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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.