Building a free, just, and accountable media

In much of the world, democracy is under threat. The UK is no different. Its Conservative government and Prime Minister have an unrivalled track record for producing and disseminating misinformation. The BBC has proved unwilling all too often to challenge that misinformation, and the national press, largely controlled by oligarchs, has amplified it. On top of that, we are faced with the ever-expanding power of digital monopolies who continue to exert control and dominance over the flow of news and sharing of culture in ways that threaten the most basic tenets of democratic life.

The fallout from the Covid emergency has served as a painful reminder that the struggle for free and accountable media is not just important for democracy.
It is also a vital part of wider struggles for social justice, climate justice, as well as gender and racial equality. The tragedy of the 2017 Grenfell fire was set against the backdrop of prior concerns raised by local residents whose voices were left muted by a quiescent local press; while the victims of Hillsborough had to endure nearly 30 years of media lies before they were able to gain a semblance of restorative justice and correct the historical record.

The Sun and The Times – newspapers both owned by Rupert Murdoch – were heavily implicated in spreading those lies. And in spite of rampant criminality exposed in Murdoch’s newsrooms on both sides of the Atlantic – from phone-hacking to sexual harassment – he continues to enjoy unrivalled access to Number 10 and is now poised to fulfil his long-held
ambition of owning a UK television news channel.

In his 2012 report into the ethics and practices of the press, Lord Justice Leveson warned of the dangers posed to democracy by extraordinarily intimate relations between media owners and political elites. But nearly a decade on, it seems that little has changed. None of the national press has signed up to a regulator formally recognised as independent and robust according to Leveson’s recommendations. And in 2018 the Conservative government – backed by all of the national press – decided to cancel the second half of the Leveson Inquiry; the part intended to get to the bottom of the webs of corruption and cover up underlying the phone hacking scandal.

At the same time, there is mounting evidence to suggest that major algorithms are amplifying misinformation stemming from both the mainstream as well as alternative and extremist media. And there seems little doubt that this toxic mix has helped fuel an ascendant far right in many parts of the world. Building a movement for media democracy – in Britain and internationally – has never been more important or more urgent.

A useful starting point is Jeremy Corbyn’s 2018 Alternative MacTaggart speech, in which he set out four key areas where progressive change is both practical and most needed. First, he identified potentially new ways of funding and supporting public interest journalism that is independent of both the state and market. Local and investigative journalism in particular continues to face both the thin end of the wedge of cuts, as well as a digital ecosystem stacked in favour of major news brands and tabloid news content. A new settlement is needed that ensures some of the eye-watering profits generated by digital monopolies goes towards supporting those forms of news content that struggle to make a profit but have enormous public value.

The second key area is the BBC. A strong, independent public service media remains as vital as ever, and especially in an age of rampant disinformation and a billionaire press. But it’s equally clear that in its current constitution and framework, the BBC is neither accountable to, nor representative of the British public. Instead of taking meaningful steps towards this goal, the Conservative government consolidated its power over BBC appointments in the 2017 renewal of its charter.

But rather than being appointed by government, the BBC’s board could be elected by staff and/or license fee payers. And rather than being subject to periodic ‘charter renewal’ by the government, the BBC could be put on a permanent statutory footing with a more secure and independent funding mechanism. Such measures have established precedent in several European countries. Combined with a less centralised and more regionalised structure, they could go a long way to help ensure the BBC becomes genuinely independent of both state and market pressures.

The third area concerns media ownership and its impact on press freedom. It has become all too clear in recent years that the rhetoric of protecting press freedom adopted by the Tory government is really a proxy for protecting press power. There is little freedom for journalists when billionaire owners are able to control what goes on the front page or homepage on any given day, or when more subtle pressures can filter down through senior management and become internalised by journalists desperate to hold on to their jobs in an increasingly precarious working environment. That is why empowering journalists to participate in the governance of news organisations that reach a critical mass audience could be the most effective and realisable means of curbing the power of media moguls.

In his final pitch, Jeremy called for the establishment of a British Digital Corporation to sit alongside the BBC, with the goal of using “all of our best minds, the latest technology and our existing public assets not only to deliver information and entertainment to rival Netflix and Amazon but also to harness data for the public good”. The BBC itself was established in
response to the birth of broadcast technologies and the need for a public voice on the airwaves to “inform, educate and entertain”. But nearly a century later, there is now a pressing need for a publicly-owned and accountable organisation to offer an alternative to private gatekeepers in the realm of digital content and social media.

Like so much of socialism in the 21st Century, these ideas are practical and necessary. What they need is the force of political will and imagination, especially when it appears that media owners continue to wield such powerful influence over politicians across major parties.

The Peace and Justice Project is committed to working with a wide range of groups and organisations campaigning for a more just, free and accountable media. We will commission research, support grassroots actions and campaign to bring about a media system that is fit for the 21st Century, one that nourishes rather than distorts democratic debate; one that supports rather than constrains journalistic freedom; and, above all, one that speaks truth to power and gives voice to the voiceless.