by Natalie Fenton
The media have been central actors in this General Election campaign. Research by Loughborough University has shown the dominance of pro-Conservative party and anti-Labour Party coverage in the national press and others have claimed forcefully that the BBC has failed in its duty of impartial reporting. Cries of misrepresentation, under-representation, distortion and failure to call out lies abound. Political parties have traditionally steered clear of engaging with issues of media policy in their election manifestoes in order to garner favour with the news media who will be reporting on them in the election campaign period. But with social media now offering alternative platforms for distribution of election messages, some parties are beginning to think carefully about whether they can continue to ignore the multiple ways in which our media and communications systems fall short of providing citizens with accurate, diverse and representative news. So what media reforms have parties promised in their manifestos and would they be able to address these long-standing concerns?
The Labour Party outlines six main media manifesto pledges:
Labour has also said it will protect the free TV licence for over-75s, which were first introduced by Gordon Brown and then abolished by George Osborne in a ‘backroom’ deal with BBC director general Tony Hall. This effectively reverses severe cuts to the BBC’s budget. The promise to ‘ensure a healthy future for all our public service broadcasters’ covers not just the BBC, but also ITV1, Channel 4 and Channel 5, as well S4C and BBC Alba, which are specifically named in Labour’s manifesto, and which have a remit of supporting indigenous languages in Wales and Scotland. What ensuring a healthy future for these institutions will entail is not outlined, but given the pace of change in terms of technology and audience behaviour, it will necessarily involve supporting an expansion of digital operations. In the case of the BBC, in particular, it will require not only guaranteeing adequate funding, but ensuring it is fully independent of governments and the market and fully accountable to its staff and audiences. Maybe this should also entail a review of impartiality regulation (including guidance during election periods) to ensure that too is fit for purpose.
The problems of media collusion with police and senior members of Cabinet alongside the systematic invasions of privacy by headline hungry journalists were shockingly exposed during the Leveson Inquiry Part 1. The Leveson Report discussed in detail how the newspaper industry had become too powerful and that meaningful reform was needed to restore public confidence in the press. But much of the institutional corruption that has persisted for decades between elements of the press, politicians and police was left untouched because of ongoing criminal trials at the time. Since 2011, press misconduct and failures of corporate governance have not gone away. Addressing these will mean ensuring that recommendations from Leveson Part 1 are fully implemented to support fair and effective independent press regulation along with access to justice for victims of press abuse, as well as updating Leveson Part 2 to deal with other concerns relating to the practices and ethics of the press as a result of the transition to digital publishing.
Safeguarding a healthy plurality of media ownership points to concerns over concentrations of media power exerting undue influence over politicians, impacting on diversity of media content, promoting clientelism and creating an ever more impoverished public sphere. In a Channel 4 news interview, Jeremy Corbyn highlighted research by the Media Reform Coalition (2019) thatshows that just three companies dominate 83 per cent of the national newspaper market (up from 71 per cent in 2015). Even when online readers are included, just five companies account for more than 80 per cent of the combined markets. The print circulation of newspapers may be shrinking, but the prevailing evidence suggests that the audience reach of the largest titles – including theSun, Daily Mail and the Guardian – is increasing. What’s more, recent studies have shown the enduring influence that national newspapers have over the wider news agenda, including television news and the BBC.
With the Daily Mail and General Trust recent purchase of the i, media power is now condensed even further. As these forms of media concentration increase, it becomes ever harder for new and innovative initiatives to emerge and survive. To counter increasing concentration of ownership and to promote meaningful plurality requires a new measurement framework that can address the complexities in assessing cross-market audience share in radio, TV, print and online news markets, drawing on a mix of methodologies and taking into account not just quantitative measures of reach and consumption, but also qualitative data on impact, especially in respect of the wider media agenda. It needs to determine thresholds and trigger intervention and remedies aimed at promoting not just plurality in terms of numbers, but a rich ecology of media at both the local and national level, including commercial, public service and independent not-for-profit vehicles.
Of course, the tech giants constitute the largest concentrations of power the world has ever seen. Addressing their monopoly on advertising revenues would certainly be a step in the right direction. But we need to ensure that any new money does not simply rescue failing legacy providers or reinforce concentration of ownership but rather extends and enriches media plurality. New interventions need to direct money towards new models of not-for-profit, public interest journalism and not prop up the old.
So by all means, let’s support vital local newspapers and media outlets, but in doing so we should prioritise alternative models of media ownership – such as cooperatives and employee buyouts – that promote equality and financial security over shareholder returns, that broaden the range of voices involved in decision-making, which in turn would ensure that our media meet a wider range of needs and serve a more diverse set of interests.
The Conservative Party Manifesto sides firmly with the press barons stating that it will repeal section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2014 and will not proceed with the second stage of the Leveson inquiry. Section 40 is a crucial part of the new Royal Charter system and is key to persuading the press to join a recognised regulator through a system of carrots and sticks – if a news publisher joins a recognised regulator then access to low cost arbitration becomes mandatory. This removes the threat of potentially huge losses for both ordinary citizens who may be the victims of illegal journalistic behaviour and for publishers who may be threatened by a wealthy litigant who doesn’t like what they have printed. Only claimants with a genuine legal case can be offered arbitration thereby avoiding trivial and malicious claims being brought. In reverse, if a newspaper decides not to join a recognised regulator and thereby refuses to offer affordable access to justice, then they will be liable to pay all costs of court action against them. The Royal Charter system of regulation also includes protection for local and regional publishers to prevent causing them financial hardship. Section 40 is integral to the success of the Royal Charter framework of press regulation and the press know it. Consequently, even after Section 40 had become law (but had not yet been commenced) much of the Press went on a propaganda offensive to try to ensure it never saw the light of day. They have clearly won the Conservative Party over. In repealing Section 40 they hope to bury the Leveson Report once and for all.
The Liberal Democrat Party says it will:
Actively supporting a free media and a free and open internet would necessarily involve dealing with concentrations of media power although the Lib Dems don’t say this and I doubt that’s what they intend. You can champion something without actually ensuring it happens so this all feels a bit ‘motherhood and apple-pie’. In the UK, net neutrality is currently protected by the EU Open Internet Access Regulation. But this legislation applies the core principle of ‘non-discrimination’ over content in a restrictive way that does not reflect the realities of gatekeeping power and the ways in which network operators can promote or demote particular content or services based on their ability to pay.
UNESCO’s International Programme for the Development of Communication is working for a free and pluralistic media in developing countries and monitoring and reporting on the safety of journalists – all crucial work. But the same principles need to be applied to journalists in the UK who need better privacy protections. In particular, the Investigatory Powers Act should be amended to require authorities to inform journalists if and when they are placed under surveillance since this could compromise their ability to protect sources and to investigate and report on sensitive issues in the public interest. It is a shame the Lib Dems didn’t see fit to include this.
It is no surprise that the Lib Dems want to celebrate and grow the BBC World Service and they reinforce its public service remit to educate and inform but this is an expectation rather than a means of ensuring it actually happens. They put the onus for ‘fake news’ firmly on the shoulders of consumers’ need to be media literate rather than requiring tech giants to manage their companies responsibly.
Perhaps most interesting is their pledge to introduce a Leveson compliant Regulator (so presumably not IMPRESS or Ofcom) to deal with privacy, quality, diversity and choice across print and online media. Again, this would require the sorts of plurality measurement framework outlined above as well as operating an effective complaints mechanism whilst also being able to persuade (or enforce) news publishers to join. And they don’t duck Part 2 of the Leveson Inquiry which would no doubt provide much of the rationale for the work of their proposed new regulator.
The Green Party promises to:
The necessity of a framework for media plurality occurs in three out of the four manifestoes outlined here, in recognition of the growing concentration of media power. But none of them fully get to grips with the vast powers of the digital giants. The Labour Manifesto has had a lot of coverage for promising to provide free universal broadband funded by taxing multinational corporations (including the likes of Google and Facebook). But we must address the fact that the emergence of platform monopolies in search, social media and excessive content provision decimates the public value of the internet commons and exacerbates digital divides in access to diverse and credible sources of news and information.
To counter this, we need to be bold and create new publicly owned organisations that will provide a public alternative to privately owned digital platforms, be democratically organised and run, generate pioneering digital content, develop innovative technological solutions to advance democracy and harness data for the public good. This would be the best way of safeguarding the future creative and informational needs of publics in the face of constant market encroachment into public services.
It is good to see the Green Party acknowledge the need for a ‘wider range of civic-minded local news publishers’. Digital giants could contribute financially to maintaining a public interest news ecology through hypothecated taxation. One way of doing this would be through a levy imposed on the UK revenues of companies with more than a 20% share of online search or social networking markets. The money could be redirected to an independent public funding body and targeted at those vehicles and forms of public interest journalism that have become increasingly squeezed in the digital news environment. To ensure that new money does not simply rescue failing legacy providers or reinforce concentration of ownership but rather extends and enriches media plurality, this money would need to be directed towards new models of not-for-profit, public interest journalism.
To win the argument for protecting the BBC also requires it to be responsive to the criticisms it faces. It must be fully independent of the government and of the market and be democratised so that its governing body is elected; its staff representative of the population; its programme making and editorial functions decentralised and devolved to regions with systems of localised democratic management and commissioning to better respond to local needs and develop community wealth building.
In the spirit of devolution the Scottish National Party wants responsibility for broadcasting in Scotland to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament and a fairer share of the TV licence fee raised in Scotland spent in Scotland. They also state the need for the licence fee to be set independently of government and for the government to cover the cost of licence fees for the over 75s.
Plaid Cymru want the Welsh Parliament to be able to decide its own media and broadcasting policy and would create a Welsh media to represent the people of Wales and what matters to them.
All of the manifestoes covered here fall short of highlighting the means for ensuring and protecting a plural, sustainable and diverse media and communications ecology that can contribute to a healthy democracy. But only one of them (the Conservative Manifesto), ever keen to maintain good relations with the press, has bowed down to industry pressure and seeks to actively undo the small steps we have already taken in this direction. In a social media age, when mainstream media mistakes and misdemeanours are more easily called out, this strategy is far from safe. Maybe after the news coverage of this election period, the others will be wishing they’d gone much further.
For further information on what a media manifesto for 21stcentury could look like, see the proposals put forward by the Media Reform Coalition.