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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.

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