Covid-19 and the ownership and control of the media
Thursday, 06 August 2020 07:46

Covid-19 and the ownership and control of the media

Natalie Fenton points to the need for less concentrated ownership and more democratic control of the media, in the wake of the Covid-ap pandemic. 

The media are vital purveyors of information and interrogators of power in a pandemic where a government’s decisions translate directly into lives lost or saved. In a global health crisis, the public need, more than ever, a media that will interrogate those decisions and hold power to account.

However, the sad fact is that the pandemic has exposed much of the mainstream media as being part of the system rather than its watchdog. There have been repeated examples across different media outlets of a systematic failure to interrogate government responses. Instead, media outlets merely amplify the official statements from endless, bland press briefings.

These daily briefings churn out what we used to call propaganda but now refer to as PR. The government has explicitly sought to restrict media challenge and scrutiny by refusing to put forward ministers or representatives to go on news programmes such as Radio 4’s Today Programme. It has also barred certain journalists from asking questions at their press briefings in order to discredit critical reporting – actively seeking to punish and freeze out watchdog journalism.

BBC journalists also have to worry about possible government funding cuts. Reporting accurately on your own paymaster has always been a problem for political journalism, but particularly so when the government is all too willing to be the playground bully. So when Dominic Cummings ignored the rules of lockdown and outraged the nation, Radio 4 gave his wife a spot to explain how kind he is.

Newspapers have also played the game to their advantage. With many of them facing economic meltdown due to the collapse in advertising revenue, the News Media Association (representing most of the largest and wealthiest media organisations) lobbied government for their own bailout. The result has been government underwriting of large corporate media to the tune of £35m through advertising and paid-for content under the rubric of ‘we are all in this together’. 

The advertising looks like public health campaign material. But the paid-for content that tells the reader that the government is doing a pretty good job looks like any other article, just tagged with an additional health warning that “this advertiser content was paid for by the UK government”.

In the UK, this is particularly ironic given that the press campaigned extensively against effective (independent) regulation on the basis that it would lead to unwarranted state ‘intrusion’ into the industry. Many of them are still paying out millions of pounds settling phone hacking cases – so this £35m subsidy of taxpayers’ money is in effect contributing to phone hacking settlements.

Meanwhile, virtually none of the paid-for content is going to small independent news organisations, even though they lobbied for their fair share.  As a result many of these will struggle to survive.

Alternative models of ownership and control

Coverage of the pandemic has revealed mainstream media to be an explicit channel for government PR spin, further propelling the revolving door between major news organisations and the government. Boris Johnson worked for the Telegraph and the Times. Michael Gove was a Times journalist. George Osborne became editor of the London Evening Standard. Allegra Stratton’s recent appointment as Rushi Sunak’s director of strategic communications is a friend of Dominic Cummings, and was national editor of ITV news and political editor of Newsnight. The list goes on.

What can we do about it? The deep entanglement of media power and political power is self-serving. Government favours large corporate media because they are dominant – and they retain their dominance because the government favours them. Concentration of media ownership keeps this relationship intact. So we must legislate for more plurality of media ownership, to create a sustainable communications environment that is innovative, diverse and fully independent of vested interests (whether these are commercial or political).

We need to encourage alternative models of media ownership such as cooperatives and employee buyouts, that promote equality and financial security of journalists over profit-making and shareholder returns, and serve a far wider range of needs and more diverse set of interests.

We also need more democratic, diverse and accountable public sector broadcasting. Over the last three decades the independence of the BBC has been steadily eroded and its programme making increasingly commercialised. In recent years, its funding has been severely cut and its programming has become increasingly conservative. Public service content needs to be delivered through modern, democratised public platforms and networks and to operate autonomously of government and the market.

Without these changes, our mainstream media will remain far too complicit with elite political power to do the job they are supposed to do. And in a global health crisis, a failure to scrutinise government mismanagement could literally mean life or death for thousands of people.

This is the latest in the series of articles on the effects of the pandemic on culture, published jointly with the Morning Star.

Classroom culture and the coronavirus crisis
Thursday, 06 August 2020 07:46

Classroom culture and the coronavirus crisis

Published in Education

Sean Ledwith explains how classrooms are now the front line of the coronavirus class war

It is difficult to imagine what Downing Street thought would be achieved by sending out Michael Gove recently to assure teachers that schools will be safe environments by June 1st. No person is more guaranteed to have thousands of teachers across the land shouting at their television sets and filling the air with expletives than the former Education Secretary. Gove is without question the most hated politician to have taken that role in modern times and even now, the mere mention of his name is sufficient to make most teachers roll their eyes in exasperation.

During his tenure at the Education Department, Gove – along with his insidious minion Dominic Cummings – presided over a regime that increased the bureaucratic burden on staff and introduced new forms of stress-inducing tests on primary children. Numbers of teachers actively considering leaving the profession rose to record levels, inversely related to the dearth of graduates thinking of going into it. Gove has been a key figure in the last ten years of Tory control of the English education system that has seen the closure of Sure Start centres, abolition of the Education Maintenance Grant, cuts to free school meals and the rise of divisive academies and free schools. The notion that such a figure could provide any level of reassurance to teachers in the midst of a national emergency is beyond a joke.

The Johnson government has clearly decided that breaking the morale and resistance of teachers is a key component of its agenda to restore the profitability of UK capitalism, regardless of the cost in terms of lives. The state education sector is potentially facing the levels of devastation that has already been visited this year on hospitals and care homes. In the face of contradictory evidence from the British Medical Association and against the advice of the devolved administrations of the other UK nations, the government is intending to reopen primary schools on the first day of next month to pupils in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6. Secondary pupils scheduled for public exams in 2021 are also expected to return at some point before the end of the summer term. Laughably, Gove and his cabinet colleagues have justified this on the grounds of growing concern about pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds falling behind due to lockdown. Although this is a genuine problem, no one should be fooled by the hypocrisy of Tory politicians whose neoliberal agenda in education is premised entirely on accelerating class divisions.

The National Education Union, the UK’s largest teachers’ union, has played an exemplary role in spearheading the resistance to this reckless plan. None of its eminently sensible five criteria are currently in place for a return that would actually satisfy the concerns of many teachers: a significant downward trend in the number of corona cases; a coherent plan of social distancing in schools; readily accessible testing in schools for staff and pupils; strategies for responding to outbreaks in schools and plans for the protection of staff whose caring responsibilities make working from home the only realistic option. Legitimate concerns from teachers about the lack of available Personal Protective Equipment and the inherent difficult of persuading very young children to practise social distancing have been brushed aside with characteristic hubris by Gove and Gavin Williamson, the equally unconvincing current holder of the education portfolio.

Instead of coercing teachers to return to return unwillingly against their better judgement, a more progressive government would be considering how this breakdown of norms actually provides an opportunity to completely reorientate the direction of educational policy. The scrapping of all GCSEs and A Levels has forced the exam boards to turn to the judgement of teachers to produce appropriate grades for all students. This is a reminder that, in the minds of many educators, formative assessments by teachers produced throughout the year actually provide a more accurate indicator of progress than a terminal exam in the summer. The corona crisis could be utilised to shift the focus of formal assessment back towards a more collaborative approach in many subjects, based on students working both with each other and the teacher on coursework modules.

 The case for the downplaying of formal assessment is even more compelling in the primary sector. Thanks to Gove’s top-down regime of high-stakes testing at Key Stages 1 and 2, the qualitative experiences of thousands of children in their first years of formal education have been damaged by a narrowing of the curriculum and an intrusive  focus on targets and tracking. The weeks of lockdown have been a sobering reminder that nothing is more important than the physical and psychological wellbeing of children. Whenever classrooms reopen properly again, the prioritising of play and socialising for young children must outweigh the Gradgrind-mentality that the Tories have fostered.