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.