This post is by Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, originally appeared on the Huffington Post. We reprint it here with kind permission.
At a Media Reform Coalition rally this week, Justin Schlosberg, author of Power Beyond Scrutiny, said that from the eighties onwards, politicians – particularly Labour politicians – had learned that if they wanted to stay on the “right” side of Rupert Murdoch and other media proprietors, they needed to “never mention ‘welfare’ without adding the word reform”, and stop talking about concepts like renationalisation.
Too true – and as I pointed out, that leaves huge swathes of public opinion unrepresented (around three-quarters of the public supports renationalising the railways, and at the rally, as ever, when I said “we must renationalise the railways” I got a big cheer).
As Justin had been highlighting, this is a function of our oligarchic, indeed baronic, media ownership structure, with its dubious individuals. Michelle Stanistreet of the National Union of Journalists had already said that, as a former employee of Richard Desmond at The Express, she very much looked forward to the time when a strong “fit and proper persons” test was introduced for media ownership.
Eight months ago, Lord Leveson was recommending lots of things, virtually none of which have been implemented. We still have a media that, as Helen Belcher of Trans Media Watch eloquently explained, is failing to treat the innocents who it chooses to victimise with accuracy, decency and respect.
I focused at the rally on the clearly political demonisation of recipients of welfare payments. If you read The Daily Mail, as I sadly do for professional reasons, you will find seemingly endless stories about families with many children dependent on benefits. Yet there are only just over 100 families with 10 children or more dependent on out-of-work benefits. If you do read the Mail, you know most of them by name.
But I also highlighted the good parts of our media – from the developing local media sites such as the Dorset Eye and the impressive tranche of Barnet bloggers, to traditional media such as my own local Camden New Journal and Ham & High.
We must not despair – there is great work being done in the media (even with the latest lobbying exposes from publications that also frequently publish less honourably). And we need to push on.
The royal charter appears to be dead – kicked in the long grass, stuck in the mud; pick your metaphor. Instead we should go back to Lord Leveson’s words of eight months ago, and start again. What he proposed for independent oversight of media regulation wasn’t perfect, wasn’t what the Green Party would choose, but it’s a reasonable effort by a reasonable, independent man to find a way forward – a good place to start.
And at the same time we need to pick up the ball Leveson dropped – the issue that last night’s rally focused on – media ownership.
It’s encouraging that Harriet Harman is talking about a 15% cap on ownership, something the Green Party definitely backs, and is happy to work towards. It’s a model that would ensure at least six competitive publications in any area – without cross ownership, a good place to head towards.
She’s calling for a cross-party working group on the issue – and now, with Rupert Murdoch cosying up to Boris Johnson, might not be a bad time to try to get a Prime Minister on board. Certainly, there must be Tories who don’t enjoy having their every move restricted by the views of a scattering of media tycoons, from the Barclay brothers to Alexander Lebedev.
Moreover, to build on the positive, we should be looking at how we can encourage good new independent media, particularly local media – a licence fee-type arrangement, funded perhaps by a small tax on online adverts – plus charity status for independent local media, would be a good start.
The fact is that quality, independent, varied media, in which a wide range of voices and public views can be heard, are essential for our democracy. Given our current problems with democracy, with sinking election turnouts and widespread disillusionment, this is an issue that cannot be ignored.