Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Media liberalisation in the UK

This has not been a great year so far for proponents of an independent media.

July 1, 2004
7 min read

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.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency