trusts etc), as key mediating institutions that can scrutinise and hold market and state actors to account and as campaigners and advocates, civil society associations have much to contribute to a more balanced, plural and fair society. Specific to the media theme the final Commission report states:

As a new media landscape takes shape, the Commission sees three issues as paramount: freedom, pluralism and integrity. By freedom, we mean the freedom of all parts of civil society to shape media content, which will mean maintaining maximum freedom on the internet. By pluralism, we mean news media that are not controlled by a small number of powerful interests, which will entail civil society becoming more involved in media ownership. By integrity, we mean news media that promote values such as truthfulness and accuracy.[2]

That the theme of media, in particular the production of quality independent journalism and public service content, surfaced as one of four key themes was one of the most surprising findings of the Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society chaired by Geoff Mulgan. Contributors to the Inquiry’s work from across the UK and Ireland consistently identified media as a key concern for civil society even at a time when economic, political and environmental crises have dominated the wider context. The unfolding crisis in media and journalism is not making it into the current news agenda, for an industry that is particularly partial to naval gazing this lack of reportage is conspicuous by its absence. However, for those connected with civil society these issues were clearly on their radar.

Concerns voiced by contributors to the Inquiry included age-old concerns regarding who owns the media and what the increasing concentration of ownership and control means for the quality and content of our news. It is no surprise that contributors to the Inquiry, drawn predominantly from civil society, lamented how little media attention is given to civil society activity and how both the quality of public debate and the public perception of issues suffer as a result. Reportage on young people, trade unionism, migrants and immigration, crime and poverty were consistently singled out as presenting real obstacles for civil society associations wanting to get on with the job of addressing these issues.

Contributors to the Inquiry fully appreciated the commercial pressures that are driving the increasing concentration of media ownership and fully understood the implications for local newspapers, media pluralism and the scope and depth of news content. The impact of a migrating readership and advertising revenues to the internet has seen a proliferation of new media platforms but a diminishing range of sources for news content. Choice, to use the language of the market, it seems, is limited to the platform where you access the news not what news you are accessing; the phenomena described as churnalism[3] where each platform churns out the same recycled news content in a constant struggle to fill more spaces with less content. Concern over the paucity of international news and analysis also surfaced particularly for those connected to international civil society. However, it was at the local and regional level where peoples’ concerns really crystallized.

These issues were particularly highlighted in the devolved parts of the UK. At a time when the UK needs more local and regional journalism to scrutinise, report on and hold to account the new political centres of power in Cardiff and Edinburgh, commercial media has neither the appetite or the resources to provide it. Local newspapers have particularly been hit hard in recent decades with hundreds of titles disappearing from the local landscape, over 100 newspapers closed down in the UK between January and July 2009 involving the loss of 1500 journalists’ jobs[4]. Without the oxygen of media scrutiny the new devolved centres of political power will find it very difficult to construct an effective public sphere. The innovative ways in which the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament have tried to reach out to engage citizens is in stark contrast to the staid model at Westminster and is absolutely necessary given the decline in regional media

Reflecting on the Commission’s deliberations, two key points shaped their thinking:

  1. The commission were not seeking to maintain or defend particular media platforms (newspapers etc); their aim was to explore how public service content and especially news production can be proliferated.
  2. The key lens for the commission in this theme and the other three key themes of the Inquiry (economy, media, climate change and democracy) is civil society. What are the possible future roles of civil society organisations (such as voluntary and community organisations, trade unions, faith-based organisations, cooperatives, philanthropic organisations etc) in owning, producing, influencing and scrutinising media.

The Commission wants to see civil society shape and create media content. It wants to see revenue flow from existing commercial sources to support quality independent news and other public service content. And it wants to see regulation that limits media concentration, protects the freedom of the internet and supports quality, local, independent news production.

On balance, the Commission supports the license fee and the BBC and recognises the growing importance of a recognised global centre of journalistic excellence and creative programming. The Commission urges the BBC to do much more to collaborate with civil society in creating new public service content, particularly at the local level. ‘Top slicing’ the license fee to spread the current public funding more thinly will do nothing to proliferate the production of public service content – we need new funding solutions for this.

License-fee payers are only one potential source of funding for quality independent journalism and public service content and increasing this will be a particularly contentious source of funding given the present economic climate. The state can intervene in the market without the need for increases to the license fee. At a time of transition and flux all options need to be in the mix. As noted in the final Commission report:

…now is a time for innovation in the funding of quality news content production. Some of the best developments in the media have come from new ways of directing resources into high-quality content and distribution. These include film levies in the UK; advertising levies in parts of Europe; and the redirection of advertising revenues to guarantee Channel 4 several decades of creativity. In recent years, policy-makers have shown little of that imagination. We want to see new funding models explored: for example, tax concessions, industry levies or the direction of proportions of advertising spend into news content creation by civil society associations, or into local multimedia websites[5]

The cosy relationship between the political elites and corporate media has not produced an innovative policy and regulatory framework. It has been largely inert in recent times.

As with the financial sector, leaving media to the State and big business is a recipe for disaster. The values of pluralism, integrity and freedom are critical to a media that supports an effective public sphere and are also critical to the thousands of civil society organisations up and down the UK. The roles of civil society in relation to media and particularly public service media need to be more robust if this public service vision is to be realised.

The media sector needs:

  • more effective scrutiny of content
  • a stronger civil society that exerts more influence on regulation in order to break the cosy relationship between corporate media and political elites that squeezes out citizens and civil society
  • a greater diversity of voices involved in creating public service media that requires more civil society organisations to embrace social media and community media production

The Commission findings and recommendations thereby present a challenge to policy-makers, regulators and civil society organisations.

To read the full report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society see www.futuresforcivilsociety.org.


[1] Making Good Society: Final report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in the UK and Ireland: p.9 - www.futuresforcivilsociety.org

[2] Making Good Society: Final report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in the UK and Ireland: p.9

[3] Reference Davies, N. (2008) Flat Earth News. Chatto & Windus, London.

[4] Figures for newspaper decline from the Newspaper Society in interview for Inquiry – figure for job losses from National Union of Journalists (2009) The Future for Local and Regional Media, Submission to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee p.3.

[5] Making Good Society: Final report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in the UK and Ireland p. 97

 

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