Media Reform: The time is now, and a new group are seizing the opportunity

The News of the World hacking scandal has given Britain an opportunity to reform its media. openDemocracy has joined a broad group of organisations and individuals who have come together to help develop a democratic media with the public interest at its heart
Dan Hind
10 September 2011

The News of the World hacking scandal has opened a window of opportunity for  transforming our British media so that it serves the people.  openDemocracy is seizing this chance by joining a diverse group of individuals, organisations and networks who have come together to help shape our future media, through influencing and contributing to the Leveson Inquiry and the Communications Review.

On Friday September 3rd the Coordinating Committee for Media Reform held its first public meeting. An initiative by researchers in the Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media Research Centre, the CCMR aims to secure meaningful reform of the communications sector in the wake of the hacking scandal. It brings together a broad range of groups and individuals: the Media Standards Trust, the National Union of Journalists, Avaaz, 38 Degrees, Compass and the Coalition of Resistance, to name but a few from a long list. openDemocracy is one of these partners.

The stakes are high. Everyone who challenges the existing structure of power in Britain – environmentalists, opponents of privatization and critics of finance as much as advocates of media reform and constitutional change – has struggled to make their case to the public through media that are dominated by commercial pressures and paternalism. Against a background of popular outrage at corruption and criminality in some large media companies the Leveson Inquiry and the Communication review offer us our best hope for a generation of changing that.

The committee has a great challenge ahead. We must  think about what we are doing in two dimensions – 1.) lobbying and 2.) public relations.

Each depends critically on the other. Without public support attempts to secure substantive reform will, in all likelihood, fail. Public support will not be forthcoming unless reformers present to a large audience a clear account of both the problem and the solutions proposed. 

Let me be clear about this. A critique of the existing media that does not acknowledge the shortcomings of public service, trust-controlled and foundation-funded journalism will fail to convince. Any proposals for reform that recommend giving power to unaccountable bodies staffed with well-meaning liberals will fail to convince. If we are to succeed we must reach beyond the ‘progressive million’ who already want media reform of some kind. That means persuading millions more that what we propose will help them secure their interests – that media reform will improve their lives. A democratic public sphere is our aim, and democratic media must be the means. 

The Committee will aim to produce submissions to Leveson and the Communications Review that bear comparison with the work of the best-paid lobbyists and lawyers in Britain. These submissions must pre-empt and refute the efforts of established interests to fend off significant change. I do not for a moment underestimate the scale of the challenge. 

But I believe it is every bit as important that we adopt a publishing strategy – one which draws on existing and new research that:

1.)  Communicates to the wider public the extent to which the current system taken as a whole fails to inform them adequately about matters of deep common concern.

2.)  Sets out a programme of reform that addresses the problems with the current system and that will therefore prove attractive to that wider public.

So, when generating new data on public opinion, I recommend that the groups associated with the committee bear in mind the need to establish the extent to which our media leave us ignorant in consequential respects. We must also seek to establish the popular appeal of democratic control of the media. 

Two examples of polling questions might be –

1.)  What is quantitative easing?

2.)  Would you like some say in what journalists in your town – and nationally – investigate?

I have proposed quantative easing as it matters to the public (a sight more than benefit fraud or any number of other well-publicised outrages to common decency) but most of us have no idea what it is. Most of us, I think, would like our newspapers and television to contain information that relates meaningfully to our lives and that better serves our private ambitions and public aspirations. 

The media interests we are challenging understand the need for a public relations / publishing strategy. They have the in-built advantage of easy access to mass audiences. They will doubtless use that access and all their considerable skills as propagandists to try to marginalise their critics. But while rational argument might make them nervous, a rival publishing programme is the only thing that will really rattle them.

Some final points. We need to take full advantage of the independent routes to publicity that now exist. Lets set up a Facebook page and a Twitter account so that citizens can register their interest and become active in building support for reform. As any media executive will tell you, audience matters. 

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Our current economic and social predicament is, in large part, the result of failings in our systems of communication. The cause of media reform is of profound importance to everyone in Britain. We should do everything we can to let them know just what’s at stake in the months ahead. 

A glittering prize is before us – a media system that informs and enables the public of a democracy. It is time to grasp it. 

Dan Hind is a former publisher and the author of two books, the latest of which, The Return of the Public, outlines a system of democratic media reform. He is the winner of this year’s Bristol Festival of Ideas book prize and a contributing editor for Open Democracy. 

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