We need to think bigger if we are to achieve the sort of media that the public want and need
We’re facing a crisis at the heart of our media system – in other words with the dominant players across our media environment – on many different levels: of funding, of ethics, of representation and of legitimacy. The crisis is related, in particular, to the increasingly unequal distribution of resources in our media landscape. This is a landscape characterised by the domination of attention, audiences and agendas by a relatively small number of very powerful companies – both online and offline – all of whom have close associations with the highest levels of our political system. I don’t for a moment think that these organisations work together as some kind of cohesive unit – indeed I have written extensively on the contradictions of media power and the fact that audiences and media organisations are not always in tune with each other and that what we call ‘the media’ refers to a variety of different cultures, routines and institutions – but nevertheless I do think that they share some systemic features that I want to outline.
There are many elements of the media crisis but I want to focus on just three. The first concerns a problem with trust. Now classical liberal theory tells us that our independent media ought to be crucial instruments for holding powerful bodies to account and for representing the views and experiences of ordinary people. They are, after all, supposed to be ‘the fourth estate’. Yet our trust in them remains low. The most recent Edelman Trust Report shows that under a third of the UK population trust the media as a whole. What’s interesting is that top earners trust the media far more than the poorest – 54% to 26% – presumably because the wealthy perceive that the media represents their interests more adequately than do the poorest.
It gets worse though: only 22 percent of the UK population trusts journalists to tell the truth in contrast to the 90 percent who trust doctors to tell the truth. This means that we have far more confidence in the ability of surgeons to operate on journalists than we do in journalists to report on doctors – which may tell you something about recent coverage of the junior doctors’ strike.
Some people will tell you that this is as it should be: if journalists are liked, then it means that they’re not asking the tough questions which ought to make them unpopular. But this seems to me to be the opposite of what’s happening. To the extent that we don’t trust our news media, it’s because we feel they are far too intertwined with the power they are supposed to be reporting on – that for every Leveson Inquiry, there are far more opportunities for Rupert Murdoch to pop into 10 Downing Street (as he did 10 times in the last year) or to pop next door to speak to the chancellor George Osborne just before the BBC licence fee deal (as he did twice); and that for every MPs’ expenses scandal, there are far more occasions when our news media amplify, or at least fail to challenge, a comfortable consensus around, for example, the legitimacy of airstrikes or Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged inadequacies or the need for austerity. To a degree that ought to be a matter of public concern, the media are institutions with and of power.
The second element of the crisis concerns the rapid growth of commercial media at the expense of public media. In other words the embedding of a market logic in communications and the weakening of both public institutions and public accountability – the consequences of which I have written about recently in openDemocracy.
The third feature of the crisis in media concerns the ‘evisceration’ of the meaning of key policy objectives by neoliberal actors. We can see this in particular in relation to debates concerning media pluralism and press freedom. Pluralism is the concept that’s used in Europe to denote the fact that we need to have a sufficient number of outlets that support a range of diverse voices. This is supposed to be a foundational principle that does two things: first, to provide citizens with a full range of information and, second, to break up undue concentrations of power. But recent policy debates have been dominated by a commitment to secure pluralism that sees it not in terms of the fair distribution of media power but as overwhelmingly related to the promotion of consumer choice: of maybe making the menu a little longer but not really looking at what is on the menu itself.
There is a similar evisceration of the meaning of press freedom whereby the ability of journalists to hold power to account through independent investigation and to secure their citizens’ right to know has been squeezed by a new determination to associate such liberties with the rights of corporations to speak as they wish. In the UK, there has for the last few years been a fierce – and thus far highly effective – backlash against government proposals for a new Royal Charter on press self-regulation led by newspaper proprietors claiming that they and their titles are the only guarantors of press freedom. This is despite the fact that it was their activities – the industrial scale phone hacking, the privileged access of proprietors to politicians, and the press’ refusal to tolerate a fully independent audit of its activities – that have so massively lowered the credibility of many news organisations in the public’s eyes.
So, what do we do about these problems: how do we restore public trust, curb the power of unaccountable groups to dominate media spaces and introduce more robust policy principles? Well this is where media reform comes in as we need to do three things: to be the media, know the media and change the media.
The first dimension of media reform acknowledges that if publics cannot rely on the most powerful existing instruments of media to adequately represent their lives as they are lived and to hold power to account, and if we have online environments which are all too often replicating the monopoly structures and commercial orientations of the analogue systems which they were supposed to have replaced, then we need to do something different: to make our own media, to tell our own stories and to highlight our own voices. This relates to the theory and practice of alternative media which draws on participatory accounts of democracy to produce media that better engage with and reflect the diversity of the population. Alternative news outlets, for example, aim to produce content that goes beyond what they see as the false objectivity of mainstream news while community media tend to avoid sensationalist and commercial formats with voices and methods that seek to be more democratic and to talk in the language and register of their audiences.
The second response to the problems we face is to better understand the content, practices and structures of established media structures. This, of course, is at the heart of the field of media studies – a discipline that has long been dismissed as a ‘Mickey Mouse’ subject filled with ‘sub-Marxist gobbledegook.’ By encouraging critical readings of popular texts and institutions, media academics aim to grasp the complex dynamics of these hugely important structures except that we are then accused of glorifying the trivial, the temporary and the talentless.
But we’re also told the opposite: that we – media academics – are glorifying something much worse. Social services in one London borough recently produced a leaflet aimed at combating signs of radicalisation arguing that “showing a mistrust of mainstream media reports” could be evidence that children are being groomed by extremists. The only radicalisation strategy that interests me in my work is one that relates to cultivating the ability of students to think independently and critically and not to take for granted the symbolic mechanisms that attempt to render certain stories natural and familiar: for example that men are natural ‘experts’ given their systematic over-representation in appearances on broadcast news or that benefits claimants are ‘scroungers’ as we have seen in a whole slew of ‘poverty porn’ programmes.
Yet, as valuable as alternative media and critical knowledge surely are, I would nevertheless claim that they are insufficient without a strategy for radical change. Why? Firstly, there is a risk in equating ‘being’ the media with ‘freeing’ the media. In particular, the emphasis on alternative communication networks and horizontal forms of organisation has led to a failure to confront in any meaningful sense those concentrations of media power with huge symbolic influence and institutional resilience. Todd Wolfson’s fantastic study of what he describes as the ‘Cyber Left’ – networks of individuals involved in Indymedia Centres and the Occupy movement – is particularly instructive here. While welcoming their energy and their contribution to cycles of protest, he argues that the ‘Cyber Left’ were ultimately unsuccessful due to a number of shortcomings including a failure to consider capitalism at the systemic level, a tendency to prioritise technology over social relationships; an underlying resistance to all forms of hierarchy and leadership that weakened their capacity for effective action; and finally a failure to involve and mobilise all individuals irrespective of their backgrounds and networks.
Second, even the most sophisticated understanding of the cultural, political, economic or philosophical dynamics of media institutions and practices doesn’t provide any kind of guaranteed challenge to the existing order of things unless it is complemented by and feeds into a wider political strategy of active opposition. We need therefore creativity, knowledge and activism if we are to produce different and more accountable forms of representation through our media.
For that reason, together with colleagues from the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, I helped found the Media Reform Coalition following the phone hacking crisis in 2011. Since then, and in conjunction with a variety of other groups, we have been campaigning against abuses of media power and for changes to media ownership rules both to check the power of the largest groups and to give marginalised voices better representation and funding.
More than ever, we need to adopt fresh policy frames and new strategies that are more concerned with principles like equality, social justice and above all a redistribution of media. That doesn’t mean we need to junk everything in our regulatory toolkit but we do need to ask tough questions about what will work in an era of concentrated private and state power. To what extent does industry self-regulation that depends on large organisations monitoring their own behaviour adequately protect the public interest? To what extent can ministerial or parliamentary oversight be relied upon when political and media elites are increasingly intertwined? To what extent can competition law protect public services in such a heavily commercialised political and policymaking environment?
The key debate is about how we get reform and what kind of reform we want. Joe Karaganis helpfully distinguishes between two ‘geographies of activism’ in relation to media reform. On the one hand, you have a more civil and polite ‘consumer-rights-based model of policy advocacy’ encapsulated in mainstream media reform strategies and underpinned by ‘liberal’ political values. This would include an emphasis on producing parliamentary submissions, on quiet lobbying, on appealing to the best interests of policymakers and ministers. On the other hand, you have more militant demands for communicative justice that emerge from movements that are particularly concerned with questions of accountability, representation and voice in the media.
For many social movement activists, the first type of liberal media reform – which you might describe as ‘reform from above’ – is seen as potentially counter-productive in that activists are likely to be incorporated into official channels and persuaded to tailor their demands to meet the values and demands of vested interests. For seasoned media campaigners who focus exclusively on parliament, however, cross-party approaches and pragmatic demands are the only likely guarantees of success when faced with very difficult circumstances. For them, ‘reform from below’ risks alienating the very people who they argue have the power to bring about change.
How do you address this tension between so- called ‘modest’ reform demands and a more deep-rooted programme of transformation, a tension that lies at the heart of many demands for change?
It isn’t a matter of just finding the right individuals or changing the minds of a top civil servant. Flaws in media content and governance aren’t due to the failures of individual journalists, programme-makers and politicians but are a reflection of the highly unequal environments in which media content is produced, distributed and consumed. This is a structural and not an individual problem – this is a problem to do with sustained inequalities that are endemic to capitalism. This means that we need to create sufficient pressure such that those individuals who do have the power to make the change will find it difficult to ignore our demands. There is, after all, a world of difference between a campaign which confines itself to parliamentary spaces and calls on a handful of the ‘great and the good’ to plead its case and one which seeks to mobilise greater numbers of people using all the resources at its disposal.
So if we are committed to efforts to transform media systems by campaigning, for example, to diversify media ownership, to introduce new forms of funding for marginalised content, to oppose surveillance, and to press for more ethical forms of journalism, then we must think beyond those policy measures currently on the agenda. Instead, we should investigate the efficacy of measures such as introducing levies on the profits of the largest digital intermediaries and telecoms groups that can be allocated via independent decision making bodies to new voices or to groups who have previously been unable to secure adequate finance in the media marketplace. We might want to impose public interest obligations on our largest media organisations, such as independent editorial boards to curb the power of proprietors and to introduce conscience clauses to protect journalists from unethical demands from their editors. Indeed, we might think about how best to institute some sort of democracy in the selection of editors and senior executives. We might also want to investigate ways to deal with the corrupting influence of advertising on editorial content as was demonstrated by Peter Oborne’s resignation as chief political commentator of the Daily Telegraph in protest as the title’s lack of coverage of the HSBC banking scandal.
Media reform needs to be embedded in social movements. Media reform activists should work with anti-austerity groups if we’re to address the very narrow consensus in economic coverage; with minority communities if we’re to seek better representation of all the voices in this country; and with media unions if we’re to press for more safeguards for journalists in the face of bullying editors. Joe Karaganis is right to point out that “systemic change requires a social movement capable of linking policy agendas with grassroots activism”. This isn’t impossible. We have seen vibrant movements for media democracy in recent years in places like Mexico City, Istanbul and Athens in recent years where publics have mobilised against corrupt officials and unaccountable media moguls and called for meaningful reform of the media. The struggle to change our media has to be seen as part of broader campaigns for social justice.
*Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of ‘The Contradictions of Media Power’ (2014) and co-author (with James Curran and Natalie Fenton) of ‘Misunderstanding the Internet’ (2nd edition, 2016).
**This is an edited extract from Des Freedman’s inaugural lecture at Goldsmiths, University of London on 19 January 2016