More noise, fewer voices

Powerful vested interests must not dictate who owns the media, says Steven Barnett
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The Independent Online
At a conference today, four powerful media groups will be trying to persuade us that they are not powerful enough. The British Media Industry Group (BMIG) - representing Associated Newspapers, the Guardian Media Group, Pearson and the Telegraph Group - are pursuing a determined campaign to get cross-media ownership restrictions relaxed to allow newspaper groups to expand into television and vice versa. Last week they published proposals for calculating some "objective" criteria on how new rules might operate. Their methods are bogus and their conclusions specious.

Current rules are straightforward and are based simply on ownership. Newspaper proprietors can own no more than 20 per cent of a terrestrial television company, with similar restrictions applying to local radio and cable. They are based on the principle that, in the interests of pluralism, access to one major medium should preclude access to others.

The BMIG proposals attempt to shift the emphasis from ownership to what they call "share of voice". By analysing newspaper circulation, television viewing and radio listening - and after down-weighting radio by an arbitrary 50 per cent - they come up with an impressive-looking league table. And which grasping, expansionist media mogul heads the list, and is therefore first in line for any divestment? The BBC. At 19.7 per cent of "national voice", Auntie is well ahead of the field. Rupert Murdoch's News International limps into second place with a pathetic 10.6 per cent.

This attempt to downplay the extent of Britain's concentrated ownership falls on two counts. First, by including both the BBC and Channel Four, the BMIG is knowingly diluting the influence of those who are permitted to express an opinion. Newspapers can be as biased and passionate as they want in furtherance of their views. Most are. Broadcasters are bound by law to be impartial, and to balance any expression of opinion.

Second, it makes unproven assumptions about relative impact. There is no evidence that if the same number of people read an article and watch a television programme with the same message, the impact will be identical, or that the impact on radio will be half. Intuitively, it is nonsense. The origins of this table are in corporate self-interest and business expansion; its attempt to "measure" diversity is little more than a PR exercise, designed to convince sceptics that the BMIG has democracy's interests at heart.

The fact is that ownership matters. It is not just that newspaper proprietors have inordinate power to advance their own political opinions. It is that different owners have different visions of the world, different attitudes to news and different conceptions of journalism itself. The Labour Party may have sighed with relief when Murdoch signalled his willingness to back it at the next election, but one man's political pragmatism does not solve the problem of diversity. As the Labour MP Chris Mullin said in the House of Commons in January: "What I fear most is not political bias, but the steady growth of junk journalism - the trivialisation and demeaning of everything that is important in our lives."

Perhaps the greatest danger lies in the absence of any forum for a reasoned debate about the public interest. Most newspapers are party to the cause of relaxing cross-ownership rules and (with the exception of an occasional column) are not going to editorialise against their own business interests. Meanwhile, politicians are mindful of party political advantage. With Labour teetering on the edge of power and the Tories desperate to win backtheir big newspaper guns, neither side is about to tempt an editorial backlash. So who will speak for the public?

Not for a generation has the volatile electoral situation given proprietors so much power to influence the policy process in their own industry. No amount of playing about with dodgy figures and fanciful league tables can conceal their determination to change the rules with scant regard for the needs of pluralism and democracy.

The author is senior lecturer in communications at Westminster University and co-author of `The Battle for the BBC'.

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