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Media Ownership – Should We Be Worried?

March 3, 2011

It’s not a rhetorical question, I’m asking you to think about it for a moment.

Today saw the announcement which many news-junkies on the left have been dreading. News Corporation will be shortly be allowed to purchase the remaining 61% of BSkyB, to complete a full takeover of the company. News Corp will then own Sky TV, 20th Century Fox, the News of the World, The Sun and The Times, to name but a few of those best known within the UK. (Incidentally, the full list of assets owned by News Corporation is well worth looking at in more detail, if only for it’s sheer frightening magnitude.)

The deal was given the green light following Rupert Murdoch’s decision to ‘spin off’ Sky News into a brand new company, which we’re told will be given full editorial independence from News Corp, who lets not forget will still own 39.1% of the station and provide the vast majority of it’s income. The responsibility to negotiate the deal passed to Jeremy Hunt back in December, following an embarrassing gaffe by Vince Cable, where he foolishly ‘declared war’ on Murdoch to two undercover reporters from the Telegraph newspaper.

The reaction to this news has been fairly predictable, and it was long expected by many. For example, Labour MP Tom Watson earlier today described it as a capitulation to Murdoch, and suggested that there’s nothing to stop him simply opening “a new news channel” if he so wishes:

In my own opinion, there appear to be two schools of thought on the matter within the political left. Firstly there are those who take the same view as Mr Watson, that the takeover is a negative event, which will degrade the quality and impartiality of the news we receive. For example, in the Guardian today, Steven Barnett discusses how much power this will give Murdoch, and whether one corporation can be trusted with so much influence over our society and our democracy:

This deal will create a hugely powerful newspaper, TV, online and ISP media conglomerate that will dwarf every other media organisation in the UK, with guaranteed rising profits for years, on a scale that would not be contemplated in any other self-respecting mature democracy.

That yet more unaccountable power should be gathered into the hands of one corporation – and ultimately one man – should give us pause to think seriously about the threat to democracy and the massive failure by our governments, our regulators and our parliamentary representatives to stand up for the public interest in media pluralism.

The Sky News spinoff: muddled meddling or craven capitulation? – Guardian

Others, such as the always-insightful Steven Baxter, wonders whether this deal will pave the way for future cross-promotion between the various range of different News Corp brands:

You have to wonder what kind of tie-ups there will be between the Sky channels and the paywall-protected News Corp newspapers. Might we be able to get a subscription to the Times or the Sun bundled in with your broadband or your TV channels, for example? Might we get a peep behind the paywall as part of our TV subscription?

What if the News Corp newspaper websites provided video news content that might compete with the new “independent” Sky News? And who would regulate that? Richard Desmond is leading the way with a dizzying series of cross-platform plugs for his various Northern and Shell products; it would be naïve, I think, to imagine that the new News Corp wouldn’t do the same, or better.

As well as that, many of us are wondering what regulations or restrictions there would be in place, if any, to prevent BSkyB from establishing a loss-leading news channel to sit alongside the independent Sky News, one which could be completely controlled by News Corp — a Fox News UK, if you can imagine such a thing.

Fox News UK? It could still happen – New Statesman

However, a second school of thought exists, one which shares all of the views I have highlighted above, but which also minimises the perceived impact of this particular media takeover. It does this by minimising the future prospects of all mainstream news sources.

Proponents of this (perhaps overly optimistic) theory would suggest that the emergence of alternative and non-commercial media sources has the potential to one day eclipse the corporate dominance over our media narrative. Media Lens discussed this in a recent alert:

Until very recently, no system of power seemed more invincible than the corporate media. One hundred years ago, industrialisation handed a near-total monopoly of the means of mass communication to a tiny elite with the money to buy and run the printing presses and, later, TV studios. The tendency to see the future in the present generated dystopic visions of ever more sophisticated technology empowering ever tighter control: thus George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

And yet, through a further twist of technological fate, the digital revolution has broken the elite monopoly and scattered it to the four winds – to be captured by a mobile phone camera here, a Twitter Tweeter there, by bloggers, vloggers, citizen journalists and Facebook posters.

Tyranny And Rebellion – The Breaking Of The Corporate Media Monopoly

However, is this a realistic assessment of the power of social networks and collaborative media? As we have seen recently from the protests across Tunisia and Egypt, social networking does provide an opportunity for mass movements to coordinate and for dissenting information to be broadcast where it would normally be omitted or actively repressed, but can this same concept be applied to the gathering and dissemination of news in western democracies?

Possibly the best example of non-corporate media in action would be Democracy Now, an award-winning US independent news programme based in New York, which produces a daily television show and podcast which can be streamed or downloaded from their website. The show began in 1996 and relies on funding from viewers and charitable foundations for it’s continued operation.

Democracy Now is therefore quick to emphasise it’s independence and it’s shunning of advertising and censorship. They focus on issues, both domestic and international, which they believe are either under-reported or ignored by  mainstream media outlets. This distance from corporate control is undeniably conducive to more honest, rational reporting, as anyone who – like me – regularly watches the show will surely testify. But could this model be repeated in the UK, and if so, whatever are we waiting for?

This article began by posing a fairly complex question: should we be worried about the concentration of media ownership? I suppose the disappointingly simple answer is that it all really comes down to what value you place on the independence and impartiality of the news you receive and perhaps more importantly, what we as citizens are willing to do collectively to alter the status-quo.

Personally, I’m far from convinced that the corporately dominated mainstream media will be disappearing any time soon, but this certainly doesn’t stop me hoping that the conditions might one day exist where it might not be quite as influential as it is today.

[Article Image Credit: World Economic Forum on Flickr]

3 Responses to Media Ownership – Should We Be Worried?

  1. Paul on March 9, 2011 at 8:52 pm

    “News Corporation will be shortly be allowed to purchase the remaining 61% of BSkyB, to complete a full takeover of the company”

    Technically they’ve been allowed to continue with a bid to purchase the remaining 61%, which is a bit different. Given that the last offer was 700p per share and the share price is now 829p, plus shareholders will want a premium, there’s every chance that News Corp won’t succeed. Assuming a price of 850p (not unreasonable), News Corp would have to raise their bid by over 20%.

  2. Jonathan Davis on March 9, 2011 at 9:00 pm

    Ahh, I wasn’t aware of the increase in the share price. However, I’m sure I remember someone mentioning it to me previously as a possible stumbling block.

    I suppose Murdoch could always just sit tight and wait until the share price drops back to an acceptable level, it might take longer that way, but I doubt it’ll stop them in the long-run.

  3. […] One blogger, Jonathon Davis talks about media ownership and the problems about how most of our news is coming from five companies in his blog. […]

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