Our Media, Not Theirs: report from the Media Reform rally, 17 June

By Media Reform Coalition / Monday June 24, 2013 Read More
This post is reproduced, with kind permission, from the website of the National Union of Journalists. It does not represent our views, but does offer a fair summary of the rally that night.

As the explosive events in Turkey played out on news networks and Twitter around the world, and protesters were being attacked in Taksim Square by the police, the Turkish national news showed a documentary about penguins.

“This is because the Turkish mainstream TV stations, including MSNBC-affiliated NTV and CNN Turk, are all owned by major corporations – bankers, financiers, engineers and businesses – all dependent on the government for contracts,” said Murat Akser, associate professor at Kadir Has University, Istanbul.

“There were three small independent left-wing networks who kept the cameras rolling, but they soon came under attack from the authorities.  Twitter suddenly stopped for a while.

“This is a country which has the distinction of having the most journalists in jail. A country which threatens journalists by judicial suppression, by discrimination by accreditation and one in which whole editorial teams can find themselves fired for writing the wrong thing.”

Akser said that citizen journalism – the pictures of protesters being blasted off their feet by water cannons and sent from phones – is reclaiming the media. “Each of us can be reporters, we can go out and write about what is happening on our streets. If the official media will not do it – we will do it,” he said.

It is a familiar story.

Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, said: “Last week, the screens went dark in Greece – the government had pulled the plug on ERT, the public broadcaster, without consultation.

“At a time when the people of Greece needed independent, impartial reporting on the hardship caused by the austerity measures, the highest youth unemployment in Europe and the advance of the far right, ERT’s closure was an attack on news and on democracy.

“And it shows that, whether the power is being wielded by the state or a multi-national corporation, media freedom hangs on a thin thread.”

Speakers at the event, organised by the Media Reform Coalition at Westminster University, all agreed that a free media was essential to democracy – and media ownership was the linchpin.

Stanistreet described how evidence from the Leveson Inquiry showed the corrupt relationships between politicians, the press, and the police and the press was a result of one man – Rupert Murdoch – owning 37 per cent of the newspaper market.

“Politicians, at their own admission, were too craven to take on the Murdoch press. They feared they would be pursued personally, or their party’s policies would be savaged,” she said. “Prime minister after prime minister felt they had to pay homage at the court of Rupert. They met up in Mayfair gentlemen’s clubs with promises of being backed by the Murdoch press at the next election. One of them even became godfather to the Godfather of the Press’s daughter.”

Justin Schlosberg, of London University’s Birkbeck College and author of Power Beyond Scrutiny: Media, Justice and Accountability, said: “If there is one lesson about British politics we learned from the Leveson Inquiry, it is that if you want to be a big player in government, you have to flirt with Rupert’s henchmen and women.”

He then read out toe-curling messages between Jeremy Hunt and Fred Michel, in which they call each other Daddy (because their wives gave birth at the same private hospital at the same time). These fond messages where being exchanged between the Culture Secretary and a News Corps lobbyist anxious to make sure that his employer’s takeover of BskyB went through.

Media ownership also matters because without newspapers and broadcasters representing diverse voices, certain communities will never have a fair press.  Helen Belcher, of Trans Media Watch, said that she knew how much Lucy Meadows, a transgender teacher in Accrington whose story was picked up by the media (including a nasty diatribe from the Daily Mail’s Richard Littlejohn), had been hurt by newspaper stories before she took her own life.

She said a survey of 250 trans people online showed that 21.5 per cent said they had suffered verbal abuse, which they believed was connected to the way trans people were represented in the press, and 8 per cent had suffered physical abuse.

Likewise, Muslims are demonised by the press as terrorists and extremists, according to Owen Jones, journalist and author of Chavs.

A lack of media plurality also means that journalists have little say about the news they produce. The NUJ’s evidence to Leveson spelled out the level of bullying by newspaper executives who put pressure on staff to act unethically and in some cases illegally. For Des Freedman, reader in communications and cultural studies at Goldsmiths, University of London and chair of the Media Reform Coalition, that’s why we need for a conscience clause for journalists, giving media workers the right to refuse to produce work in breach of their code of conduct.

The absence of unions – after they had been smashed by the Murdoch press following a stitch-up with Margaret Thatcher – meant journalists had little protection from the excesses of their media bosses, said Owen Jones.

Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, said UK politics were ruled by 1 per cent of the population: the owners, the bankers and the multinational companies and the press reflected their world view.

Papers such as the Daily Mail were happy, she said, to spread bile, depicting people on out-of-work benefit as feckless people, all with 10 children.  “The reality is that there are about 100 families in the whole country who fit this stereotype – and if you read the Mail you probably know them all by name,” she said. Despite re-nationalistion of the railways and utilities being supported by a majority of people, this view is characterised as “whacky and out-there” by the neoliberal press, she said.

All the speakers agreed that now was the time for media ownership to be addressed. Harriet Harman, Labour shadow culture minister, was commended for recommending a debate about limits and caps on media ownership.

She had admitted that her party did not tackle issues over media ownership and plurality in 1997 for fear of losing the general election. Owen Jones said: “She is right. Now is time for Labour to break its devil’s pact with Murdoch and make a case for reforms to media ownership.”

Michelle Stanistreet agreed. “The nettle must be grasped,” she said. “The stalling by the national press after Leveson shows the industry cannot be trusted and we cannot rely on an unfettered market.  A free press is precious. It needs protecting. It should be our media, not theirs.”