Interrogating contemporary news: asking the right questions

By Media Reform Coalition / Wednesday September 28, 2011 Read More
14 September 2011 The Leveson inquiry has been launched to investigate phone hacking and the culture, practices and ethics of the press; there is a Lords Select Committee on the future of investigative journalism; a joint Select Committee on privacy and injunctions; all of which will feed into a Communications Review leading up to the New Communications Act in 2013 and bring with them unprecedented opportunities to interrogate contemporary news. So what questions should we be asking? News provides, or should provide, the vital resources for processes of information gathering, deliberation and analysis that enables democracy to function. In an ideal world, unfettered by the pressures of failed business models, new technology and plummeting sales and circulation figures, news media would survey the socio-political environment, hold the Government and other officials to account, provide a platform for intelligible and illuminating debate, offer incentives, maybe, for citizens to learn and become involved and encourage dialogue across a range of views.  This is an ideal relationship, however, and it’s hinged very much on a conception of independent journalists or journalism in the public interest linked to notions of knowledge, political participation and democratic renewal. We are now at a moment in history in which those things are on the table and up for grabs, so we need to think long and hard about what we believe news ought to be and what we want it to do in the future. So the first question that arises is what type of news provision will best serve the public interest and allow democracy to thrive? Theories of democratic political participation have long since recognised the roles the media play in activating political citizenship and participation. Media coverage plays a significant role in creating awareness and engagement.  Contemporary research shows a relationship between media use and political participation. It also shows that when news is absent, voter participation is much lower. This is particularly true of local news. So news matters at a fundamental level to society.  But a simple abundance of news, one that just assumes that the more news we have the more democratic our societies are, speaks to a naïve pluralism that has been shown to be blatantly false.  More news does not necessarily help democracy, even if consumption is high, as long as news content serves the interests of the news industry over and above the public’s information needs.  In such cases contemporary coverage can actually lead to a mood of anti-politics; it can thwart political participation in the public sphere and diminish democracy.  Plurality conceived of as simply the number of news outlets, sources, services on offer at any one time, as opposed to the very distinctive character of those outlets, will never deliver the range of news in the public interest necessary for democracy to thrive. So the second question is, how can we ensure a genuine plurality of voices and views in the news? Media research tells us that diversity of news provision is more likely to come from a plurality of owners. Regulation of media ownership is designed with this in mind. In fact it’s the only way that a diversity of voices in newspaper (as opposed to broadcast) news has been regulated and even here the notion of plurality is defined in a very particular, quantitative and narrow way.  Of course there have always been anxieties over the ownership of the media because of its agenda setting role. Again research shows us that media owners have, over time, been shown to influence the way their organisations present news and in turn have some bearing on public debate and political opinion.  Owners may have an effect on news output through various means. This may include direct intervention, but frequently it is more likely to be via indirect means through the appointment of like minded editors, stressing particular business approaches such as short term profit over longer term investment, or by prioritising certain types of journalism or journalistic approaches.  Owners can influence the journalistic ethos of a news organisation and this can filter through to the processes of news production themselves.  This may derive from a certain vision of a particular owner or an editor in chief, from a particular family ownership tradition or from structural and organisational principles which impose a particular form of editorial direction.  All of these can influence the types of journalism that’s valued and promoted and what kinds of stories are followed. Yet it is this journalism that we frequently refer to as ‘independent’ and ‘free’. In reality, although the influence may be felt more in the culture of the newsroom rather than through direct forms of control, this journalism is highly dependent on an ethos that is structured around maximising sales and gaining market dominance, resulting in news that is often very far from the public interest. So another key question is, how can we provide the environment that’s required to enable journalists to do the jobs that most of them want to do, scrutinise, monitor, hold to account, interrogate power, facilitate and maintain deliberation. And, what are the conditions necessary for that journalism to function to its absolute optimum? Despite the ownership regulation that we currently have, a small group of owners in the national and regional press have a large market share, thus a limited number of people and approaches potentially dominate the media agenda and can influence public debate and political opinion. If all non-publicly owned media are produced under similar conditions, such as the severe pressures of a failing business, a particular type of output in terms of media content can be expected. If concentration of ownership affects the internal practice and external output of news industries, how do we prevent it? How do we democratise commercial news practice? News media, we know from recent events, also impacts upon policy makers and their decision making processes.  The competitive end game of politics is winning elections and retaining office, the civic purpose of politics, of course, where elected representatives govern on citizens’ behalf is something quite different.  The civic purpose currently appears to be overwhelmed by a murky entanglement between governing and mediating elites.  This has been called a shift to a public relations democracy, where politicians are at the mercy of hungry journalists who can make or break their career; where politicians put PR before sound policymaking and where journalists intimidate policymakers with threats of media campaigns that will bring them to their political knees and make them unelectable.  Politicians both fear and feed off the power of the news. You could argue that a certain amount of fear on behalf of politicians is really rather healthy, but when this infiltrates, undermines and distorts the democratic process it points to a worrying sickness at the heart of a system. When news organisations get too big for their boots they stop being about holding truth to power and start exploiting the platforms they have at their ready disposal to exert power themselves. This may be through the public humiliation of those who irritate them or secret meetings with those in Ministerial office in which the preferential terms of media policy are laid down. The burning question then becomes: can we regulate for the relationship between news and democracy while retaining independent journalism and freedom of the press, and if so, how? Regulation of the press has always been seen as tantamount to authoritarian rule; as deliberate interference with and the inhibition of the freedom of the press and as being profoundly anti-democratic. Yet we have to now face up to the fact that such an approach has actually done precious little to protect the public interest in the provision of news and its contribution to democratic life and maybe it has done quite a lot to encourage commercial news vandalism. Regulation does not necessarily destroy journalistic freedom. Take a look at public service broadcasters where we see some of the very best in investigative journalism. It may not be perfect but it does expose the nonsense that imposing standards on a news industry inevitably leads to anti-democratic practice and diminishes journalistic integrity.  If we accept there is a connection between news and democracy, that news provides the vital resources for processes of information gathering, deliberation and analysis, then surely it’s not unreasonable to accept that it’s any democratic government’s responsibility to ensure that the conditions are in place to promote democratic practice.  An excessively liberalised press has failed to provide the freedom to practice independent journalism in the public interest. This raises another three questions: – How do we invest commercial news with public interest priorities? – How do we address issues concerning the economic performance and sustainable growth of the news industry? – How do we develop new funding models that will sustain local and national news ventures in the public interest? We now have a historic moment where we can change some of the practices and re-instil some of the principles at the heart of news, and we must not let that moment pass by. About the author Professor Natalie Fenton is Co-Director, Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media Research Centre, University of London.