Today is the first public meeting of the newly-established campaign group the Co-ordinating Committee for Media Reform and the publication of recommendations designed to shrink the power of media moguls and promote much-needed ethical behaviour across the news media.
The Committee's proposals focus on measures to encourage a notion of press freedom that involves accurate, responsible and fearless journalism as opposed to its current use by some proprietors who see it as simply a bulwark against any form of regulation. So there are calls for a statutory right to reply and a new News Publishing Commission, backed up by an Ombudsman and composed of members of the public, ordinary working journalists and editors to replace the toothless and industry-dominated Press Complaints Commission.
There are also proposals for more robust systems of transparency governing the interaction between the news media and their sources, stronger cross-ownership rules and clear upper ceilings on the share across media markets, and the introduction of levies on the turnover of profitable communications companies to help sustain both new and existing public-service oriented news projects.
Why is all this needed?
In 2006, the World Values Survey found that well over 50 per cent of those polled in the UK indicated that they had ‘little confidence’ in the press while a further 30 per cent claimed to have ‘no confidence at all’ in the press. An Ipsos/MRBI survey in 2010 found that a mere 22 per cent of people said that they generally trusted journalists to tell the truth, rather a problem in a profession which has long aspired to ‘speak truth to power’.
The phone hacking scandal has further damaged the reputation of the news media and is the result both of the failure of British news publishing to implement its own rules as well as structural flaws associated with the current regulation and ownership of the UK media. As with many other areas of endeavour where risk-taking is endemic, regulatory frameworks are required that enable and foster a greater sense of public responsibility while, at the same time, ensuring that no action is taken that cuts across the essential freedom of journalists to investigate wrong-doing.
We can all speculate about whether James Murdoch was indeed aware of the full scale of the endemic phone hacking and surveillance operations run by News International or whether he had more important things on his mind. And we can all amuse ourselves with the idea that Mafia syndicates responded to Murdoch’s appearance at the Media Select Committee by issuing ‘strenuous denials of an allegation by Tom Watson MP that they operate like News International.’
The key question, however, is whether the problem of illegal behaviour, unethical journalism and undemocratic media structures is related to one single maverick organisation or whether it is symptomatic of a far greater problem with the British media.
For example, according to Index on Censorship chief executive John Kampfner, the scandal is ‘mainly about one media organisation. News International [that has] accrued such power that it believed it had impunity to act as it pleased.’ So where does this leave the Daily Mail, whose agenda-setting power in relation to issues of the EU, immigration and equality (to name but a few) has proved to be so powerful? Or the Daily Express, whose owner Richard Desmond has simply pulled his titles out of the PCC?
Kampfner is absolutely right to insist that any recommendations that come out of the Leveson Inquiry need to be aimed at tackling corporate power and not restricting the ability of journalists to do precisely this. But he is wrong to equate what he describes as a ‘raucous’ media in this country with one that is adequately serving its citizens. Fewer journalists are increasingly faced with more deadlines across more platforms with fewer resources—precisely the result of the corporate values that Kampfner wishes to see shackled.
A media system dominated by a few, powerful voices and a news media run increasingly to secure financial reward or political influence has failed us when we needed it most: to warn us about the consequences of a war in Iraq, to alert us to the endemic insecurity of the financial system and indeed, with a few honourable exceptions, to acknowledge the complicity at the highest levels between politicians, police and media executives. A system that amplifies alternative sources and new perspectives, fosters more public involvement and holds unacceptable journalistic practices to account is the least we deserve.
Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), Vice-President of Goldsmiths UCU and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.
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