What the Sky Decision Tells Us About Media Reform By Dan Hind

7 March 2011 — Return of the Public

To form itself the public has to break existing political forms. — John Dewey

The culture secretary Jeremy Hunt last week decided to allow News Corporation’s takeover of BSkyB. Once Murdoch agreed not seek outright ownership of Sky News Hunt was happy for him to buy out the other shareholders. The company is now Murdoch’s for the buying.

This has upset those who are concerned about the growing concentration of media power. As the US government once noted ‘communications is not just a business … the mass media transmit and help establish the country’s shared values’. Given that another satrapy in the Murdoch Empire, the News of the World, has been engaged in the large-scale criminal surveillance of elected politicians, the prospects for the nation’s shared values don’t look too bright.

But the purchase by Murdoch of the shares in Sky currently owned by Pearson and others won’t mean that a viable media system will become the plaything of unaccountable interests. The media system won’t suddenly turn into a conduit for commercial propaganda, an instrument of state manipulation. It won’t become a fatally unreliable source of information about the constitution of society and the operations of the economy. It is all these things already.

The broadcast and print media have amply shown that, when they are faced with determined and powerful lobby groups, they cannot provide the bulk of the population with a tolerably accurate account of the world.

When the US-UK state wanted to invade Iraq newspaper editors and television broadcasters for the most part repeated their claims in such a way that those who trusted them were profoundly misled. There were, it is always worth remembering, no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. When the financial sector, with the help of paid-for experts in academia and the political establishment, set out to convince voters that deregulation was safe and beneficial, they told any number of tall tales about the wisdom and intelligence of central bankers, and about the essentially democratic nature of markets. The media for the most part printed the legend. The credit bubble inflated against a background of advertorial hysteria.

Now the major political parties tell us that there is no alternative to steep cuts in public expenditure and further concessions to the same interests who benefited most from the boom. The media for the most part goes along with this economically illiterate nonsense. There is better analysis on the placards of protesters in Madison than on the pages of the New York Times. The UK Uncut movement has done more to publicise the political economy of offshore than the supposedly adversarial and professional newspapers have managed in decades.

Direct action has begun to break into the consensual deficiencies of the mainstream – the cat’s cradle of things that the public are supposed to be bored by, the topics that the responsible powers do not wish to see mentioned, the taut bonds of institutional and personal self-interest. The human body in the right place is itself a kind of communication, one more likely than the mass media to help establish a nation’s shared values, as we have seen in Egypt recently. Those who want information to be free are learning that their project challenges the prerogatives of those who take pleasure and status from deciding what the public should and shouldn’t know.

It is against this background – of recurrent and serious failures by the major media,, and of increasingly serious challenges to their control of the field of publicity – that we should consider Murdoch’s most recent victory. The opportunities News International now has to cross-promote its properties will enhance its market power and Murdoch might even have found a way to subsidise his large and politically significant investigative operations in Wapping. This is by no means welcome. But the media is already, and demonstrably, captive to a handful of unaccountable interests. The Sky takeover accentuates something that is perfectly obvious to anyone who thinks about it for a second.

The media system is broken and needs to be reformed, in Britain as much as in the United States. It is all very well to oppose efforts to weaken the BBC and to campaign against Murdoch’s further expansion. But these efforts will fail as long as they ignore the glaring problems with what is being defended.

Most people don’t care about Murdoch’s power, about the restrictions being placed on BBC, or about the dangers of concentration of ownership. A media industry dominated by twenty opaque and self-interested institutions is probably better than one dominated by five. But both are going to be unsafe when it comes to matters that touch on the vital concerns of these opaque and self-interested institutions. The general population will start to care about the media if they can see the way towards an information system that protects them from over-mighty corporations or the machinations of a state hell-bent on war.

I describe the outlines of one such system in my book, The Return of the Public. In it I show how the state and its allies in the corporate sector have dominated the creation of public opinion. We have been left unable to secure the information we need if we are to exercise meaningful control over the circumstances in which we live. And this control over the content of what is stated publicly for the most part goes unmentioned. We do not know what we need to know – and everything possible is done to make us forget or ignore our ignorance.

As I remedy I propose that we take direct control over the investigative agenda and that we secure for participatory and democratic institutions the power to change the sum of things that are widely known. We need to test claims that currently pass unchallenged and we need to drag different facts into the light of general awareness. The proposals I make go by the name of public commissioning and together they seek to make universally available the powers and privileges currently available to a handful of producers and commissioning editors – all of them captive to the corporate interests of large institutions.

It is by no means the only model of media reform on offer. But whatever we advocate must amount to more than support for an unacceptable status quo. A campaign of media reform that stands some chance of securing public support – a campaign that stands some chance of succeeding – will not serve the interests of the any of the institutions and individuals that currently dominate news provision and the more general field of publicity. Newspapers and broadcasters compete fiercely for audiences and the revenues and legitimacy they represent. But they are united in the view that these audiences should not exercise meaningful control over the information environment in which they must make their lives.

If we want to protect the BBC from the depredations of the Coalition, or stop News International from securing a de facto monopoly on commercial broadcasting, then we must demand democratic reform the media. Commercial competition and public service values at the BBC have not been sufficient to deliver the timely and accurate information we need if we are to achieve the condition of citizenship. This must be our goal.

We have the means to build a movement now. We don’t need the say-so of the existing media to publicise the structural problems they have no interest in discussing. And media reform is the key reform that will allow the public to break the existing political forms. That is why it is so little discussed. So, enough of being patient and polite. Attempts to protect a system that does not work as advertised will not do. Media reform is about more than stopping Murdoch or saving the BBC. Democratic control of the media is the one thing the established powers really don’t want us to demand.

Let’s start demanding it. From it all other reforms flow.