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

 

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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

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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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