This blog is part of a series exploring proposals from our Manifesto for a People’s Media in more depth. Others are on: new models of accountability; why there is no replacement for public funding; and how that funding could be distributed democratically.
The Manifesto talks a lot about the need for media independence. Media have a crucial role to play in holding powerful interests to account, and in empowering marginalised communities – but to do this, they need to be independent of existing power holders such as governments and shareholders. If they are beholden to powerful groups and institutions, media cannot adequately interrogate their practices or worse, they become complicit in maintaining existing power relations however inept or corrupt they may be.
Threats to media independence can come from a range of directions. They can come from political parties and government, most obviously in the ways that successive governments have tried to influence the BBC. Wealthy owners and shareholders can also impede independence – it’s not an accident that only one of Murdoch’s 175 newspapers across the world opposed the Iraq war. Commercial constraints can also have more subtle but pervasive effects. For example, cuts to the number of journalists in newsrooms have led to a broad decline in the quality of journalism, particularly at the local level. As fewer journalists have to fill more and more space, there is little time for fact checking press releases – meaning that corporations or institutions like the police often get their perspectives reproduced uncritically as ‘news’.
Whether a media outlet is ‘truly independent’ or not is, of course, somewhat subjective, and the kind of power holders that media most need to be independent from vary across different contexts. For example, the Ferret – an investigative news platform in Scotland – has very deliberately positioned itself as nonpartisan on the question of Scottish independence, in order to provide a source of news that can be trusted by those on both sides of the debate. This wouldn’t be such a concern elsewhere in the UK.
Because the independence of specific pieces of content can be hard to ascertain, our proposals focus on structures which can support media to be part of challenging powerful interests. This blog will look at four of these: appointments, funding, empowering media workers and supporting plurality.
At the moment, the government has a say in appointments to senior positions across media and the arts, including at the BBC, Channel 4, Ofcom and the Arts Council. The current Conservative government in particular seems to be using these appointments to pursue naked political agendas, such as its failed attempt to make ex-Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre head of Ofcom. This gives the government of the day a lot of influence over the direction and priorities of these institutions.
The Manifesto proposes that government appointments at the BBC, Channel 4 and Ofcom should end. Instead, we propose that boards of all three organisation should have worker representation, and that the wider public should also have a say about who sits on those boards – this could be through processes like direct elections, or by having a range of civil society representatives.
We haven’t been too prescriptive about what this public involvement should look like because we think there are a number of different options that could work, and there needs to be some deeper thinking about exactly how they are designed. For example, if licence fee payers could directly elect the BBC’s Director General, we could see very low turnout elections (as we have for many Police and Crime Commissioners), running the risk of creating a lot of volatility for the BBC while not really making it more democratic. On the other hand, the BBC and Channel 4 are perfectly placed to publicise their own elections and inform the public about candidates and their positions – and if voting happened alongside paying the licence fee a good turnout would be guaranteed.
Another option is that the public and workers could elect an independent appointments panel, which could then take on the work of understanding the tricky technical details about who the best candidates would be. Whatever version of public involvement was decided on, pretty much any alternative to government appointments would ensure more independence from those holding political power than we see right now.
Independence is closely related to funding – often, powerful groups are able to exert control over media by threatening to cut off the money. We see this most clearly with the BBC, where the licence fee settlement process is often used to threaten it with funding cuts, sometimes very explicitly linked to unfavourable coverage of the government. We propose that the BBC should continue to be paid for with a ‘hypothecated tax’ (i.e. a tax that can’t be used for anything else) but that levels should be set by an independent body.
There are a number of international examples of how this could work. In Finland, funding for public media sits outside of the main state budget, helping to insulate it from political pressures, and in Germany their equivalent of the licence fee is set by a non-governmental body called KEF in order to limit political interference.
We also have an example here in the UK, in the form of the Press Recognition Panel (PRP). This was set up following the Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking and was created to be wholly independent of any other body or influence and to ensure that regulators of the UK Press and other news publishers are independent, properly funded and able to protect the public. The PRP’s board members can only be removed by the unanimous agreement of the other board members. Its own structures and governance can only be amended by a two thirds majority of each of the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Scottish Parliament, and with the unanimous agreement of the Board itself. These structures mean that it is protected from influence from powerful external forces.
For Channel 4, its current model of being funded by directly selling advertising does provide a level of independence from government compared to the BBC, and its political news coverage often seems to demonstrate this. However, this does mean it is more vulnerable to commercial pressures and the Channel has increasingly come to rely on cheap formats such as Reality TV, and ratings-chasing shows which sometimes perpetuate harmful stereotypes about marginalised groups, such as Benefits Street or The Truth about Traveller Crime.
These commercial pressures are likely to increase as the Channel copes with the long-term decline in TV advertising which is inevitable as viewing and advertising moves online. The Manifesto proposes that Channel 4 transitions to being funded by a cross-platform advertising levy, which would allow the organisation to focus on creating great programmes for the public rather than providing audiences and advertisers. Of course, this funding mechanism would need similar measures to safeguard Channel 4’s independence that we are proposing the BBC – one option is that the same independent body could be responsible for overseeing levels of funding for both institutions.
For independent media, we are suggesting significant new public funds but distributed using democratic mechanisms to preserve independence from major power holders – more detail on these ideas are here.
Empowering media workers
While media institutions themselves need to be independent of powerful interests, how those institutions are run as workplaces is also crucially important. The Manifesto contains a number of proposals for empowering media workers to avoid undue influence from editors and commissioners. One of these is bringing in a conscience clause for journalists (long argued for by the National Union of Journalists) which would allow them to refuse unethical assignments. Other proposals focus on providing better working conditions and supporting unions, as those who don’t have proper worker rights are less likely to be able to insist on following high standards. Our proposals for worker representation on the boards of the BBC and Channel 4, and for new forms of support to allow workers to buy out newspapers which are at threat of closure, would also help to empower workers.
It’s worth noting that the Manifesto does not talk about ideas like impartiality, objectivity or neutrality. These are contested terms within journalism, and some approaches (like peace journalism) actively reject them, arguing that they often provide a cover for serving powerful interests rather than challenging them. The idea of ‘impartiality’ can also be weaponised and interpreted in highly partisan ways – we’ve seen people who have tweeted support for Black Lives Matter, or campaigned for more diversity within media, being portrayed as not impartial enough to hold senior positions at the BBC. These conversations can be quite confusing and circular and become overly focused on specific pieces of content or individual people, missing the broader picture. Again, this is why we have focused on structural solutions which can create the conditions for independence rather than being too specific about the kind of content that should result from it.
Independence isn’t just a feature of specific media institutions, but it’s also about how the media ecology works as a whole. In theory, media organisations are supposed to be willing to invest in investigating elites and exposing abuses of power because they are competing with one another to break stories. This dynamic breaks down in a media system like we currently have in the UK which is highly concentrated in very few hands. When we don’t have enough plurality, media themselves become major power holders, and their interests are often aligned both with other elites and with one another. This was clearly demonstrated with the hacking scandal – most of our major newspapers knew this was going on at their competitors for years before the Guardian broke the story, but refused to report on it because they were also using the same illegal methods.
Having a more plural media system is one of the best safeguards of independence. Big national institutions such as the BBC, and to a lesser extent Channel 4, need the strongest measures to preserve internal independence, which is another reason we have proposed that they be radically decentralised to the regions and devolved nations. We also need measures to break up monopolies and reduce the power of media moguls, both in legacy media and digital tech giants. This isn’t the focus of the Manifesto, which is mostly concerned about how we build a media commons rather than what we do about our current commercial media – but the Media Reform Coalition has long-standing policy proposals for these as well.
If implemented together, these proposals could transform our media system and reorient it away from serving politicians and wealthy billionaires to serving communities and the wider public. This doesn’t mean that maintaining independence within the institutions of the media commons will be easy, or that there will be straightforward agreement on exactly what independence looks like. In fact, debating this question, proposing new structures or innovations to avoid elite interests taking over, and being accountable when these measures don’t work, will be crucial, ongoing practices for reproducing and sustaining the commons.