Media regulation: Rectifying the flaw

On 25 April, Demsoc is holding a discussion event on media regulation and new democracy at the RSA in London. This contribution to the debate comes from Dave Boyle. If you would like to attend, numbers are limited, but a few free tickets are left.

In his famous mea culpa, Alan Greenspan told the US Congress that there was a flaw at the heart of his vision of capitalism, which was that he hadn’t expected shareholders of companies to be unable to ensure their own interests were protected; in his world, such self-interest would serve to provide the wider interest in true neo-liberal fashion.

One can quibble how long it took Greenspan’s to alight on his flaw, but at least he was able to spot a problem. Not so the debate on media regulation in the UK, which continues to imagine that despite the manifest failings revealed by ‘hackgate’, and the intense discussion of what will change in the future as a result, only privately controlled media will be in business to provide public interest journalism.

Of course, such ownership is a fact of the media landscape, and has been for generations. It’s as if our media landscape is seen to have enough diversity in it already, what with the BBC and The Guardian, and in any case, both of those were in place by the 1930s, so clearly our days of creating alternatives are behind us.

But to posit the continuation of this private ownership in the future in the face of the economic and social challenges faced by modern media organisations seems to be as tendentious an assumption as it is unimaginative.

Thinking about alternatives opens out some very interesting possibilities, not least in terms of transforming the way the media are funded (I write much more about this in the report I’ve just written for Co-operatives UK) but it also has a big impact on the regulation debate.

To regulate the media is to provide a means of holding it to account; indeed, a key feature of ‘hackgate’ is the lack of accountability at any stage in the process.

At best, we can say the privately-owned media corporation has proven unable to hold its managers, editors and writers to account and has failed to prevent a ‘win at all costs’ mentality, incubating a culture of anything goes to get the scoop. But what if – far from being a failure of the system – such behaviour is an inevitable conclusion of a system in which ethics and good journalism are provided as by-products of a system based on securing shareholder value?

This isn’t to say that owners and shareholders have instructed their editors to lower ethical standard in pursuit of stories but that they don’t need to, as that’s what the system pressurizes them to do. This isn’t about circulation wars, since shareholders are interested in maximum profit, not necessarily maximum sales. If you can cut costs faster than circulation falls, value is still created for shareholders.

It’s a self-defeating strategy from the perspective of a robust, sustainable and resourced media, but that’s not actually in the DNA of these companies. It was once part of the raison d’etre of journalism but the heart of Nick Davies’ concept of churnalism is about how that has been driven out, down or to the side by the relentless focus on margins.

As a result, those with an interest in a better media, one which supports civic society, have had to seek mechanisms external to media enterprises to bring this about, namely regulation. So one of the key notions underpinning regulation is of bringing a public interest to bear on a private provider of a public good.

Regulation then is an attempt to deal with the consequences of the flaw, but we now have an unparalleled opportunity to rectify it at the source.

Co-operative media have a virtue of being accountable and democratic, responsive to the needs of their members, be they the employees, the consumers or a mixture of the two. Both have been offered take it or leave it choices by the owners and managers of our media; if they leave it, things don’t improve, with circulation declines seemingly prompting even greater breaches in the dash for scoops, increasing the pressure on reporters to conform or get the push.

Not so at the West Highland Free Press where the staff bought the paper from the founding owners in 2009. The alternative was a buyout by one of the major groups of local news media, who would doubtless soon have cut staff numbers, their security, their salaries and their independence. Based on bitter experience in other communities, the likelihood is they would also have cut the local coverage and slowly withdrawn the physical presence from the area. The paper, losing goodwill and readers in equal measure, might have limped on, before closing. The owners would have blamed the challenging economics of distributing over a wide rural area in the age of the internet rather than own short sighted focus on the bottom line.

Thankfully, the journalists at the West Highland Free Press have preserved their numbers, their readers and their goodwill. They put out a quality publication, on time, every week, and in so doing, encourage a productive culture of competitiveness with others in the media ecosystem. The BBC’s presence is stronger and keener knowing that it has a rival for good stories, and public bodies know that with such an ecosystem, maladministration is far likelier to be commented on. Accountability for the paper to the interested journalists spins off to a wider public.

Open, accountable and accessible media offers a chance to break apart the monoculture of standard wisdom that passes for news values. Earlier in my career, I had the job of trying to get journalists interested in news from a small campaign group; the journalists often agreed that these were important stories but doubted that their superiors would feel the same. Those more senior people had a set of news values about what was and wasn’t legitimate subject matter that they would say was based on what readers really wanted, as opposed to what high-brow types would wish their readers were interested in.

This invocation of a public of straw men can give way to the actual voices of that public, not through clickthroughs and comments but through considered advocacy and engagement with all stages of the production process.

How do we get there? The advantage is the media’s economic weakness, with everyone pretty much agreed that to survive, existing media must undergo significant change. So the first hurdle for change – that the status quo resists – is lower than it has been for generations. Add in the fact that ability of the status quo to fight alternatives through their entrenched position is similar weaker, and it’s clear that it’s a real moment to seize. The future is open to new models which can be responsive, accountable and sustainable.

Public policy can assist in several ways. We can extend the definition of an asset in the Localism Act from physical – buildings, land etc – to services of value to a community, and in so doing we enable communities to bid to take their media into their own hands. Providing finance to communities to do so through tax reliefs to encourage co-operative investment would speed the rate of change. (As the situation with Scottish land demonstrates, the power to buy land is negligible without the capital to achieve it). Similar to what the US Community Reinvestment Act did for banks, existing owners could be compelled to offer facilities and titles to the public in an area before they could be closed (or merged) to cash in.

The obvious rejoinder to this is that such notions are impractical. Getting from here to there is certainly challenging, to say the least but impractical has one up on impossible. That’s the reality of hoping that private ownership can be relied on to provide the public good as a by-product of chasing shareholder value or private influence. Equally impossible is the notion that whilst the threat of sanction might stop them acting like a private Stasi, it won’t bring about the kind of media democracy we will need in the next 30 years.

Co-operation is often described as not-for-profit, which soon looks like ‘never makes a surplus’, a problem far too common in the current media. This is a mis-categorisation; co-operatives are about more-than-profit. They must make a profit or else they die, but they must also do more than that or they’re pointless. There’s an honesty to co-operative ownership of media that evades a problem of many other touted solutions, namely that the state or charities or foundations should step in to provide people with a media they need, regardless of whether or not it’s what they want.

A media co-op would fail is if it produces something which not enough people want. And if not enough people want a decent media, then that is a greater problem than anything Leveson is uncovering.

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