Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Only the state should dominate the media, right Ed?

The ludicrous circus that is the Leveson Inquiry, has been filling media time for many weeks now.  In part because the media is so excessively solipsistic it think everyone else gives a damn.  Most don’t.

The key “story” being manufactured by this waste of time and money is whether News Corporation and Rupert Murdoch have “undue influence” over politicians.   The inquiry is meant to have a wider mandate that beating up on News Corp, but it is driven by politicians and bureaucrats whose agenda has that narrow focus.   

It’s important to bear in mind the extent to which News Corp is allegedly dominant in the UK media.  It owns, effectively, two daily newspapers.  The tabloid Sun and the more serious Times (and Sunday Times).  Like most British papers they don’t shy from expressing editorial views regarding politics.   However, that isn’t unusual.  The Sun’s direct competitor, the Daily Mirror has long been seen as a left wing tabloid, consistently supporting Labour (which of course means accusations of impropriety aren’t flung its way).  Its other competitors in the tabloid market (such as the Daily Star) take next to know interest in politics.  The mid market Daily Express and Daily Mail have tended to take an angry “anti-politics” view that slammed the last government and are not much more keen on this one.   

Of the serious papers, the Guardian/Observer is the leftwing rag of record, followed closely by the Independent, which largely tended to sympathise with the Liberal Democrats.  The Daily Telegraph has long been seen and acted as the “Torygraph”.  

This diversity of newspaper choice is astonishingly wide, and whilst the Sun and the Times are influential, it is generous to claim either are dominant, when the market is so split among others.  The Daily Telegraph remains the leading circulation serious paper, although the Sun leads the tabloids.
In broadcasting, BSkyB (minority owned by News Corp which sought to take it over 100%) is the major pay TV provider, yet it has competition in that market from Virgin Media (for the half of the country with cable TV) and BT.   However, the most influential broadcasters remain the TV extortion tax funded BBC and commercial operator ITV (followed closely by commercial state owned broadcaster Channel  4).  Sky News is one of the news channels, but it faces direct competition from the 24 hour BBC News channel (let alone a panoply of foreign ones).

So when Labour leader Ed Miliband decides that newspapers shouldn’t be “allowed” to have more than “20% of the market”, you might ask some questions not only about what he means by that, but why he thinks it is ok for the state to be dominant in TV and radio broadcasting.

For a start, the “market” he says is not clearly defined.  Does he mean nationwide newspapers?  What about local or regional newspapers?  Besides which, what if people actually LIKE buying the newspapers with bigger market share, does it mean that a proprietor with a very successful newspaper must do something to be less successful?

All this nonsense is taken even further when one looks at the British government’s overwhelming presence in the broadcasting market.

It owns two major free to air broadcasters.  The BBC and Channel  4.

The BBC itself has seven fully owned national TV channels, and owns a 50% shareholding in a company that broadcasts another ten channels.   It also has nine continuous nationwide radio stations and a network of regional and local radio stations.  

Channel  4 has six fully owned national TV channels (and five timeshifted +1 channels on top of that).

The state is by far the dominant TV and radio broadcaster in the UK, with its channels gaining a majority of the audiences in both media.  The BBC is also one of the most popular websites.
Of course it should hardly be surprising that the Labour Party thinks the state supplying news and entertainment to the masses is a good thing, since it presided over the rapid expansion of the BBC when it was in government.   However, this is a point the Conservative Party should be making.
Media dominance is the newspaper sector in one of the most competitive newspaper markets in the world is ludicrous, particularly when it is a sunset industry as circulation continues its ongoing erosion and people seek out online media and other options.

The questions raised about the influence of a single proprietor of two newspapers and one TV news channel are never raised about a vast organisation that dominates the TV and radio market, that has been recession proof (having been funded by a extortion racket called the TV licence that criminalises people who don’t pay it and haven’t the wherewithal to evade it successfully).  

The state should not have its hands on so many levers of media in a free society, out of principle.  That’s setting aside the myth about the impartiality of the BBC and Channel  4, both of which carefully select stories to report on with a line that demonstrates a certain perspective (for years, Euroscepticism was treated as the view of cranks, but not now).

I don’t have to buy the Times or the Sun or subscribe to Sky TV in the UK.  The influence of Rupert Murdoch on me is my choice.  I also don’t have to watch or listen to the BBC, although if I have a TV I am forced to pay for it regardless of whether I want it or not.

Attempts to restrict media ownership when plurality of the print media is so obvious are absurd, particularly when attention ought to be drawn to the dominance of the state in British broadcasting.  That dominance is not only unnecessary, but it is unsettling and has a profound influence upon political and public discourse.  It is about time a debate is had about weaning the UK public off of state broadcasting.  Privatising Channel  4 should be an uncontroversial early first step.   The bigger step should be weaning the BBC off of the TV licence fee so that every day it has to convince people to pay for it, not threaten them with court.

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