What the Sky Decision Tells Us About Media Reform

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.


7 thoughts on “What the Sky Decision Tells Us About Media Reform”

  1. As ever, a thought-provoking piece. If I may, I would like to offer some thoughts.

    I absolutely agree that the harrumphing over the BSkyB decision misses the point (full disclosure: I worked at Sky from 1999-2003), and that, however unwelcome its implications, the real problem is broader and deeper.

    Yet I remain skeptical about your public commissioning proposals, for several reasons.

    First, unless I have misread this and other posts on the topic, there seems to be a contradiction between the idea of building a movement (“I propose that we take direct control over the investigative agenda”) which then seeks a remedy from the very power structures which have created the problem (“we must demand democratic reform [of] the media”). As one who spent many years up close and personal with our media regulation system, at ITV and then Sky, I can confirm that no campaign of the kind you propose would find a receptive majority among regulators, civil servants or politicians.

    The second, not unrelated point concerns the economic trends affecting our media industries which, you will agree, are harsh in the extreme. The business models of media industries are disintegrating, and this compounds the systemic problem of scale (or lack of it). The surprise is not that News Corporation owns so much of UK media, but that Sony, Time Warner and Disney don’t own the rest. It is this, rather than any conspiracy between Downing Street and News International, which renders the territory so hostile to any campaign for reform.

    Finally, as you state, most people don’t care about any of this. We struggle to catch our breath in the face of the regime’s shock austerity programme, which concerns tangible and quantifiable issues. With all of that going on, what hope for a campaign that is essentially of minority interest, deals in abstracts, and would face hostility at best from those in power?

    I share your deep concern about the malign influence of our corporate media and, although I disagree with the feasibility of proposals as outlined here, I wonder whether the means of production for an influential, honest and genuinely investigative journalism are not staring us in the face, with no need for regulatory approval or mass campaigning.

    Look at the distributed power of all the tweeters and the bloggers. Look at the distributed power of that small minority, such as yourself, who invest time and energy in investigation and long form commentary. Look at the influence, in the United States, of platforms like Daily Kos. Look at micropayments.

  2. John,

    Thanks for this note. You raise some important points and I will try to address them here.

    Firstly you think that my position might be contradictory, in that I want to build a movement for media reform and then seek a remedy from the same structures that have caused the problem in the first place. I am sure you are right that regulators, politicians and broadcasters have no desire to implement the kinds of reform I propose. People in positions of power are not usually quick to give up or limit that power. They will only do so if the alternative is worse.

    A large, informed movement for reform of the media will force them to do things they would not otherwise do. That is what popular pressure does.

    Part of the point of the post was to set out a strategy for those who are worried about the declining standards of the UK media, the increasing concentration of ownership, and so on. If they want to stop bad things happen they must start to describe a positive alternative to the current system. This will exert pressure on people who have power. Democratic control of the investigative agenda is just such a positive program. There may be others – but it has this advantage.

    Public commissioning makes transparent the fact that media reform bears directly on the chances for democratic government – media reform will change people’s opportunities to live in peace and prosperity. ‘Stopping Murdoch’ doesn’t sound like a bread and butter issue – creating a system where we can all speak back to currently dominant descriptions is. Though it is abstract, I think people can see that, given a chance.

    You are right that the business models that sustained the news media are under pressure. But the media system as a whole is in quite robust health. There is no slackening of demand for A-V and (especially) interactive entertainment. News media have always depended on subsidies of various kinds to support their activities. Newspapers, for example, enjoyed vast revenues from their classified sections – a lunch suddenly eaten by Craigslist et al. We need a discussion about how we now subsidise the creation of news and analysis – but they have always relied on subsidy, though, and they always will.

    If private actors subsidise news content they will demand a quid pro quo – journalists can report natural disasters seriously, in exchange they have to pretend – or sincerely believe – that financial crises are natural disasters. On the other hand, if public money – our money – is used, then we should exercise more control over how it is spent, surely? At the moment the state decides on its own initiative. Politicians fear the system as it stands and crave success within the terms it sets out. They won’t change it unless forced to do so.

    The new technology is very useful – we can reach quite large audiences with a blog and a Twitter account and we don’t have to rely on an editor’s patronage. But journalism costs money – I want to see a large, well-paid and highly motivated journalistic profession working on behalf of definable publics. Yes, we can challenge the mainstream – the point is to change its course.

  3. Hi, Dan — your “public commissioning” idea is big, and there are various smaller things that could transform the BBC in the meantime. For example, the BBC film and sound news archive could be opened up on the internet to the subscribers who pay for the BBC. That move would prevent BBC news managers from hiding vital film records from the public, as they did in the Iraq invasion affair to which you refer, when they concealed both Rice and Powell saying earlier that Hussein had no WMD. Opening up the news archive would be a huge move towards undoing news manipulation, and I can’t see how anyone could argue against it. Why is it not happening right now?
    Another move would be to assign appropriate BBC resources to the political parties so that they could create their own ‘takes’ on news events. Viewers could then choose which version they preferred. This would strongly distinguish the ‘browns’ from the ‘greens’.
    Again, it would be interesting to try controlling the TV news companies’ investments, in the way that political expenditure is sort-of controlled. If the companies did not have ranks of lorries, vans, dishes and cables parked outside news venues such as courts, the news might be more balanced.

    1. Thanks, Rowland, I like these proposals very much – the opening up of the BBC to a publishing public would be extremely useful.

      In the book I support Tom Ferguson’s idea of allocating communications funding and space in the schedule on the basis of a vote at election time. We vote for representatives as usual, and then we vote for ‘who we want to hear from’ – these could be political parties, NGOs, whatever. Funds would be distributed pro rata.

      Not sure I understand your third proposal – can you explain?

  4. […] The Daily Mail is read by around four million people a day; two million copies are sold and per month, Mail Online receives well over fifty million unique visitors — this is a massive potential market. As I see it, the case for targeting the readership is twofold: there is the pragmatic reason, outlined above; and the moral argument. The public should be told the truth about the world in which it lives, and although that goal is a lofty one, helping people to understand that their newspaper of choice regularly paints a distorted view of events is a first step to reforming our national media. […]

  5. Hello Dan,

    my name is Miren and I am final year jounalism student at Leeds Trinity University College in Leeds. I’m doing my final research project on concentrated media ownership and its impact on independent journalism in England, and I was wondering If I could ask you a couple of questions regarding this topic. Your views on the matter would be very helpful and too much appreciated. I could send the questions to you by e-mail, or make it over the phone…the easiest way for you. It won’t be long, though.

    Thank you very much for taking the time to read this.

    I look forward to hearing from you.



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