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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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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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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