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Media ownership: the elephant in the room

The recent tabloid attacks on foodbanks shows once again why urgent reform of the media is so urgent.

Criticisms of food banks that have recently appeared in popular news outlets shows that the press has lost none of its ability to lash out at the poor and vulnerable. Former Conservative minister Edwina Currie argued in the Sun that food banks, as distinct from the desperation that drives people to seek emergency aid in one of the world’s richest countries, are a ‘mistake’; an ‘investigation’ by the Mail on Sunday, backed up by a separate editorial, demonstrated how easy it is to ‘abuse’ the charitable work provided by food banks and managed to find space to claim that many users were – shock horror! – asylum seekers.

These attacks featured in the country’s two most popular news titles that, between them, account for more than one in two of every daily newspaper bought in the UK.

This is one small illustration that we have a serious problem with news diversity in that a small handful of organisations dominate the media landscape. A new report, published by the Media Reform Coalition, shows that just three companies control nearly 70 per cent of national newspaper circulation, five companies are responsible for 70 per cent of regional daily newspaper circulation and a single news provider (Sky) provides news bulletins for the vast majority of commercial radio. In terms of local news, around a quarter of local communities have no daily local newspaper at all while in 35 per cent of communities, a single title has a 100 per cent monopoly. The report is called The Elephant in the Room based on the fact that concentrated media ownership seems to be an issue that very few politicians and, not surprisingly, even fewer media outlets are willing to confront.

Next Monday, however, Parliament will be hosting a meeting to discuss how best to ‘reclaim the media’ from the proprietors, editors, lobbyists, and shareholders who are determined to place vested interests above the public interest. Speakers including Tom Watson, Caroline Lucas and John McDonnell will highlight the need both to support campaigns such as the ongoing European Initiative for Media Pluralism which is collecting signatures across the Continent to force the issue of media ownership on to the agenda in Brussels, and to make media concentration an issue for the forthcoming party manifestoes.

They have recently tabled an Early Day Motion that ‘condemns the way in which groups such as benefit claimants, immigrants, women and environmental campaigners are routinely misrepresented in the media’ and ‘believes that there should be urgent action to safeguard the right to independent and pluralistic information’.

Some may argue that the audience share of the Daily Mail or the limited number of news wholesalers is hardly an issue which matches the urgency of, for example, the situation in Ukraine, the fate of the unemployed or the controversies surrounding immigration.

This is to miss the point. Our understanding of welfare, immigration and foreign policy is, at least partly, predicated on the ability of powerful gatekeepers to impose their agendas and to naturalise their own reporting frames. For example, our actions in relation to Syria and Ukraine are all too often presented as intrinsically democratic and humanitarian while our enemies are necessarily only interested in expansion and/or terrorism; welfare is a ‘drain’ and always open to individual ‘abuse’ while corporate tax evasion has to be dragged into the limelight through the actions of groups like UK Uncut.

There is a real concern that if we have only a few, dominant voices, largely repeating similar opinions about the need to shrink the public sector, to mitigate the threats to UK national identity allegedly presented by continuing immigration, and to resist the danger to global security that is posed by the Russian ‘strongman’ Vladimir Putin, our right to a full and open conversation about matters of public importance is clearly undermined.

Does the BBC provide a sufficient counterpoint to these limited agendas? Its commercial rivals continually point to the Corporation’s domination of broadcast and online spaces that ‘distort’ news markets but they are far more reluctant to identify the real problem with the BBC: that, as a recent study carried out by researchers at Cardiff University argued, the Corporation ‘tends to reproduce a Conservative, Eurosceptic, pro-business version of the world, not a left-wing, anti-business agenda’.

Perhaps we need not worry about pluralism any longer simply because the internet has broken the grip of our traditional media moguls and provided us with a range of opinions that was not possible in the analogue age. After all, this is precisely what Rupert Murdoch has argued: ‘haven’t you heard of the internet? No one controls the media or will ever again.’ Yet, despite Murdoch’s protestations, we are seeing the same patterns of concentrated media power being replicated online. After all, if the internet was designed to challenge the stranglehold of incumbent voices, why is it that the Mail is far and away the most popular read online with nearly 180 million monthly unique users?

Large sections of our news media have failed to represent the interests of ordinary people – little wonder that only 19 per cent of us ‘trust’ our press to tell the truth, one of the lowest figures in Europe. Many of our leading media organisations are too wrapped up in relations with power to be able to hold this power to account. Concentrated ownership can no longer be hidden away as the issue we dare not confront if we really want to see a media that represents the interests not of elites and executives but of the majority of its readers, viewers and listeners.

You can sign the European Initiative for Media Pluralism at www.mediainitiative.org.uk

About the author

Des Freedman (@lazebnicis Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of ‘The Contradictions of Media Power’ (2014) and co-author (with James Curran and Natalie Fenton) of ‘Misunderstanding the Internet’ (2nd edition, 2016).

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