Media moguls are losing their power. At least that is what Rupert Murdoch thinks. As he tweeted back in 2012, during a discussion about a possible bid for the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, ‘haven’t you heard of the Internet? No one controls the media or will ever again’.
This is an impressively modest claim for a man whose media interests include Britain’s largest broadcaster, BSkyB, Britain’s best-selling newspaper, Britain’s top commercial radio news wholesaler and a slew of major media companies across the world. The idea that the media is now an anarchic field of competing voices may, after all, seem rather counter-intuitive given the fact that a mere three companies control some 70% of daily national newspaper circulation and that four public service broadcasters (BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5) continue to account for nearly three-quarters of total TV viewing in the UK.
The internet, despite Murdoch’s assertion to the contrary, is not going to stop this build-up of media power as similar patterns of concentrated media power are now being replicated online. For example, five groups account for more than 70% of online news consumption (measured by browsing time) and, according to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, the ‘BBC and a few other traditional brands dominate the UK online news market’. Increasingly, we see monopolies firmly entrenched across the online world – Amazon for e-books, Google for search, Facebook for friendship and so on. In the US, Comcast, the giant internet service provider which also owns content producers and TV channels, recently announced its intention to buy Time Warner Cable to produce a company that would control internet access to two-thirds of American homes.
Handing this much influence to unelected individuals and unaccountable firms has a significant impact on who is able to direct the public conversations that take place at any one time. And we learned from evidence presented to the Leveson Inquiry that politicians are still in awe of ‘old media’ power (just as they are desperate to court ‘new media’ power) while proprietors are still able to command the attention of top politicians and to shape news agendas according to their ideological preferences.
So it matters when the Daily Mail launches its regular witch hunts against leading Labour politicians and stands firmly behind the government’s austerity programme, supports NHS privatisation and warns about a stampede of Romanians coming to our shores (a claim which it recently had to correct). It matters when the Sun uses its market power regularly to assault EU membership and when it describes the Guardian’s publication of the Edward Snowden revelations about NSA surveillance as ‘treason’ (rather ironic considering its self-declared support for press freedom).
An unhealthy intimacy between media moguls and politicians is hardly new but levels of media concentration across Europe are fostering a climate in which a handful of right-wing figures are able to exert growing political influence. Silvio Berlusconi may no longer be the Italian prime minister but his media interests still dominate Italian culture. In Hungary, the CEO of the second biggest commercial TV channel, TV2, is widely identified with the controversial governing party, Fidesz – an affiliation that has led to some 86% of political comment being dominated by representatives of the ruling parties. The Bulgarian media is dominated by Delyan Peevski who not only controls newspapers, websites, broadcast outlets and magazines, but was appointed head of the national security service in 2013. This decision was later overturned but he remains a hugely powerful political figure.
These are just some of the reasons why we need action to overturn media concentration and to press for genuine diversity in the media. In the UK, the House of Lords Communications Committee recently produced a report on media pluralism which called for more involvement from the communications regulator Ofcom, as opposed to ministers, in deciding on media mergers but still refused to recommend a course of action that might actually challenge existing media ownership structures. So while rumours continue about another bid by News Corp to take full control of BSkyB or about a joint bid by Discovery Communications and Sky to buy Channel 5, there are still no effective rules in place to prevent the further consolidation of the media by corporate interests.
It seems highly unlikely that, given the continuing influence of the largest media groups, any of the major political parties in Britain will make democratic media ownership a manifesto priority. But this should not stop us from trying, particularly as we have learned such a lot in the last few years about the corrosive relationships between senior politicians and media executives. We should also support the European Initiative for Media Pluralism, a grass roots campaign to secure enough signatures to force a European debate on tackling concentration. Today, news outlets across Europe, including La Repubblica in Italy, Le Soir in Belgium and openDemocracy in the UK, are devoting space to alt-phabet, a novel way of encoding news stories, to demonstrate the growing threats from states and media giants to pluralism and independence and to urge people to sign the petition.
Patterns of media ownership might not be able to tell us everything we need to know about how the media operate but they are certainly central to the reproduction of media power. As Stuart Hall once pointed out, media ownership might not be ‘a sufficient explanation of the way the ideological universe is structured, but it is a necessary starting point. It gives the whole machinery of representation its fundamental orientation in the value-system of property and profit.’ As long as we have a media culture that is accountable to a narrow range of corporate and state interests rather than the audiences and users who sustain it, then we will never get a media that is willing to challenge the powerful, to represent ordinary people or even adequately to make sense of the world.
This post originally appeared on the UK Coalition for Media Pluralism website and is reproduced with permission and thanks