2 September 2011 — New Left Project
I have written elsewhere that the aftermath of the phone hacking scandal and the establishment of the Leveson Inquiry, ‘is a hugely significant moment both for the British media and for British democracy’ and that ‘the spell of media power is facing its most serious challenge to date’. Given that official inquiries rarely generate genuinely radical proposals and we have seen no evidence that press proprietors and media executives are willing to give up their privileged positions, was this simply wishful thinking? The evidence, I would suggest, is mixed.
On the negative side, Dave Boyle is right when he argues that the whole question of ownership has been largely left out of mainstream commentary and debate on the phone hacking scandal. This reflects a worrying separation between the need to promote ethical behaviour (to be addressed by the Leveson Inquiry) and more structural questions such as concentration and ownership, that are more likely to be considered by the highly deregulatory Communications Review run by the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS). Boyle is absolutely right to stress the relationship between ownership and power and it is something that no meaningful investigation of media ethics and regulation can ignore.
There is little however in the composition of the Leveson panel members that gives any immediate confidence about prospects for radical change. A High Court judge, a Telegraph reporter, a civil rights campaigner, a former police chief, a broadcast journalist, a former regulator and a former newspaper executive make up a cast that is, on its own, unlikely to demand major curbs on excessive concentration of ownership, insist that resources are made available for ethical journalism or call for levies on some of our largest media companies.
There is also the fact that inquiries are a useful way of taking some of the heat out of situations that attract great public interest and, by extending debate until it has effectively disappeared from everyday conversation, diminishing the possibilities for change. Indeed I made precisely this point in relation to a previous public inquiry that focused on the need for media reform: the 1977 Annan Committee on the Future of Broadcasting. I noted that, ‘Commissions and inquiries are not the natural battlegrounds of those who wish to see significant or structural change’ and then went on to argue that:
an inquiry lasting two or three years would be likely to attract and contain demands for reform at the same time as commercial forces would be consolidating their control. A plethora of formal submissions, oral presentations and consultation meetings would never match the activities of the most powerful media companies whose voices, in any case, would dominate the proceedings of any inquiry.
I stand by my comments and believe that media reformers need to take these warnings on board in their attitude to current challenges. If we allow the Leveson Inquiry to be restricted to a limited agenda—to focus on individual ‘bad apples’ and to adopt yet more codes of conduct instead of pursuing systematic factors—we risk repeating old mistakes.
However, just as the Annan Report was a contradictory phenomenon that simultaneously expressed and neutralised demands for change, I do not believe that the outcomes of this current Inquiry are in any way inevitable or pre-determined and would argue that a fatalistic approach to Leveson misses out on the real opportunities that do exist.
First, it is not the case that no one has made the connection between concentration of ownership and unaccountable formations of power. In fact, hundreds of thousands of people signed petitions demanding that the government put a stop to the proposed takeover of BSkyB by a Murdoch-controlled News Corp. 63 per cent of those polled, some six months before the phone hacking scandal broke, supported an independent investigation into the Sky/News Corp deal, presumably because they were worried about the control Murdoch would have over the British media. By July 2011, 70 per cent believed that the Murdochs were not ‘fit and proper’ people to run BSkyB.
Public revulsion at the complicity between senior police officers, politicians and media executives is connected to wider discontent about power and privilege in the UK and is only likely to increase as ordinary people face cuts in public services and falling household incomes while bank bailouts are fresh in the public’s memory. I believe that, just as there is a growing mood to resist a cuts programme that increasingly lacks legitimacy, there would be wide public support for measures that make it harder for any single company or group of companies to dominate our press, broadcasting and internet systems or ones that punish ‘journalism’ that violates individual privacy without any redeeming public interest.
Second, it would be a mistake to underplay the possibilities opened up by the collapse in confidence of the self-regulatory models that have spread across corporate culture. With the phone hacking crisis, we saw the implosion of a particular model of media power under its own internal contradictions together with a determined mood on the part of the public to punish unethical behaviour. News Corp was (and still is) driven by an insatiable appetite for more readers, more market share, more viewers, more scoops and more influence, without any kind of self-regulating mechanism or accountability. Who was there inside the company to stand in the way of this kind of media power? Of course, News Corp has not been broken up but it would be short-sighted to argue that it—and other media giants—are entirely unaffected by recent events and that no one has spotted the existence of a corrupt relationship between police, politicians and the media.
In this context, the argument by David Edwards and David Cromwell of Medialens that nothing significant has changed in recent months fails to do justice to a wider picture of volatility. According to them, ‘The notion that a more honest media can emerge from this, one capable of systematically challenging official propaganda is absurd. The same structural constraints ensuring propaganda services on behalf of elite state-corporate interests remain in place.’
They are certainly right that the pressures that gave rise to the kind of behaviour epitomised by the News of the World, as well as the broader relations of power that exist between media and political elites, are still with us (and it is important to say so). But how do they expect a challenge to these structures to be mounted if not out of the anger and frustration felt by many people that we do not have a media system, or indeed a political system, that works in the interests of ordinary people? How do they know that nothing can change in the future simply because current relations of power ‘remain in place’? How does anything ever change unless we fight for it?
The endgame is not complete. The Leveson Inquiry may not be the most favourable terrain for people who wish to see a more democratic media culture, but it is one that has been presented to us because of the evident failure of the current way of running the media. Its outcome, therefore, is partly down to the energy and vision of those who are campaigning on issues that many more people will take an interest in; it is partly down to our success in posing and campaigning for democratic alternatives like those suggested by Dan Hind as well as those that challenge the right of media executives to sanction spying on innocent individuals, that insist on controls to limit concentration of ownership, and reward journalism that holds the powerful to account. That is why a group of us have set up the Coordinating Committee for Media Reform: to table and press for a series of reforms from a public interest perspective without, for a minute, thinking that a successful challenge to media power is going to be an easy task. We invite anyone who shares our desire to curb corporate media power and to develop a more democratic and accountable news culture to take part: to lobby, to propose, to debate and to get active.
Because if we don’t even try, we might as well give up and go home.
Des Freedman is a reader in communications and cultural studies at Goldsmiths, University of London and author of The Politics of Media Policy (2008).