Media Concentration: A Crisis of Democracy

By Media Reform Coalition / Thursday August 7, 2014 Read More
by Huseyin Kishi In the UK, a free press is seen as one of the hallmarks of a liberal democracy. However, while the press may be seen to act as a check on legislative authority, it too is a source of unaccountable power. Over several decades, the UK media has undergone a process of concentration, putting media power in few hands. Consider, for example, newspaper ownership: three companies (News UK, DMGT, and Trinity Mirror) control 70% of national coverage, with Rupert Murdoch’s News UK holding a third of the entire market share. For local coverage, the situation doesn’t fare much better. In the past three years, around 140 local newspapers have shut down while 35% of Local Government areas are covered by only a single news outlet. The crisis of the public The public is reliant upon, and therefore trusts, media providers to inform and educate them about a host of wide ranging issues. However, the health of our democracy can be measured by a plurality of views, which over time is being gradually eroded. In radio, news content for almost all commercial stations is now provided by Sky News, giving them 43% of the national audience share. Commercial media is owned by an increasingly small number of wealthy and powerful individuals (in 2013, Rupert Murdoch ‘and family’ were positioned at number 33 in Forbes Magazine’s list of the world’s most powerful people, with a net worth of $13.4 billion), giving them great control over which issues are addressed and which information is available to the public. Commercial and proprietorial pressures, as well as political affiliations, can impact negatively on the quality of information made available to the public. Take for instance the issue of ownership – as blogger and journalist Emma Hartley, remarks:
“…there is nothing democratic about the way a newsroom, or a newspaper, works. The editor is always right, even when you suspect he’s actually wrong. This is because he can fire you – and may well if you whinge in such a way that it gets back to him. It’s like most other jobs, but more so.”
Looking at the conditions of employment of journalists, the NTCJ’s (National Council for the Training of Journalists) issues paper, ‘Emerging skills for journalists’, found that changes within the media industry have meant fewer journalists are now producing the same or more output. Given this structural pressure, and the need for more content, journalists rely heavily upon corporate sources such as press officers to source news. (Such a relationship will come as no surprise to the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, who in their ‘State of the Profession Survey’ found that 27% of their respondents are employed in the public sector.) The information produced then, is what Nick Davies has coined as ‘churnalism’. In other words, the quality of news is greatly affected by the mechanisms that produce it, not merely the journalists who write it.  Break it up  At the Coalition for Media Pluralism, we are supporting the European Initiative for Media Pluralism – a new tool for participatory democracy. Providing that a million signatures can be obtained, citizens within the EU can present a legislative proposal directly to the European Commission. Our demands include: legislation to avoid concentration of media ownership; guaranteed independence; a definition of conflict of interest to prevent media owners from occupying political office; and, lastly, rules to ensure transparency alongside media monitoring to continually gauge independence. Media pluralism is an inherently political issue, with some studies suggesting a minimum of four to six alternative voices to enable the public to have a wide range of sources to suit their information consumption. Pluralism is vital for free and fair public debate on issues such as immigration, the NHS, and the welfare state. Only a diverse media can work to provide citizens with the range of information and viewpoints necessary for a truly democratic society. The current ownership balance in the UK media is not working in the interests of citizens. This initiative gives us the opportunity to bring about change in how our media is controlled. We encourage all those who want a diverse and independent media, capable of operating in the public interest, to support the citizens’ initiative. The time has come to reclaim our media. Please visit the following address to add your support for the initiative:   Originally posted at the Coalition for Media Pluralism website