Posted by Kathy Lowe
The political crisis opened up by the News of the World phone-hacking scandal continues to unravel. But what lies behind this crisis and what are the chances for change in the media?
Never before have questions about who owns and controls the means of communication, the ethical behaviour of journalists and the social responsibility of media organisations become such a talking point in society. The fact that the examples of corruption and illegality uncovered by the Leveson Inquiry hearings have been televised and widely publicised has only added to the furore.
Rupert and James Murdoch have emerged from their appearances before Leveson with zero credibility as has culture secretary Jeremy Hunt. The culture secretary is holding on to his job by the seat of his pants after James Murdoch revealed emails appearing to show what campaigners had strongly suspected all along - that Hunt's office had smoothed the way for the Murdoch empire's bid to control BSkyB.
As the Leveson inquiry progresses it has become clear that complicity between the police and the press is widespread and that not only News International but other branches of the media too have been employing dirty tricks to get their stories.
Pressure groups in their submissions to Leveson have argued that the popular press's insatiable appetite for sensationalism and gossip also creates a climate in which racism, sexism and homophobia thrive. Standards have reached rock bottom.
All this comes as no surprise in a society where the means of communication is treated by many as a commodity - created to make profits and manipulate opinions in favour of those in power. But what has led to the present collapse of the culture, practices and ethics of the media in the UK?
The root causes can be traced as far back as the 1984/85 miners' strike whose defeat by the Thatcher government opened the way for ever greater attacks on workers, including media workers. It spurred on Rupert Murdoch to outlaw unions in News International, provoking the bitterly-fought 1986 Wapping dispute. The defeat of the striking printers and journalists at Wapping led to a whole section of the press becoming de-unionised and enabled right-wing editors like Kelvin MacKenzie and Andrew Neil to tighten their grip on staff. This is how reporters lost their collective voice in the newsroom. Some became less able to resist the demands of their bosses for “juicy stories" at any cost. Others were simply bought off by big salaries.
Without strong unions to moderate their ambitions the media magnates have used their sway over like-minded politicians to the full. Rupert Murdoch found in Margaret Thatcher a natural ally for his pro-privatisation, anti-EU and anti-union agenda. In 1995 Tony Blair, deciding that the support of Murdoch was crucial to electoral success, wooed News International and made sure New Labour abandoned long-standing policies on media ownership. David Cameron curried favour by hiring former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, reigning in the regulator Ofcom, relaxing the rules on cross media ownership and pledging to tear up the BBC Charter.
The BBC's public service broadcasting remit has been constantly undermined by successive governments to placate the big media groups. The BBC licence fee serves as a democratic levy on all viewers and radio listeners – a fair way of catering for a wide range of entertainment, cultural, and information needs irrespective of whether programmes command mass audiences. But recent licence fee rises have been held down. In fact the Tory-LibDem coalition has now frozen the fee altogether, thereby pushing BBC bosses into attempts to make further cuts of 20 per cent over the next five years. The broadcasting unions fighting this move say it will mean the loss of 2,000 jobs and reductions in core news and quality programming across the BBC.
The relentless drive towards deregulation has hit quality and diversity across the board.
ITV was brought to its knees by the disastrous 1990 Broadcasting Act which allowed the auction of the 15 regional franchises to the highest bidders and replaced the traditional public service regulatory system with the “light touch" Independent Television Commission (ITC) . Then the 2003 Communications Act cleared the way for a single ITV company. The regional companies merged local news, programming was cut back, the money paid to ITN to provide national and international news sharply reduced, and acclaimed current affairs programmes such as World in Action and This Week simply disappeared.
Scant concern by both Tories and New Labour for rules governing the concentration of media ownership has left three groups in control of over 70 per cent of the national press while four companies dominate local newspapers.
The choice of media outlets has shrunk in the recession as well. Twelve local newspapers were closed in England last November alone as the big chains hacked away at costs in order to maintain their profits in a declining market. The response of media companies to the recession and the fall in advertising has been to make cutbacks, shed staff and drastically reduce quality of output. In many areas news operations are now centralised miles away from the communities they are supposed to serve.
Even so, given the present outrage about the role of the media, isn't there a chance of change for the better? There are a number of positive factors.
The misdeeds of journalists involved in phone-hacking were exposed by other journalists. As CPBF points out: 'It is no coincidence that the media with the highest professional standards – the Guardian, Financial Times, the Independent and Telegraph groups and the BBC and ITV News – are those with the strongest National Union of Journalists representation.'
The BBC is bowed but not broken and the idea of public service broadcasting remains the clearest counterpoint to the ultra-commercial model.
Despite attempts by governments to muzzle the internet there is still a great deal of diversity of information online. Many independent websites in Britain are now run by journalists trying to fill the gap left by defunct newspapers, news agencies and local radio and TV stations. Social media with its citizen journalists around the world acts as a catalyst in building radical networks and whole movements.
The notion that concentrations of media power are a danger to democracy has now entered the popular consciousness. New debates about the need for reform are galvanising unions, labour movement activists, academics, lawyers and media freedom campaigners to come up with alternative proposals.
So what kind of reforms should be supported?
Outside of a far-reaching, radical shake-up in how society is run there is obviously a limit to what can be done to hold the big media corporations more accountable. Self-regulation by the industry, as shown by the abysmal record of Press Complaints Commission, is widely seen as a non-starter.
Various proposals for some kind of independent regulation with statutory backing are being looked at by bodies including the NUJ and CPBF. The aim is to enforce standards and guarantee a full and prompt right of reply for those who feel they have been wronged by inaccurate, scurrilous or intrusive coverage.
Unions and campaigners could also capitalise on the public outcry about the conduct of the media by asking all media outlets to sign up to a Charter for Fair Coverage and by mounting a consumer boycott of those refusing to carry a “Sleaze-Free" logo.
Among the reforms needed to raise standards of journalism must be the restitution of the right of all journalists to organise in their workplaces and be protected from disciplinary action or dismissal if they refuse assignments they feel to be unethical. The NUJ already has a code of conduct. Union workshops and conferences should remind members of the code and discuss issues raised by the content of what they produce as journalists as well as their terms and conditions.
Apart from tighter regulation and sanctions the grip of the media barons can only be loosened by strengthening diversity in news, entertainment and all forms of cultural expression. To this end the BBC must be fully funded through the licence fee, statutory limits enforced on how much any one company can own and public interest requirements must be placed on all media. Resources must be made available for developing independent newspapers, films, theatre TV and radio production and there would have to be strong worker and community representation in the running of these initiatives.
Some of these steps may be propaganda demands at this stage but they provide a powerful vision for the future and show that another kind of media, like another kind of society, is definitely possible.
Kathy Lowe is a member of the CPBF national council.