The new politics of media ownership.

Author:Johnson, Joy
Position:Commentary - Essay

We are currently experiencing a plethora of crises--separate but interrelated. And while crisis is an overused word in today's circumstances it is entirely appropriate.

Dominating the political landscape is a global economic crisis of a magnitude we haven't seen for decades. With forecasts of a double dip recovery, those green-shoots on which the bankers are hallucinating may well turn out to be an illusion. For the two and half million jobless (and, if David Blanchflower's predictions are right, hundreds of thousands more yet to be added), it will be some time before illusion becomes reality.

Here in Britain, scandalised bankers have been reprieved by scandalised politicians. Details of MPs' expenses have brought shame upon themselves and the contempt of the public. A political crisis unprecedented in scope and scale as it affects the entire political class, although importantly not every politician. (A crisis not helped by the release by the House of Commons authorities of blacked out documents--'redacted' in the jargon--a presentational disaster equalled only by the Prime Minister's announcement of an inquiry into the run up and conduct of the Iraq War. Instead of an announcement that should have provided some respite for Gordon Brown, under attack on all fronts, siren voices turned the correct decision into a publicity blunder because a former Prime Minister wanted to protect his reputation.)

To add to the plethora we have a crisis in journalism brought about by technological challenges that have transformed the joy of serendipity of a newspaper into a media dubbed the 'Daily Me'. 'Point to point' technology of the internet, Twitter and so on, and the 'many to many' of the traditional mainstream media, are colliding and converging. And economic challenges have resulted in declining advertising revenues to add to the financial woes of an industry already witnessing declining newspaper sales.

It is for these reasons that there are demands among media owners for greater deregulation that would result in even greater concentration of media ownership. In a democracy this concentration creates a risk that points of views are monopolised into a single direction when what is required is the precise opposite--media diversity. For deregulation does not allow fresh independent voices into the mix. It does instead create the conditions for non-media conglomerates to enter the system, making scrutiny of the powerful (not only of government which is a necessary default position, but also of business) less likely.

Journalism in crisis

The crisis currently prevailing in journalism cannot be solely ascribed to structural challenges. It is also due to the failings of journalists in two important respects to fully report the world (Johnson, 2009).

First, while British journalists were not all out cheerleaders for the Iraq war in the same way as their counterparts in the States, nevertheless a large section of the media reported the war as a predetermined view, one to be explained rather than one to be critically quizzed. There were of course honourable exceptions--the Daily Mirror and the Independent actively campaigned against the war, while the Guardian on balance was more anti-war than in favour. There has also been a limited amount of journalistic soul searching. As I have written in an earlier Renewal, the BBC's political editor Nick Robinson regretted that he did not 'push hard enough'; he did not ask enough questions, instead regarding his role as presenting government's thinking--to explain the decision rather than critically analyse it. To be fair to Nick, and one of the reasons in my view for this, and arguably other professional failings, is the narrowness of specialisms with political journalists working the Westminster beat, and all too frequently captured by their sources.

Being captured by one's sources is one thing but alas at times political journalists appear to suffer from some form of 'Stockholm syndrome'. Preparing a paper for a conference at the University of Westminster in partnership with the British Journalism Review, I spoke to a number of journalists and was stunned by a comment from Andy McSmith who, recalling a lobby briefing while political editor of the Independent on Sunday, told me:

Normally lobby correspondents, even from competitors, are very polite to one another, but I remember one Sunday the lobby briefing with Alistair (Campbell) was by telephone conference call. It was in the run-up to the war in Iraq and the theme of the UN resolution or weapons of mass destruction. I should say even those papers and journalists who were against the war still thought Hussein had WMD ... The real difficulty for the government was that they couldn't produce a serious argument that these weapons were a threat to Britain. On this Sunday, when I asked Alistair a question, a journalist from another newspaper that supported the war, called me a 'surrender monkey'. It made it very easy for Alastair to knock my question back. This provides a vivid demonstration of how journalists can act in concert with political media managers. Instead of scrutiny we have complicity.

The second important journalistic failing was the apparent loss of critical faculties at the feet of the masters of universe who were indulging in reckless risk taking. While the speed of the economic firestorm following the collapse of Lehman Brothers may have been unpredictable, the warnings of the economic storm to come had been building up over time and had been chronicled by journalists such as Larry Elliott, Gillian Tett and Will Hutton.

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