Greg Dyke and Gavyn Davies were forced out of the BBC because of one report that had the audacity to suggest that the government exaggerated the threat of weapons of mass destruction. Piers Morgan, the editor of the anti-war Mirror, was escorted out of Canary Wharf for daring to suggest that British soldiers may have been involved in systematic abuse of Iraqi soldiers – a proposition too incredible for Trinity Mirror shareholders to bear. Meanwhile, the editors of the Sun, the Star and the Express are all happily in post despite their predictions of a horde of gypsies descending on the UK after EU enlargement, besieging our generous benefits system and stealing our good weather. And, of course, not one single government minister nor one single editor has resigned for misleading viewers and readers about the existence of WMD.
This is the political flip side of an atmosphere inside the British media in which success is measured by ratings, scoops, profits and watercooler talk. It is a system in which “creativity” and “competitiveness” are increasingly the yardsticks by which media performance is measured, a system that has progressively been opened up to market forces since Labour came to office in 1997. The government’s 2003 Communications Act is a huge boost to the project of liberalisation and connects with its desire to see market principles spread to all areas of public life.
The Communications Act sanctioned the takeover of commercial television channels by non-EU companies and formally instituted Ofcom, the new super-regulator which has already signalled its intent to smooth the way for further liberalisation. Led by a former adviser to Blair and a former managing director of the highly unsuccessful and debt-ridden cable company NTL, one of its first decisions was to appoint Luke Johnson as the new chairman of Channel 4. He is a businessman with no experience of broadcasting apart from the fact that he made his money from owning the restaurants in which TV stars eat. What are his real qualifications? According to someone who knows him: “Luke’s completely money-mad. There is not a scintilla of understanding of public service broadcasting in him. He does have a sort of glamour that comes from being rich and comparatively young” (The Guardian, 2 February 2004). Just the sort of man to deliver public service principles in a liberalised climate.
Ofcom’s light touch regulation is accompanied by the highly interventionist and politicised role of government in influencing both long-term policy and everyday media content. It’s not just the spin and constant harassment from Number Ten that should disturb us, but the more profound alliances between Blair and the media establishment.
Let us not forget that a decisive part of the history of New Labour was its determination to win the support of media moguls, particularly Rupert Murdoch, and the backing of the Sun. In 1996, Blair flew halfway round the world to address News Corporation executives and it was New Labour MPs who argued at the time against the Conservatives in favour of loosening cross-media ownership restrictions. It was Blair who took time out of his busy schedule in 1998 to make a personal phone call to his friend Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian premier, supporting Murdoch’s bid to buy an Italian TV station. In 2001 the Labour Party accepted a £100,000 donation from porn baron Richard Desmond, the new owner of the Express, who was obviously wishing to curry favour with Downing Street. It is inconceivable that Blair’s decision to agree to a referendum on the EU constitution was taken without checking first with Rupert Murdoch or his chief negotiator Irwin Steltzer.
Domestic liberalisation is being accompanied by the ongoing negotiations under the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) over incorporating free trade disciplines into the audio-visual industries. GATS is moving very slowly as countries first take requests on which sectors to “open up” and then make offers based on these requests. Given that the EU has refused to make any commitments in the area of audio-visual in the name of protecting cultural diversity, it is hard to see any immediate shake-up of the media environment.
However there are two points to consider. The country that is striving most eagerly for GATS to be applied to audio-visual is the USA with obviously the most to gain from opening up markets across the world to Hollywood products. It has responded to EU stubbornness by saying that an audiovisual exemption for the EU is “not something that we could agree to”. Difficult and protracted negotiations look likely. Secondly, whether things move quickly or not, the principles that underlie the GATS – a firm ideological commitment to markets in all areas of public life – have been entrenched both by the multilateral negotiations and by national legislation like that passed recently in the UK and the US with its loosening of ownership restrictions.
What are the consequences of this drive to liberalise? The intense competition for profits sees newspapers chasing each other for populist rewards with anti-strike, anti-asylum seeker and anti-welfare stories. Can we really expect balanced, thoughtful contributions to public life in an environment driven by such narrow commercial and ideological motivations? A partial exception to this can be seen with coverage of the Iraq war where papers like the Mirror, Independent and sometimes the Guardian overtly challenged government arguments. In my opinion, this is the exception that proves the rule. Critical coverage here was not proof of an innately lively and diverse press but evidence of the massive splits and arguments within the government, military, security services and amongst the public. The press became one forum in which these differences were aired. Much of this space has since been closed – look at the Mirror’s return to a diet of celebrity gossip.
The future of public service broadcasting (PSB) is also up for grabs over the next few years in the context of Charter renewal in 2006 and the fallout from the Hutton Inquiry. Despite public support for the BBC and PSB in general (as shown by audience research published in the recent Ofcom review of PSB), the government are threatening a number of options intended to discipline the Corporation: to bring it under the control of Ofcom, to open up licence fee payments to all commercial broadcasters or to turn the BBC into a subscription-only organisation. All of these will introduce more commercial pressures on the BBC – perhaps not surprising given Tessa Jowell’s recent statement that programmes like Pop Idol, Big Brother and I’m a Celebrity are all “legitimate” examples of public service broadcasting.
It is a grim picture but not too grim. The splits amongst the political and military establishment during the war gives just a glimpse of what the media could offer up as a forum of debate. The fact that BBC workers spontaneously walked out to protest against what they saw as a challenge to the independence of the BBC is also grounds for optimism. Finally the growing demands in the anti-corporate, anti-war and anti-capitalist movements for a democratic, grass roots, accountable and independent media system is certainly symbolic of a crucial shift taking place. The issue of media policy, so often buried in corporate boardrooms, civil service offices and government bunkers, is literally taking to the streets.
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play!
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill