In the wake of the News International phone-hacking scandal, greater plurality of media ownership sounds like an idea whose time has come at last. But there are good reasons to be wary about the measures currently being considered. David Elstein has already set out some of the problems that would face legislators seeking to limit the market share of newspaper groups while the sector is undergoing rapid and often disruptive change.
Of course, it is important that we don’t exaggerate the difficulties. We can and should set limits on the total market share of media conglomerates. We can and should take further steps to limit the size and reach of groups that are not based in this country and pay little tax here. Clearly, Sky should not join the Times and the rest of News International in the offshore archipelago.
But we should also embrace plurality in our debates about media reform. There is more at stake here than the number of private media corporations and their relative market power. At the moment a combination of market-driven and public service institutions provides us with the information on which we base our public decision-making. The collective record of these institutions has in recent times been wholly inadequate. We have been profoundly misinformed about the stability of the financial system and the political economy it underwrites, about the threat posed by dictators in faraway countries, about the nature and significance of international terrorism, and about the role our countries play in the wider world. Again and again our common sense, the shared stock of descriptions and assumptions offered by the major media, has turned out to be a kind of daydream. Sometimes leaks of official information disabuse us. More often reality collides with our carefully fostered illusions.
Writing about the media in the early sixties Raymond Williams complained that "we have been reduced to making contrasts between the speculator and the bureaucrat, and wondering which is the blacker devil." If media reform is to address the deep failures in the provision of public information – failures that the News International scandal illustrates but does not exhaust – it must stop seeing market forces and public service ideals as the sum of what can be considered and discussed. The democratically organized body politic must take its place as an important patron of journalism and others forms of socially significant knowledge.
We have a great deal to do if we are to avoid the indignity of being serially misled. We will have to learn to speak in a register that our rulers would rather keep to themselves, the language of effectual liberty. And we will have to secure and exercise important new powers. Crucially, we must create a system of inquiry that is responsive to the wishes of a commissioning public. A few, apparently minor, changes in the distribution of existing subsidies would provide us with the material means necessary to challenge deeply embedded interests, including those of the media themselves. We do not have to rely on any sudden outbreak of journalistic ethics or the mysterious properties of market competition. We need only alter the power relations that govern how public money is spent investigating and reporting the world.
Reform along these lines might appear modest, timid even. But the consequences would be as far-reaching as they are unwelcome to those who have prospered in the current, indefensible dispensation. It is surely time now to look beyond the speculator and the bureaucrat to that most maligned and insulted group, the public. After all, only a nation of citizens in which each contributes some fraction of their attention and discrimination to the commissioning of publicly significant inquiry is a plurality worthy of the name. For only such a nation can ever claim to be free.