James Curran’s speech to the TUC conference on Media Regulation

By Media Reform Coalition / Wednesday March 28, 2012 Read More
Labour and the union movement have long been ineffectual in terms of media reform. All the really innovative changes that have taken place in media policy during the last half century or so have been implemented by Conservative governments, from the introduction of commercial television in the 1950s, the creation of channel 4 in the 1982 and the deregulation that began with the hands off development of cable TV.  Labour has been content to sit on the side lines, going along in office with whatever the Conservatives have initiated. Quite why Labour has been so ineffectual, in contrast to many other social democratic governments in northern Europe, is difficult to say. Partly, I think, we have been intellectually immobilised into believing that inaction is a necessary condition of preserving ‘media freedom’; and partly politically cowed, terrified of doing anything that might get in the way of ingratiating ourselves to potential media allies. Ed Milliband , with great political courage, changed this pattern of subservience.  He broke ranks by publicly attacking the undue influence of Rupert Murdoch.  He helped set in motion, indirectly,  the setting up of the Leveson Inquiry, and the public exposure of the way in which the press has trampled on ordinary people’s lives, bribed the police and – shortly to be exposed to full view in phase 3 of the Inquiry– the way in which the press has wielded unaccountable political power. Suddenly, an opportunity has opened up in which media reform has become potentially become possible.  Let’s focus on what the main problems are and what could be changed. First, our media system has a far higher degree of concentration than in most other major economies, such as Germany, USA and Japan. This has a malignant effect on our public life. Alliances between a tiny number of press oligarchs and government periodically undermine the independence of the press. This has weakened the press as a public watchdog, and distorted its role as a medium of debate.  Undue concentration has also choked off competition, and become too powerful to regulate.  No significant media merger or acquisition has been stopped in the last half century. So Media Reform proposes two things. We say that no media corporation should have more than 15% of the total revenue of the UK’s core media system. This simple measure would mean that Rupert Murdoch will have to choose between monopolising Britain’s Pay TV system and controlling Britain’s largest press group.   We just need to be politically brave, and impose an upper limit on total media power in the age of media convergence. We also need anti-monopoly controls on specified sub-markets. Here, we propose a new approach. The problem with an automatic cap is that divested media are liable to close down – and no one wants a policy that will lead to closure. So what we propose is that any company which has more than a 15% share of a specified market – say national newspaper and online news – will have public service obligations as a condition of retaining its privileged market power. This could range from a set quota of investment in newsgathering to measures designed to increase individual journalist autonomy and influence within their employing organisation. Second, we need to address the growing crisis of local journalism. Local journalism was emasculated by the rise of free sheets, and is now being undermined by the migration of classified advertising to the web. A perfect storm has been created in which elected local government was weakened by so-called reform;   local press coverage of politics has shrunk; and interest and participation in local politics has declined sharply. Yet, the internet offers a low cost technology for reviving local journalism. Public funding in this area will go a very long way.  But, clearly, no money will be available for this from the Treasury. We have identified three potential sources of revenue: a 1 per cent levy on the UK turnover of content aggregators; a levy on internet search advertising; or a levy on internet service providers (as in Spain, France and Hungary). This will provide the resources needed to sustain a renaissance of local journalism, of a kind we have not seen since the 19th century, using new technology. The fund would be administered by a Public Trust, independent of government with representatives drawn from different parts of society and different viewpoints. The third priority of reform is to install a system of press regulation that works. The basic lines of reform have now becoming apparent. We would add just crucial element to the general mix: we believe that a right of reply, underpinned by a News Ombudsman, is desirable because it would offer cheap redress to victims of press misrepresentation, and would cause journalists to think twice about running unsubstantiated stories. The right of reply would not be unlimited, and would take advantage of the existence of the internet. So these are the three areas that we have so far focused on: shrinking media moguls, reviving local journalism, and reforming press self-regulation. Let me close by saying one thing. I have listened to many eloquent denunications of the media that have been long on indignation but short on remedy. We need to think concretely about how, in practical terms, we reform the media. And we need to seize the momentum created by Ed Miliband who, on this issue, has changed the political weather, and deserves our support.