Off the agenda: Why press silence speaks volumes about the dangers of concentrated media

This post was contributed by Dr Justin Schlosberg, lecturer in journalism and media. This post first appeared on Open Democracy on Wednesday 13 April

canary-wharf-1145616_1920Real press power resides in the the ability to suppress a scandal, at least as much as the ability to produce one. This is the lesson we learn repeatedly when journalists, facing the combined pressures of austerity, failing business models and an increasingly cautious and interventionist management decide enough is enough.

The latest in this new cadres of whistleblowers from inside the fourth estate is Jim Cusick, former political correspondent for the Independent. Like his former counterpart at the Telegraph Peter Oborne, who resigned amidst the appalling silence of his paper in the face of the tax scandal embroiling HSBC (coincidentally, a major advertising account holder), Cusick has pointed the finger at senior management – and an enduring Fleet Street cabal – for strangling journalism at the Indie.

The merits of the suppressed story itself – which centres on the alleged relationship between the culture secretary, John Whittingdale, and a woman thought to be a sex worker and fetishist – are certainly questionable. But not by Fleet Street standards. And this is the crux of the matter for Cusick who suggests that the story wound its way through successive newspapers with each title deciding against publication not because they thought the allegations were baseless or not much of a story.

On the contrary, it was precisely because of the perceived ‘value’ of the story, that editors and owners decided against publication. This provided the blackmail stick that supposedly made Whittingdale an ‘asset’ for a newspaper lobby hell-bent on destroying the BBC and the new system of press self-regulation recommended by Lord Justice Leveson (and enshrined in Royal Charter and law).

To be clear, Cusick offers little to substantiate this cover up, save a published email from his editor at the Indie calling off the story for reasons undeclared. But his piece does alert us to the wider question of what gets routinely left out of the mainstream media agenda – including stories that are much less ambiguously in the public interest than the not so lurid details of a politician’s private life. From Google’s immersion within the surveillance state to allegations of rampant corruption and criminality within British American Tobacco – real scandals are often very far from the front pages of major newspapers or the headlines of broadcasters.

Stories which play to elite interests

Of course, sometimes a scandal becomes too big for Fleet Street to ignore – even when it does not suit the interests of powerful owners and editors, as when the Guardian revealed in 2011 that murdered school girl Milly Dowler was among the victims of phone hacking by journalists at the former News of the World. It is also true that when the political climate is right, newspapers can go on the front foot in exposing abuses of power at the heart of the political establishment. The backdrop of a deep fracture in the conservative elite caused by the impending EU referendum has certainly provided ripe conditions for the unprecedented onslaught on David Cameron’s personal tax affairs by the right wing press.

But we should also remain vigilant to the way in which the story can be subtly told or retold in ways that ultimately play to elite interests. So, for instance, when the Guardian and other newspapers partnered with Wikileaks in 2010 to publish a series of secret US diplomatic cables, the headlines quickly became dominated by the alleged sexual misdemeanours of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, rather than communiqués that suggested Britain’s long-running and controversial Iraq War Inquiry had been systematically undermined by government officials from the outset; or that legal loopholes had been cynically exploited by British and American governments in order to maintain a stockpile of US cluster bomb munitions on British territory; or that British military personnel were involved in the training of a Bangladeshi paramilitary group dubbed a ‘death squad’ by human rights groups.

Optimists argue that none of this stuff matters anymore because in the digital environment, one way or another, everything gets published all of the time. But it is precisely because of such information noise that amplification – the ability to be heard­ – has become the major currency of communicative power, and that power is still very much vested in the owners of major news brands. And those who think their agenda or gatekeeping power has been diminished by the rise of digital intermediaries should take one look at Google’s most recent news algorithm patent update, which reveals the degree to which it favours dominant, western media brands like “the BBC and CNN”.

The BBC’s dominance

Others argue that if there is any problem with media concentration in Britain today, then it resides in the BBC’s dominance of news consumption across broadcasting and digital platforms. From this perspective, the mere existence of a national press, however partisan and ideologically driven in its selection of news scandals, is a much needed check on the near monopoly status enjoyed by the BBC. Rather than worrying about the agenda influence of mainstream media in general, commercial media lobbyists argue that we should be concerned exclusively with the overarching reach and influence of the BBC.

But how far does the BBC’s own news selection decisions reflect or align with that of the commercial press? When scholars at Cardiff University set out to investigate this question during the 2015 UK general election, they found a very different picture to that often conjured by critics in the right wing press. Rather than harbouring a liberal or left wing metropolitan bias, the BBC appeared to follow their story priorities which in turn synched with the Conservative Party campaign agenda. Just like the national newspapers, the BBC’s coverage systematically marginalised stories relating to both the NHS and immigration in favour of stories relating to the economy and the threat of Labour-SNP coalition, two issues at the forefront of the Conservative Party campaign. The extent of this agenda alignment was corroborated by other research conducted at Loughborough University and by the Media Standards Trust.

Media ownership

Read the original blog on Open Democracy

Read the original blog on Open Democracy

At a time when many public service broadcasters around the world – including the BBC – are facing varying degrees of existential crises, public debate is all too often reduced to a choice between preservation or market-based reforms; with the latter usually amounting to cutbacks or closures. What’s left off the policy agenda is the possibility of radical democratic reform aimed at reconstituting the independence, accountability and internal plurality of public service media.

This is also an issue that is intimately tied to questions of media ownership. The idea that a substantive section of any democratic media system needs to be in public hands is one that retains a great deal of force, in spite of the digital transition and corresponding end of channel scarcity (which underlined the original rationale for public service media). But the way in which public service broadcasters are structured, regulated and governed can have profound implications for independence in relation to both the state and market.

As for concentration in the wider media – and especially the national and local press – the evidence suggests that ownership still matters, in some ways more than ever. Far from justifying inaction or inattention to media ownership, the complexities, uncertainties and obscurities surrounding concentrated power in a converged media environment make progressive media ownership rules more necessary and more urgent. The rise of grassroots channels of resistance to mainstream media agendas has produced a limited sea-change but not a reason to refrain from tackling the problem – more a basis for doing so.

The need for reform of media plurality rules has been a much talked about issue for some time now, and in many parts of the world. But as digital news markets reach maturity and the political long grass continues to grow, we need a groundswell of pressure from below, along with politicians that have the courage to champion and act on policies that will promote a genuine redistribution of voice and communicative power.

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Tightening the Grip: Why the web is no haven of media plurality

This post was contributed by Dr Justin Schlosberg, lecturer in Journalism and Media at Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies. This was originally posted on Media Reform Coalition blog on Monday, 15 February 2016.

GoogleLast week a digital market research company reported that “the top 10 publishers make up a huge chunk of the U.K. media market and own more than half of the entire industry”. The statement was based on data that SimilarWeb collected over 2015, specifically the number of page visits to the top 300 news websites. They found that 65 percent of this traffic was concentrated in the websites of the top 10 news publishers, and the top five alone attracted more than half of all traffic across the sample.

Optimists might consider that the mere existence of 300 news websites (which is itself far from an exhaustive sample of all news on the net), reflects the plurality of the online news sphere, at least compared to conventional platforms like television or print. On closer examination, however, the picture revealed is in fact one of heightened concentration, with not much more than a handful of major publishers able to reach across fragmented audiences, and thus play a potentially defining role in setting the wider news agenda. Previous studies have shown that such concentration can have a cascading or domino effect, with smaller outlets taking agenda cues from the big players. As one scholar put it, “in the age of information plenty, what most consumers get is more of the same”.

Blind Spots

To glimpse this reality we have to peel away a number of veils that make the gatekeeping and agenda setting power of mainstream news organisations not less significant, but rather less visible in the digital environment. Let’s start with the numbers. The lowest ranked news website – Pink News – still attracted some 16 million page views. Which sounds like a lot. But if we compare page views to unique visitors (as measured by the National Readership Survey among others), the average ratio works out to around 250:1. So 16 million page views over the course of the year will probably amount to an audience reach of around 60,000.

That’s still not a tiny amount given that we are at the bottom of the pile here. But it’s important to consider that the list includes many websites that are not really what we would generally think of as news providers. They are much closer to the equivalent of special interest magazines in the print world, focusing on music/film/sport/entertainment etc.

At the heart of plurality concerns is a conviction that healthy democracies depend on the circulation and intersection of diverse voices and perspectives. From this standpoint, it would seem odd to consider the plurality contribution of popularmechanics.com or cylclingweekly.co.uk as equivalent to a daily news provider, especially one that covers political news and current affairs.

One idea that captures the supposed plurality renaissance of the information age is the so-called long tail theory. According to this theory, the ‘personalising’ and tailored recommendations of search, social media and retail algorithms ensure that niche providers flourish and the ‘head’ (representing mainstream culture) dissipates over time. But if we plot Similarweb’s data into such a graph we find the opposite: the curve produces a highly defined ‘head’ followed by a very flat tail…

graph-768x449

A decade after the long tail effect was first explained and predicted, not much seems to be changing. If anything, we may be experiencing a regression back to the kind of mass culture that revolves around superstars, best-sellers and mainstream headlines.

Another problem with the SimilarWeb data is that it does not capture news consumption via aggregators like Yahoo and social media sites like Facebook. Most of this content is produced by mainstream news brands which would make the head look even more concentrated if we were to attribute those page views to the original news sources.

OFCOM – the UK’s media regulator – repeatedly makes the opposite mistake by including these sorts of sites in survey data alongside what it calls ‘content originators’ like the BBC, Sky, Daily Mail, Guardian, etc. This again overestimates plurality by counting aggregators (sites that predominantly host content of other news providers) and intermediaries (sites that predominantly serve as gateways to third party news sites) as news sources in their own right.

Gateway Power

Uncover these blind spots and what we are left with, by any measure, is a highly concentrated picture of media power in Britain today. How has this happened? Given that so much of the traffic to news websites is ‘referred’ by intermediaries, the intricacies of Google’s news algorithm is a good place to start in addressing this question.

For some time now, Google has been weighting and ranking news providers according to a broad spectrum of what it considers to be the most reliable indicators of news quality. But it turns out machines are not much better at assessing news ‘quality’ than human beings. They may be free of subjective bias in one sense, but this means they rely (paradoxically) on quantitative measures of quality, which produces its own bias in favour of large scale and incumbent providers. One look at Google’s most recent patent filing for its news algorithm reveals just how much size matters in the world of digital news: the size of the audience, the size of the newsroom, and the volume of output.

Perhaps the most contentious metric is one that purports to measure what Google calls ‘importance’ by comparing the volume of a site’s output on any given topic to the total output on that topic across the web. In a single measure, this promotes both concentration at the level of provider (by favouring organisations with volume and scale), as well as concentration at the level of output (by favouring organisations that produce more on topics that are widely covered elsewhere). In other words, it is a measure that single-handedly reinforces both an aggregate news ‘agenda’, as well as the agenda setting power of a relatively small number of publishers.

Google engineers may well argue that the variety of volume metrics imbedded in the algorithm ensures that concentration effects are counterbalanced by pluralising effects, and that there is no more legitimate or authoritative way of measuring news quality than relying on a full spectrum of quantitative indicators. Rightly or wrongly, Google believes that ‘real news’ providers are those that can produce the most amounts of original, breaking and general news on a wide range of topics and on a consistent basis.

News plurality reconsidered

At face value, that doesn’t sound like such a bad thing. In a world saturated with hype, rumour and gossip, it’s not surprising that most people are attracted to news brands that signal a degree of professionalism. Part of Google’s corporate and professed social mission is to match users to the content they value most, and if most people prefer the mainstream, then that’s where the traffic will flow.

But there is no getting around the fact that Google favours dominant and incumbent news organisations. The company made its view clear when it stated in its patent filing that “CNN and BBC are widely regarded as high quality sources of accuracy of reporting, professionalism in writing, etc., while local news sources, such as hometown news sources, may be of lower quality”. But when the ‘mainstream’ is held as the ultimate benchmark of good quality news, we start to run into real problems for the future (and present) of media plurality.

Read the original article on Media Reform Coalition

Read the original article on Media Reform Coalition

For one thing, algorithms used by Google, Facebook and (to a lesser extent) Twitter actively discriminate against both prospective new entrants into the news market, as well as those that focus on topics, issues and stories beyond or on the fringes of the mainstream agenda. Yet these are precisely the kind of providers that need to be supported if we want to redress the symptoms of concentrated media power. In the post phone-hacking world, such symptoms continue to manifest in systematic ideological bias, as well as the enduring back door that links Whitehall to the Murdoch media empire.

As print newspapers start to fall by the wayside, news concentration online is of even greater concern. Policymakers, meanwhile, are distracted by dominant narratives that suggest the gatekeeping and agenda power once attributed to media owners has dispersed among ‘the crowd’, or transferred into the hands of intermediaries like Google and Facebook, or that the only plurality ‘problem’ today concerns the so-called filter bubble or echo chamber effects of personalised news.

There is truth in all of these claims but the unseen or overlooked reality is that the gatekeeping power of Google and Facebook works in tandem with that of mainstream news providers, mutually reinforcing each other around what is considered real, legitimate and authoritative news. As Des Freedman urges in his most recent book, “far from diminishing the importance of media moguls and tech giants, announcing the death of gatekeepers or lauding the autonomy of the public, we should be investigating the ways in which their power is being reconstituted inside a digital landscape”.

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Transparency, what transparency?

Justin SchlosbergThis post was written by Justin Schlosberg, Lecturer in journalism and media, in Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies.

In 2011, as the phone-hacking scandal unfolded, Prime Minister David Cameron pledged a new era of transparency in the government’s dealings with the media. All meetings between senior government and media figures were to be recorded and published on a quarterly basis and a major public inquiry was launched – partly with a focus on the relationship between press and politicians.

The Leveson hearings that followed cast an unprecedented spotlight on the intimacy of these relations complete with gossip, threats, family get-togethers and texts signed off with ‘lots of love’ and kisses. It had very little to do with the day-to-day interactions between politicians and journalists – both on and off the record – which are an intrinsic part of the political newsgathering process. It revealed instead something over and above those interactions – an exclusive club at the heart of the establishment that seemed to undermine the very fabric of British democracy, and underline the growing public mistrust of both politicians and the media.

Within this dynamic, Leveson was pre-occupied with the flow of influence from media owners to politicians. The founding premise of his inquiry was that press power was out of control, undermining the integrity of government, parliament and the police, whilst severely infringing on the privacy rights of individual citizens. Leveson’s detractors, on the other hand, perceived the gravest threat to democracy as operating in the other direction. It was creeping state control of the press – supposedly heralded by his reform proposals – which threatened to fatally undermine the independence of the fourth estate. In the intense debate that followed, a fundamental truth was obscured: media and political elites are not rivals but partners in a relationship that works ultimately to promote the shared interests of power. This was vividly demonstrated when Rebecca Brooks – former editor of the News of the World – told Leveson that the Prime Minister had sent her a consoling text during the height of the scandal, apologising for not being able to be more ‘loyal’ to her in public.

And as the spotlight began to fade, business as usual resumed – behind closed doors – and the hollow rhetoric of transparency was laid bare. For a start, it soon became clear from published data that the government had no intention of divulging any meaningful details about its meetings with media bosses. Whilst the nature and purpose of other external meetings are often specified, when it comes to newspaper editors or execs, we rarely get anything beyond ‘general discussion’.

Of course, this spectacle of transparency is nothing new. After taking office in 2010, Cameron renewed the commitment to openness that is typical of incoming governments, promising to pour light into the darkest corners of policymaking. In a nutshell: ministers would be ‘transparent about what [they] do and how [they] do it’ and ‘above improper influence’.

Less than one year later, then culture secretary Jeremy Hunt was at pains to reiterate this commitment in respect of News Corp’s aborted take-over of BSkyB. He stressed the unprecedented openness of the bid process both before and after he waived it through (only to then be withdrawn by News Corp amidst the fall-out from the phone hacking scandal). But the folly of Hunt’s assurances was exposed after he told Parliament in 2012 that he had no unofficial contact with News Corp lobbyist Fred Michel during the bid process. A series of texts disclosed shortly afterward suggested otherwise, with cringe-inducing awkwardness.

Perhaps not surprisingly in the wake of phone hacking, the Prime Minister appears to be steadily curtailing his personal contact with senior media figures, based on data released by the government for 2011-13. Interestingly though, Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood is more than picking up the slack, with ten recorded meetings with the media in 2012 and fourteen in 2013. In contrast, Jeremy Heywood’s predecessor Gus O’Donnell had just two meetings with the media in 2011, one of which was a ‘reception’ hosted by the Financial Times.  This raises the possibility that some of the business of media management by the government (or vice versa) is increasingly being conducted through the civil service, perhaps in an effort to remain under the radar. In any case, given that Leveson’s focus was elsewhere, the spike in contact between the Cabinet Secretary and the media warrants scrutiny.

The first thing to note is that like his ministerial colleagues, the Cabinet Secretary’s contact with the media is overwhelmingly concentrated in the national press: of the twenty four meetings in 2012-13, just three were with broadcasters (BBC and ITN). This could be because of a received wisdom in government that the national press remain leaders of the wider news agenda. Or it could be because newspaper editors and proprietors are more active than broadcasters in lobbying the government for influence and/or ‘scoops’. Or it could also be because the government is conscious of the broadcasters’ regulated impartiality, whereas newspapers may be seen as more malleable targets in agenda building strategies.

In any case, the imbalance illustrates how much newspapers still matter to Whitehall, for all the talk of their demise. But it is not just newspaper bosses in general who occupy a disproportionate amount of the Cabinet Secretary’s time. Again, in line with ministerial colleagues, a significant majority of the meetings were with representatives of the right wing press. Of the ten meetings Jeremy Heywood had with the media in 2012, seven were with the Times, Telegraph, Mail and Spectator, all openly aligned with the Conservative party; two were with non-partisan outlets (the Economist and ITN) and one with the left-leaning Guardian newspaper.

This may simply reflect the market dominance of the right-wing press in Britain. It is perhaps understandable that if the Cabinet Secretary is going to meet regularly with the press, he would want to prioritise those titles that have the biggest audience reach, regardless of their political colours. But it doesn’t explain why most of his meetings are with the elite press – broadsheets and periodicals – with very limited exposure compared to the mid-market and tabloid titles. Again, there are a number of plausible explanations here. It could be that mid-market and tabloid editors and executives aren’t very interested in talking to government bureaucrats. It could be because the ‘serious’ news sector is particularly valued in Whitehall for its opinion-leading reputation and its elite audience capture. Or it could just be because these titles have the capacity to cover political issues with greater depth and complexity than their lower brow competitors.

Whatever the reason, the opacity of these meetings appeared to take something of a sinister turn in 2013. After the Guardian began publishing details of mass surveillance by the security services in June 2012, revealed by NSA whistleblower Ed Snowden, the Cabinet Secretary unusually held two meetings in short succession at the Guardian’s offices. A Freedom of Information request for details of these and other meetings with the senior newspaper figures has recently been refused and is currently under review by the Information Commissioner. According to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger in an interview with the author, he was explicitly threatened with legal injunctions during his meetings with the Cabinet Secretary, unless he agreed to destroy hard drives of the leaked material. The only account we have from the government is the notes recorded in the meeting data. The first meeting was described simply as a ‘discussion about handling information’ whilst the follow-up apparently moved on to ‘discussion about international issues’.

In the end, the newspaper acceded to the government’s demands, confident that destruction of the hard drives would not curtail reporting. Copies of the material lodged with US publishing partners would apparently ensure the story’s endurance. Glen Greenwald, former lead journalist on the story for the Guardian and now with the Intercept, recently claimed that the biggest story relating to the leaks is yet to be published. But he made no mention of what or when, and we are left wondering whether the government’s actions had really been as futile as Rusbridger suggested.

Rusbridger himself opted initially not to make public the threatening nature of his meetings with the Cabinet Secretary, or indeed the unprecedented event that followed, with security service personnel entering the Guardian’s offices to oversee destruction of the offending hard drives. A month later the Guardian despatched David Miranda, Greenwald’s partner, to meet Laura Poitras (another Snowden confidante and co-architect of the story) in Germany, perhaps in an effort to get around the loss of direct access to the material.  According to Rusbridger, the rise in international travel was due to the necessity of face to face meetings as ‘we assumed everything was being at that point intercepted’.  But on his return to Brazil, Miranda was arrested and detained at Heathrow Airport under anti-terror laws, prompting Rusbridger to publicise the extraordinary lengths the government was going to in order to restrain the coverage.

But what about the other meetings that took place around the same time between the Cabinet Secretary and the national press? Apparently, the purpose, nature and outcome of these meetings are also exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act, partly in order to protect policymaking. But the use of this exemption (under Section 35 of the Act) raises more questions than it answers, perhaps the most obvious of which is what policy exactly do these meetings concern? In apparently typical fashion, the Cabinet Office made no attempt to explain why exemptions under Section 35 were engaged, or provide any detail as to the public interest test that is required under law.

It is fundamental to a functioning democracy that the media are seen to be free from undue influence or interference by the state and, conversely, that government and policymaking is free from undue influence or interference by the media. Over the last two years, these twin and sometimes conflicting concerns have become matters of acute public interest, fuelled by Leveson and Snowden alike. But the government’s refusal to disclose information about these meetings speaks to a wider problem. It exposes the gap between transparency rhetoric and substance which ensures that the real workings of power remain off limits to public scrutiny. It is a gap now so wide that official talk of transparency in media policymaking is tantamount to double-speak.

You can find links to the correspondence between the author and FOI authorities in the following places:

http://www.lse.ac.uk//media@lse/documents/MPP/First-Reply-to-FOI-request-on-Cabinet-meetings-with-media.pdf

http://www.lse.ac.uk//media@lse/alumni/documents/Appeal-on-FOI-319677—request-for-internal-review.pdf

http://www.lse.ac.uk//media@lse/documents/MPP/Response-to-appeal-on-FOI319677-for-Cabinet-meetings-with-Media.pdf

More blog posts by Justin Schlosberg:

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Used or abused? 10 serious issues raised by FoI requests

Dr Ben WorthyThis article was contributed by Dr Ben Worthy. It was originally published on The Conversation.

A Freedom of Information request lodged on a quiet news day by a journalist has revealed that more than 800 police officers in England and Wales have been investigated for breaching social media guidelines over the past five years.

Quite apart from showing us that the police, like many other public bodies, find it difficult to control what its members do on Twitter, the story raises the importance of the Freedom of Information Act, which comes under regular fire for, according to the prime minister, David Cameron: “furring up the arteries” of government.

The Local Government Association recently published a list of ten “silly” FoI requests. While not arguing that all such requests are like this, the implied point is that FoI is being “abused”.

This complaint mirrors the comments of Tony Blair in his memoirs:

The truth is that the FoI Act isn’t used, for the most part, by ‘the people’. It’s used by journalists. For political leaders, it’s like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick: ‘Hey, try this instead’ and handing them a mallet. The information is neither sought because the journalist is curious to know, nor given to bestow knowledge on ‘the people’. It’s used as a weapon.

It also fits with concerns from a stream of other ministers and officials that FoI stops records being created and hampers decision-making. It is likely to feed into the recent government announcement of a consultation on whether the act is, indeed, being abused.

Little is known about FoI requesters. The pattern appears to be broadly that a variety of people and groups use it for a whole variety of reasons. Most FoI requests go to local government, the largest user group (contrary to Blair’s claim) are the public and, high-profile cases aside, many use FoI for “micro-political” issues, such as dealing with a pothole or planning application.

As a response to the list, I’d like to offer my own list of ten serious issues revealed by FOI requests.

  1. Extraordinary rendition – the UK’s involvement was revealed by FoI requests from the All-Party Group.
  2. Details of the Universal Credit welfare reforms.
  3. The Libor banking scandal and knowledge of it.
  4. Lists of visitors to the prime ministerial residence at Chequers (and ministerial meetings and diaries now proactively released).
  5. The use (and, it turned out, abuse) of passes to parliament.
  6. Creation of the famous “Weapons of Mass Destruction” dossier.
  7. The monarch’s involvement in vetoing legislation.
  8. The results of local restaurant hygiene inspections that helped create http://www.scoresonthedoors.org.uk/.
  9. The salaries of senior academics and NHS officials.
  10. The planned closure of local libraries up and down the country.

Keeping them honest

Underneath these high-profile cases, our research found a steady stream of accountability stories over planning, car parking and many other issues – just see David Higgerson’s FOI Friday.

The act also helped create IPSA, which regulate MPs’ expenses, led to a change in the law so all members of the House of Lords pay tax in the UK and drove the regular publishing of local government salaries.

This not to say there aren’t “silly” requests, from dragons to zombie attacks (though “silly” is subjective as Jonathan Baines explains, many corruption scandals have been triggered by apparently pointless questions or the piecing together of small bits of information).

Nor is it to claim the act is not taken advantage of – in the UK, and even more in the US, FoI has led to heavy use by business – see this particularly controversial case in Scotland with Phillip Morris seeking access to details of a study of underage smoking.

Yet such requests represent only a minority of the estimated 253,000 requests per year (my own estimates based on the most recent figures for numbers of local government requests in 2010 (192,000) plus the number of requests to central government in 2013 (53,000). On the whole, research indicates that FoI is composed of all sorts of questions, on all sorts of topics, sent in by all sorts of people and groups.

It is this unpredictability that helps make it effective. One local politician told me: “you never know what you will get asked”. The presence of FoI, the possibility of a question, can make someone think twice and even deter them from corrupt or inappropriate behaviour.

There is also an issue of democratic principle. The right to information, championed by radicals such as the Levellers and Diggers centuries ago, means the right to ask questions (to misquote Orwell on liberty) that the powerful may not want you to ask.

It is a democratic right to ask and this may mean some silliness – just as voting may mean non-voting or “silly” voting. Like all parts of a democracy, it is messy and unpredictable and can occasionally go wrong. But in its messiness and unpredictability lies its power.

The Conversation

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Media coverage of the Iraq invasion

This post was contributed by Dr Tim Markham, Reader in Journalism and Media in the Department of Media and Cultural Studies.

The build-up to the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq has featured a lot of media coverage about media coverage. Dodgy dossiers and sexed-up briefing reports have been dusted off with something like affection, while the key players are wheeled out to reprise what have inevitably become hackneyed condemnations and rationalisations, former Prime Minister Tony Blair with that look of stark incredulity that has become his default countenance. There’s nothing unusual about any of this: journalists like to talk about journalism, and the added whiff of nostalgia makes this particular temptation irresistible. It’s true also of war reporting in the post-modern era, with British and American news reports often focussing explicitly on the PR tactics surrounding the toppling of a Saddam Hussein statue or George Bush’s Mission Accomplished jamboree. But there’s a broader problem here, one which I would describe as a kind of ironised distance between our elites and the public, with journalists hovering uncertainly in between.

Iraq didn’t break British politics. Disengagement has many origins, and this was just one of a series of fruitless attempts to find political meaning or even national identity through military intervention. But the prevalence of media management in both political decision-making and as a central preoccupation of journalists gives audiences an easy opt-out, enabling a reflex scepticism about foreign and domestic policy alike. David Cameron was never going to find his Falklands in Libya, not because we’re unsupportive as a nation of the uprisings of the Arab spring, but because any sense of investment in a political system that makes decisions about foreign intervention has been hollowed out.

The atrocities of Abu Ghraib, awful as they were, gave journalists a chance to atone for what is now widely acknowledged as a collective loss of nerve at the beginning of the war. Those images became a kind of functional evil, a way of ‘othering’, as we say in the trade, responsibility for all of the nihilism, politicking and casual dehumanisation that any war entails. But however many of us chanted “Not in my name” on a bleak afternoon in Hyde Park, Iraq was and remains our war. Susan Sontag put this well, describing the photographs depicting abuse of Iraqi prisoners as representative of what we condone, however implicitly, our governments doing: “Considered in this light,” she wrote shortly before her death, “the photographs are us”.

Much has been said about the need for journalists to report war responsibly and humanely, avoiding both the reduction of conflict to spectacle and the blanket victimisation or demonisation of those caught up in it. It would be helpful too if journalists could find a way of covering the politics surrounding military intervention that avoids the feedback loop of jostling egos, sanctimonious moralising and pious outrage.

But the generalised disavowal of political responsibility for what a nation does runs deeper than how it plays out in the news. If editorial responses to military intervention range narrowly from cheerleading to sulking, and with a sardonic knowingness now the chief marker of journalistic professionalism when it comes to foreign policy and domestic politics, then this is only symptomatic of a broader, festering culture of world-weary yet instinctive withdrawal.

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Building a Media Reform Coalition: Real change for real journalism

Justin Schlosberg, Lecturer in journalism and media, in Birkbeck’s Department of Media and Cultural Studies reflects on the forthcoming publication of the Leveson report.

As Leveson’s report into the ethics and standards of the press nears completion, the closure of ranks among the media against any form of real change is intensifying. What we are presented with is a pseudo-choice between self or statutory regulation. What we end up with will most likely be a reformed Press Complaints Commission (PCC) with some kind of notional statutory underpinning. But it will be decried as an open door to state intrusion not seen since the repeal of censorship and stamp duties.

A lack of accountability

In the midst of this fervour, it may be forgotten that Hackgate was first and foremost about institutional corruption of the gravest order between the media, police and politicians of all colours, which testimony to the inquiry has underlined. The result has been a media that is not adequately accountable and does not do its job of holding others to account adequately.

The press themselves have sought to emphasise that the problem facing Lord Leveson is solely to do with the behaviour and ethics of (some) journalists. Even within this narrow framework, there have been increasing complaints that his remit is too wide and not appropriate to the extent of the problem; that British journalism is, on the whole, a robust and vigorous defender of the public interest. Within this narrative, the Guardian in particular is hailed as the champion of a pluralised press that can deliver accountability of itself.

But a genuinely democratic and accountable media system cannot be upheld by one or two titles with relatively minor readerships. What’s more, these titles have failed comprehensively to promote public interest journalism in other areas. For instance, the Guardian’s disastrous handling of Cablegate in 2010 (the series of US diplomatic cables released in partnership with WikiLeaks) resulted in stories about Gadaffi’s mistresses gaining more prominence than those about the Government undermining the Iraq Inquiry to protect US interests, or misleading Parliament over the banning of cluster bombs.

The real problem for democracy is not so much that bad journalism gets published, but rather that good journalism often doesn’t.  Finding alternative ways to regulate press ethics will deal only with a marginal and surface symptom of a much broader disease that has seen the space for real, professional journalism in the public interest progressively diminish. It’s about decades of unchecked concentration of media power and a resurgence of press baronism; it’s about structural declines in circulation exacerbated by the migration of readers and advertisers online; and it’s about incessant closures and cutbacks to operational journalism across all platforms and sectors, but most acutely affecting those areas central to the media’s democratic role: investigative and local journalism.

The issue of press ownership

Consequently, Lord Leveson could only do justice to his original remit (which includes examination of broader issues to do with media plurality) by addressing the ownership and funding of news in conjunction with press ethics. Specifically, by introducing media ownership thresholds that trigger public interest obligations and/or divestment; and by recommending new ways to fund and support journalism that serves the public interest over profit. Crucially, he should not allow the ownership question to be side-lined because of technicalities. Media concentration is notoriously difficult to both measure and apply remedies to. But this is not a reason for abandoning policy altogether and there are certainly historical and contemporary precedents elsewhere on which to base a renewed approach to ownership regulation; one that takes into account the emergence of new oligopolists in the digital domain, whilst acknowledging the enduring capacity of legacy media to dominate public conversation.

It is precisely this capacity which has enabled the whole issue of ownership regulation to be marginalised from the debate. It has fostered a view of new rules as unrealistic or unfeasible which has found its way into the discourse of politicians and even campaigners who are nonetheless committed to substantive reform. The press has opted to engage these voices on its own terms, allowing editors to espouse a sense of libertarian defiance whilst continuing to dance to the strings of their owner-bosses.

It is unlikely that Lord Leveson will seize this opportunity to redress the balance and make a genuine difference to media plurality and freedom. And even if he did, it is even less likely that the government will act upon his recommendations with the prospect of a general election looming. It is telling that even those, like Peter Preston, who acknowledge the enduring fear of politicians to contravene the will of the press, at the same time emphatically demand that the press be left alone. Yet the fear of politicians – exemplified by Labour’s recent recoiling from earlier calls for ownership caps – should itself be a warning sign for Leveson.

Media regulation?

Politicians will not be able to counter the dominant narrative emerging from a closing of ranks among the press without a concerted mobilisation of grassroots pressure. An IPPR poll six months ago suggested that a sizeable majority of the public support both statutory regulation of the press, and limits on media ownership. Regardless of what Leveson recommends, now is the time to establish and expand a movement for change that gives voice to this silent majority.

There are perhaps few issues that provoke a broader spectrum of opinion than media regulation. Familiar lines between left and right become blurred and no one seems to agree on what is really meant by media plurality, freedom or the public interest.  In his calls for evidence in regards to media reform proposals, Leveson has unwittingly induced a focus on difference rather than core common principles.

But there is certainly a clear majority support among reformers for a new regulatory framework that has both statutory underpinning and representation from working journalists as opposed to just editors. Equally, there is a wide consensus that something needs to be done about the concentration of media ownership which has fostered the kind of awkward and insidious relationships between media and political elites so vividly exposed by the Leveson hearings.

A media reform coalition is seeking to build on these core principles and engage broad support for real change in favour of real journalism. It has emerged from a cross section of civil society and campaigning groups including Hacked Off, Avaaz, the National Union of Journalists, 38 Degrees and the Coordinating Committee for Media Reform. Together, these groups are mobilising for a public lobbying of Parliament on the 29 November – when the Leveson Report is expected to be published. It will demonstrate the cross-section of public support for reform that goes beyond a new name for the PCC, and for new laws that will promote a genuinely democratic and accountable media.

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