Murdoch’s access to British prime minister shows media power still in hands of the few

This article was written by Dr Justin Schlosberg from Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies and Professor Des Freedman from Goldsmiths, University of London. It was originally published on The Conversation

In 1996, when the web was in its infancy, the American technology writer Nicholas Negroponte predicted that the coming digital revolution would facilitate a “cottage industry of information and entertainment providers”. Twenty years on and the story of “fake news”, which had wide currency during the US election, and was found emanating from basements, cafes and computer labs in the small Macedonian city of Veles would appear to prove Negroponte correct.

Except that we are living in an era when vast sections of our media, both “old” and “new”, are controlled by a tiny number of giant corporations, most of which dominate their particular sectors and face minimal competition.

Take the local news sector which only recently argued that an arbitration system as proposed by Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act would undermine plucky community-based titles and weaken local democracy. The problem is that five conglomerates account for 80% of all local newspaper titles while the remaining 58 publishers account for just 20% of titles.

Or take the UK’s supposedly competitive national newspaper market where five companies – largely presided over by tax exiles and media moguls – control 90% of daily circulation. If you take online readership into account, which bumps the Guardian up the rankings, then six companies fall into this category.

The situation is even more dire when it comes to the increasingly profitable digital world. Yes, it’s possible to argue that there is a cottage industry of, for example, app and video game developers. But distribution – the means by which content actually becomes available to consumers – is subject to serious bottlenecks because of the grip exerted by dominant companies.

So while there may be thousands of digital start-ups, they have to face the fact that Apple and Spotify alone account for 63% of the global streaming market and that Facebook is fast becoming the most popular digital platform for news. Meanwhile Google has some 90% of global desktop search and Google and Facebook together account for around two-thirds of all digital advertising in the US. According to the Financial Times, 85 cents of every dollar spent on digital advertising in America went to those two companies in the first quarter of last year – evidence of “a concentration of market power in two companies that not only own the playing field but are able to set the rules of the game as well”.

Setting the agenda

One of the great misconceptions, however, is that the bewildering market power wielded by the likes of Google and Facebook has come at the expense of the mainstream press and broadcasters. Established, reputable, professional news organisations and the “real news” that they produce, are apparently losing the ever evolving struggle for eyeballs.

It is a misconception because it conflates decline in the traditional market for news with a weakening of gate-keeping and the influence of editorial agendas. Although commercialism and agenda have always been closely intertwined, they have never been the same thing. Ironically, the power vacuum left by evaporating profits and retreating corporate investors in news publishers has put many newsrooms back in the hands of extremely wealthy individuals, from local oligarchs in Eastern Europe like Lajos Simicska in Hungary to dot.com billionaires such as Jeff Bezos.

Mainstream press dominated by six big companies who control 85% of uk circulation. Lenscap Photography

The missing piece of the puzzle is the complex ways in which Google, Facebook and Twitter are, if anything, reinforcing the agenda-setting power of the mainstream news brands. Google’s news algorithm, for instance, gives priority weighting to news providers with scale, volume and those who cover topics that are widely covered elsewhere.

The problem with fakery is not so much the cottage news industry, but dominant algorithms and ideologically polarised audiences that are supposedly enabling it to flourish. It is, after all, nothing new: the tabloid press will certainly not be remembered for being champions of truth-telling. The problem is more to do with the failure of those very news brands that Google considers “reliable sources” to offer a meaningful corrective to fakery – and, worse, their tendency to amplify it.

trump

As for the post-truth politics of Trump, it wasn’t his provocative and offensive “tweets” that enabled him to burst on to the mainstream political scene, but the way in which mainstream news networks were, from the outset, hanging on his every word. The more offensive, provocative, outlandish the comment – the bigger the lie – the more newsworthy it became. Twitter gave him a platform, but mainstream news provided the microphone, and it is amplification – the ability to be heard – that is the major currency of agenda power.

Media elite

We are, therefore, witnessing not the demise of concentrated “voice”, but its resurgence in more subtle ways.

murdoch

What can be done about this? We can hardly rely on our elected governments when they seem more comfortable to bow down to digital giants and media barons than to challenge them. For example, the latest research carried out by the Media Reform Coalition and the campaign group 38 Degrees shows that there has been an increase in the number of private meetings between representatives of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and government ministers ahead of Murdoch’s bid to take full control of Sky, the UK’s largest broadcaster.

In September 2016 alone, News Corp’s chief executive, Robert Thompson, had back-to-back meetings with the prime minister, Theresa May, the chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Hammond, and the culture secretary, Karen Bradley. May even found time to meet with Murdoch that month during a one night trip to New York.

The major problem facing our democracy isn’t the subterranean digital activities of Macedonian teenagers corrupting a supposedly pure news environment. Instead, it’s the fact that we have a media culture that is dominated by billionaire proprietors and elite insiders and a political culture that is too fearful of this media power ever to challenge it. “Fake news” may be grabbing the headlines but we shouldn’t forget about the concentrated market power that has allowed it to thrive.The Conversation

 

. Reply . Category: Arts . Tags: , , ,

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.

Find out more

. Reply . Category: Arts, Uncategorized . Tags: , , ,

National Living Wage: From Classroom to Newsroom

How teaching from a Birkbeck BSc Economics module ended up in the FT

mouse and ftOn 1 April, 2016 The Financial Times reported the results of a survey of UK economists on whether the government’s new national living wage would do Britain “more harm than good” (against) or “more good than harm” (for).

Professor Stephen Wright, of Birkbeck’s Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics, was one of four UK economists whose views were quoted at some length in the article. He has since published his comments in full on his personal web page.

“It was good timing” said Professor Wright. “When I got the email from the FT, a few weeks back, it was the day after I’d delivered a lecture on exactly this topic, so I had all the material to hand”.

The lecture Professor Wright had just given was for the module, “Current Economic Problems”, given to 1st year undergraduates on Birkbeck’s new BSc Economics programme, which admitted its first students in 2015/16. Students receive a lecture on a particular economic problem one week, and then, the following week, are required to give a presentation on some aspect of the problem, speaking on one side of a debate.

As well as helping to improve students’ communications skills, the module is also intended to show students that the economics they learn from textbooks and in lectures can be applied to practical problems faced by policymakers. Other topics covered in the module this year include immigration, “Nudge”, inequality and the gender pay gap – but topics will change every year depending on what is in the news.

Prof. Wright concluded that, on balance, the national living wage could prove harmful – but with the caveat “that the harm may well be as much from muddying the water as from the actual economic damage done.”

Predicting the impact

Working under the premise that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, believes the corporate sector (or more precisely, the low wage corporate sector) should share some of the burden of mitigating poverty, Prof. Wright concluded that basic economic analysis suggests it unlikely to work as advertised: that“…ultimately consumers of goods and services produced by the low wage economy will pay.”

He argued that the most optimistic perspective you can put on this outcome is that such consumers are possibly less likely to come from the lower end of the income distribution, thus if there was zero impact on employment in the low wage sector, the policy would be mildly redistributive. However, if unemployment in the low wage/low productivity sector increases, this effect would be offset.

Acknowledging that the evidence for adverse employment effects of minimum wages is “pretty muddy”, Prof. Wright goes on to explain that, on the basis of standard textbook models, the extent of any employment losses in the low wage sectors will depend on the elasticity of demand for their goods and services. Indirectly the evidence seems to be quite strong that in the long term these effects can be quite large (viz, for example, the steady fall in the number of pubs in the UK, as drinking in pubs becomes progressively more expensive relative to competing activities).

“If the existing low wage sector contracts it is not clear where those working in it (who typically have low productivity and skills to match their low wages) will go to work instead. But just as important I believe, is that these policies muddy the water. Wages are a very blunt instrument to tackle poverty.”

Case study: The London Living Wage

To demonstrate this, Prof. Wright cites the Greater London Authority (GLA)’s calculations of the London Living Wage (“A Fairer London: The 2015 Living Wage in London”). When the GLA calculated living wages ‘bottom-up’ by looking at the consumption needs of different household types, they got very different answers for different households. Indeed, the small print of the GLA calculations show that, given the current system of benefits, their calculated living wage for a family of two working parents is actually below the current minimum wage.

Drawing from this, the FT quoted Prof. Wright’s key conclusion, that “…a single Living Wage, built up from consumption needs, is not a logical construct: if it had any basis at all it should be a set of living wages, for different household types (but with the bizarre implication that, in the current benefit regime, having children would result in a reduction in the relevant Living Wage).”

“My personal view is that poverty reduction for those in work can be, should be, and already is carried out by government benefit policies. The tax credit system was one of the great unacknowledged success stories of Gordon Brown, and I’m pretty sure that it has been the primary factor behind our sustained low unemployment rate, and the resilience of employment during the recession. It seems a shame to start to throw this away just as it has really proved its value.”

Birkbeck is known to provide the highest quality teaching, which can be applied to the workplace. For BSc Economics students on this occasion, what Prof. Stephen Wright was teaching them went from their classroom to a highly respected media publication.

All enrolled students in the School of Business, Economics and Informatics at Birkbeck, University of London can subscribe to FT.com for free through the Birkbeck e-Library.

Further Links:

. Reply . Category: Business Economics and Informatics, Uncategorized . Tags: , , , ,

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”.

Find out more

. Reply . Category: Arts, Uncategorized . Tags: , ,

Why Rupert Murdoch’s plan to rule the media world still needs newspapers more than TV

Justin SchlosbergThis post was written by Justin Schlosberg, Lecturer in journalism and media, in Birkbeck’s Department of Media and Cultural Studies. It was originally published on The Conversation.

Rupert Murdoch’s latest bid for empire expansion has fallen on deaf ears. His offer to buy Time Warner for US$80 billion was resoundingly rejected by the owners of CNN, HBO and Warner Brothers. But despite the setback, Murdoch’s apparent willingness to sell off CNN to satisfy regulators (should a bid be accepted by Time Warner) reveals something significant about how he values news assets. It is reminiscent of a similar undertaking he made in respect of Sky News, before the phone hacking scandal got in the way of his plans to gobble up BSkyB.

The curious question is this: why is Murdoch seemingly so willing to do away with broadcast news channels that are both profitable and growing, yet so insistent on holding on to his newspaper assets dogged by scandals such as phone hacking or the collapse of the Tulisa Contostavlos drug trial and showing no signs of turning the tide of structural decline? Clearly, this is not a commercially-motivated decision. It’s more likely something to do with the perceived political leverage that newspapers continue to wield, in spite of dwindling advertising revenues.

This much became abundantly clear at the Leveson hearings when even the former UK prime minister, Tony Blair – who, like his predecessor Margaret Thatcher, managed to avoid ever falling out with Murdoch – acknowledged that “certain of the newspapers are used by their owners/editors as instruments of political power, in which the boundary between news and comment is deliberately blurred”.

But it’s not just about Murdoch, and it’s not just about the tabloids. The Russian billionaire owner of the Independent and Evening Standard wrote the following tweet after giving testimony to Leveson:

Unlike his British peers, Evgeny Lebedev is evidently less coy about the nexus of corruption that exists between the press and politicians.

Yet in their submission to the Lords inquiry into media plurality earlier this year, News Corp noted that “the significant proliferation of direct channels of communication for information, consumers are exposed to an increasing variety of [news] sources”. Indeed, newspaper owners have long argued that they neither seek nor possess political influence through their titles. They regularly commission research by marketing consultants to “demonstrate” that media plurality is vibrant and ever more so, and the days of press baronism are a thing of the distant analogue past. Both the Murdochs and Daily Mail owner Viscount Rothermere were at pains to stress to Leveson that they considered editorial independence to be “good for business”.

Amid this rhetorical trickery, digital disruption is hailed as at once the biggest threat to the commercial news industry and the greatest saviour of media plurality. It is a kind of double speak that political spin doctors would admire and is being used to argue against tighter regulatory scrutiny of media ownership.

But in reality of course, newspapers do still wield immense power. Most national titles are reaching greater audiences than ever before courtesy of their online editions. Digital intermediaries like Google may have attracted advertisers away from newspapers, but they are not competitors when it comes to the news agenda. Rather, newspapers have become dependent on search and social media as drivers of traffic to their websites.

Measuring actual influence – rather than traffic numbers – is a very difficult thing to do in practice. Decades of audience research has consistently found media influence to be uncertain and variable. But we do know enough to know that the extent of media power cannot be ascertained from the rather shallow survey data cited by commercial media lobbyists. They tend to infer, for instance, declining influence from the proliferation of news sources. But survey respondents might cite Google as a news source even though they are actually consuming content provided by established media brands that appear as snippets on Google’s listings. Nor can such data account for subtle distinctions in the ways in which people consume news which can have far reaching consequences for the extent of influence. I might get my news first from social media but only form my views once I read about it in the Daily Mail or on the BBC. Does that mean that my diversified consumption reflects a waning of traditional media influence?

Ofcom’s own data shows that news consumption online is heavily concentrated around dominant media groups. Moreover, we know from Leveson that there is a strong perception among political actors that newspapers do still matter and continue to have, in the words of Tony Blair, “a very deep penetration” among the British public. It is simply not sufficient for newspaper groups to argue against fixed ownership limits on the basis that politicians’ estimation of media influence may not tally with their own. The damage to plurality and democracy is caused by the perception itself which is directly related to size and clearly exploited by media proprietors.

I am not suggesting that ownership limits should be imposed simply because politicians “think” that media owners have too much power. The problem is concentration itself which gives rise to the kind of endemic institutional corruption between media and political elites disclosed at the Leveson hearings. My point about perception is simply that concentrated media power can be a problem for democracy in facilitating influence over politicians, somewhat independently of influence over audiences.

The bottom line is this: there is a reason why owners of smaller media groups do not – like Murdoch – get regular invites for tea at number 10 (and leave by the back door), or – like Rothermere – get to spend “private” weekends with the prime minister at Chequers as he did last year.

The reality is that whether or not consumption or exposure diversity is improving or getting worse (and we can cherry pick data to argue the case either way), size matters in respect of media power. If we are to place any value on democratic health as opposed to just competitive health of media markets, then we need real plurality reform to address the real and existing accumulations of that power.

The Conversation

. Reply . Category: Arts . Tags: , , , , ,

The British jihadis in Syria might be driven by more than just religion

joanna_bourke_portrait

This article was written by Professor Joanna Bourke from Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. It was originally published on The Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’.

Reyaad Khan and Nasser Muthana sound like typical British young men. They are educated, mad about sport, and were raised in a loving family in Cardiff. When, a few days ago, they were seen in an Isis film urging British Muslims to join insurgents in Syria and Iraq, the shock was palpable. How could this have happened? Are their actions symptomatic of religious fundamentalism? Or are they simply an extreme form of youthful angst? After all, one had told his mother before disappearing that he was going to a friend’s house to revise for a maths examination.

For some commentators, these young men represent a crisis unique to British Muslims and are a justification for a further extension of surveillance of Muslim communities. Religious radicalism in the UK and throughout the world is a serious problem, but blaming religion alone takes us only so far. The problem is much wider. It includes the glamorising of violence: a fascination with armed conflict permeates male sub-cultures, crossing religious, ethnic, and class boundaries, while remaining very rooted in masculinity.

At the most general level, there is a quaint assumption in Britain that we are a peaceable people, engaging in armed conflicts half-heartedly and only when threatened by aggressors. Our role as perpetrators of violence is often overlooked. There is still considerable reluctance to acknowledge the atrocities committed during the age of empire. There is a similar reluctance to admit the role British policies have played in creating the political and economic environment that has helped foster terrorism in the Middle East.

But the problem is more complex. The glamorising of violence and military culture has effects beyond any particular group. It is not unique to young Muslim men – or, indeed, young men in Cardiff – to be excited by the prospect of combat. War is often seen as a rite of passage for young men – finally able to prove themselves as adults, not only to their parents but also to their peers. In all armed conflicts, men are heard boasting about the exhilaration of fighting, often neglecting to acknowledge their fears of dying.

This attitude is bolstered by war films, one of the most popular genres. Indeed, for many, war isn’t hell; it’s entertainment. Some of the most popular computer games are based on conflicts in the Middle East. They depict the thrills of battle taking place in “exotic” environments replete with scimitars, camels, caliphs, djinns, deserts, belly dancers, minarets, bazaars, and harems. Games such as Call of Duty and Medal of Honor typically cast “insurgents” as faceless, scruffy fighters, in contrast to the clean-shaven, uniformed “good guys” who are fond of cracking jokes and have a strong sense of loyalty to their comrades. Depictions of both “us” and “them” generate a sense of shared excitement and mission. War-play is seen as such an important recruiter for armed groups that Hezbollah has developed its own games, Special Force and Special Force 2, to provide an alternative fighting perspective.

The language used in public to discuss war has become extraordinarily distorted – and not only among radicalised communities. Combat is routinely described in the media as though it were a form of sport: combatants are “silent hunters” or “duellists”; they “score a try”. Making a kill is a “good shot placement”. Enemy combatants are described as having “received” a bullet. Last year, when the British army introduced a new combat sidearm, the Glock 17, which replaced the long-standing Browning Hi-Power pistol, the weapon was described without any sense of irony, as a “lifesaver”. The people that Glock 17s would maim and kill did not truly possess “lives”.

All this is not to discount the importance of cultural alienation and religion in the decisions of Khan and Muthana to join Isis. Clearly, faith and ideology are important. It is to point out, however, that they have been influenced by wider cultural forces that valorise militarism. These effects should be discussed alongside other contributing factors.

. Reply . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

. Reply . Category: Arts . Tags: , , , , ,

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.

. Reply . Category: Arts . Tags: , , , , , , , ,