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Chapter 16: Liberal Legacies and Media Reform after Neoliberalism

Published onSep 11, 2019
Chapter 16: Liberal Legacies and Media Reform after Neoliberalism

Of the values liberalism has bestowed on media, plurality ranks high. Yet to address the failures of both liberal and neoliberal approaches to media plurality we need the insights of the radical tradition.

In the West, the governing values forming twentieth-century communications were liberal, albeit split into its libertarian, private-property-protecting forms, and more interventionist, social market variants. Modern liberalism supported measures to ensure public value, from obligations on private trustees of the airwaves in the United States, to public service media, and measures to safeguard political and, later, cultural diversity, ranging from press subsidies to ownership controls. Over the last four decades neoliberalism has become the dominant value system, favouring ‘deregulation’ and free markets, although it has not supplanted entirely the justifications for positive intervention for social and cultural ends, or indeed allowed free market rhetoric to hamper statist action on behalf of capital control, and social control. Liberalism has been displaced, but challenging neoliberalism requires acting upon radical critiques.

Liberalism values a plural media but, in general, has wished the ends while restricting the means. Classic liberalism made the values of free speech conditional on private media ownership. Twentieth-century liberalism remained troubled by state intervention in media markets, yet, grappling with corporate combinations and commercialism, built a case for states to use the wealth of government and the rule of law to support public service media, subsidies, and obligations on private providers. Accompanying social welfare policies and the socialisation of rights, there have been demands for the providers of communication services to serve society as a whole, justifying action to tackle ownership and regulate services. But on the whole, liberalism has favoured non-intervention to protect press freedom, while its more technical justifications for public service media are widely regarded as having lost salience in a putative digital marketplace of ideas. Neoliberalism fused the various grounds for non-intervention with a more strident form of re-regulation that favoured commercial market actors and attacked public interest regulation as impeding innovation, outdated, and paternalist. Liberal approaches are still embedded in institutional and governance arrangements but face a variety of crises of effectiveness, reach, and legitimacy across media systems.

The radical tradition has tended to make three key critiques of liberal media policies. Firstly, the free press model makes liberal values contingent on privately owned and controlled media. Second, liberalism discounts the structural imbalances of power in capitalist media systems that amplify the voices and interests of elites, dominant capital interests and pro-system values through corporate ownership and control, marketers’ influence, a reliance on official sources and resource-rich public relations, and the selection, management, and socialisation of media professionals. It is not only state actors who implement censorship: the market too serves to censor and organise speech rights. Third, plurality needs to extend to groups and interests marginalised within prevailing systems and cultures—which requires more thoroughgoing intervention than liberalism generally sanctions. Recent studies have highlighted the marginalisation of women in film-making,1 of BAME workers in the creative industries,2 and of limited working class access to industries that continue to shred the employment rights gained through unionisation and anti-discrimination efforts.3

Reform agendas need to identify the problems to be tackled and the scope for action. This varies considerably across, and within, media systems, where the state-party-market tripartite relationship ranges from neoliberal light touch, to social market, to market authoritarian and statist. Building policies and wider support for reform also requires understanding how neoliberalism infuses communications, not just via regulations but also through content, services, and behaviour in communications environments. We need to know how neoliberalism is ‘articulated,’ to use Stuart Hall’s4 resonant attempt to think through linkages without sacrificing complexity for determinism.

Take Channel 5 in the United Kingdom as an illustration. At the governance level, Channel 5 is the result of 1990s liberalisation, constrained within a progressively weakening public service framework. At the corporate level Channel 5’s £450 million sale to Viacom in 2014 shifted control to a US-based, top-tier global media firm, from national capital, Richard Desmond’s Northern & Shell, which owns four UK newspapers including the Daily Express and Daily Star, the Irish Daily Star (jointly owned with the Irish Independent Group), celebrity/consumer magazines including OK magazine, and television services, amongst other holdings. The drive for profitability that is integral to this capitalist media model has more complex articulation in the particularities of Desmond’s management, mixing cost-cutting with cross-promotion, chasing a commercially successful, celebrity-laden entertainment formula and enthusiastically integrating ad-financed shows and product placement into Channel 5’s suite of channels before their sale to Viacom (itself heavily involved in integrating brands into its own and others’ content through subsidiaries such as Viacom Velocity). But the other side of Desmond’s corporate neoliberalism is the advancement of a small state, anti-welfare, and anti-immigration agenda, sustained in the Express and Star, and introduced into Desmond-owned Channel 5 through such poverty porn productions as Benefits Britain, and Gypsies on Benefits and Proud. One schools trainer, Rhiannon Colvin of MyBnk, noted of the children she teaches that ‘when you ask them what the government spends its money on you’d think that the first thing they would say is schools or hospitals but they say people who are not working. Those media messages filter down.’5 Former Star journalist Richard Peppiat6 dramatically revealed how the paper’s managers routinely enforced a narrow, derogatory framing of Muslims, while its reactionary stance on issues including race, immigration, sexualities, and feminism have drawn widespread criticism. The problems of media ownership and control that troubled early twentieth-century liberalism are all present, and will not be tackled simply by swapping corporate owners.

More broadly, there are complex patterns of corporate convergence and de-convergence, yet concentration of media ownership remains a persistent feature and pervasive critical issue. In the United Kingdom, three companies hold 71 per cent share of the national newspaper market, while just five companies command 80 per cent share of the combined print and digital audience.7 Google, now the world’s largest media company by revenue, accounted for 49 per cent of Internet advertising revenue worldwide in December 2012.8 Google was expected to have 55 per cent of global search advertising spending in 2015.9 Apple’s iTunes, YouTube’s videos, and Facebook’s social networking traffic dominate their respective markets in the United States, United Kingdom, and elsewhere. Networked communications have transformed the capacity for messages to be created and exchanged, yet problems of scarcity and control remain evident. It would be wrong to conclude that the massively increased availability of digital content itself diminishes concern about the sources and supply of news, controls over access to films or sports, or the multiplatform share and reach of large media companies.

Beginning in the late twentieth century, James Curran,10 Edwin Baker,11 and others advanced the case for a plural media system, with a public service media core and various surrounding sectors: commercial, civic, social market, and professional. This blended liberal concerns about the need for protection against statist power, with radical democratic attention to corporate power. It sought to incorporate the many communication jobs required of a media system: self-constitution as well as sharing, antagonism as well as consensus building. It combined a multidimensional assessment of state and market with an appreciation that the different purposes required in turn a mix of forms of organisation and finance, generating different communication spaces and styles. Such normative models were constructed to address problems in Anglo-American media systems, and while their authors would reject universalising them, these systems also need to be revised and refreshed beyond their mass media presumptions in order to assist reformers in communications environments today, as I argue in Critical Political Economy of the Media.12

Working on UK media plurality issues for the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, I have contributed to proposals that would set limits on the maximum market share of private enterprises but which are guided by a broader principle: for media that serve public audiences, with size and reach come responsibilities. Private providers with significant market share should meet requirements and obligations to safeguard our communication rights. Above caps set for total market share by companies operating in key media markets, or when democratically responsive regulation demands it, communication services should be provided by public trusts or similar non-profit, publicly accountable arrangements, not by commercial providers.13

Radical reform is required. Liberalism’s presumption that commercial media could safeguard citizens against the state has not travelled well across two centuries. From Putin’s market authoritarianism, to the US military-media complex integrating telecoms, media, and Internet giants in mass surveillance, state and market can become fatefully entwined. We have had authoritarian, paternal, and commercial media systems, and it is surely time, as Raymond Williams14 suggested, to try the democratic one.

The radical tradition’s critique of market control is also needed to address two key challenges for liberalism that arise from emergent communications systems. First, declining advertising subsidy undermines the resources for the news and information required for self-government and liberty. The revenue base for non-commercial content is shrinking while the various market interventions liberalism advanced are either declining or unstable, from public service media to news media subsidies. Second, the commercial media solution is to grant marketers ever greater influence over content, as both embrace camouflaged advertising in the form of paid, sponsored, and branded content, native ads and the shared pursuit of content marketing.

Here, the repertoire of responses from liberalism are contradictory and insufficient. Historically, advertising support has been broadly welcomed as underpinning media independence from political interference, leaving the threat to media independence from marketers’ influence relatively disarticulated. Meanwhile, the championing of free speech has been adopted by advertisers claiming the right to advertise. The principle of separation of media and advertising has been eroded in European broadcasting, while publishers stress test tolerance for marketer-funded content amongst readers, staff, and other publics. In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) regulation of native advertising focuses on preventing consumer deception, reaffirming ‘the principle that advertising and promotional messages should be identifiable as advertising’ to consumers.15 Yet, the FTC is not concerned about the impact of branded content on the quality and integrity of media channels. Consumers only need to be informed that articles are sponsored when the sponsor’s brand is promoted. Once we are past the hurdle of consumer recognition of native ads, there is little left in this prevailing regulatory arsenal to support restrictions. Paradoxically, liberalism’s conceptualisation of media freedom has contributed to these conditions for inaction, and yet retains powerful justifications for action. Liberalism’s emphasis on protecting communications for civic purposes must inform a new movement to counter the weakening of media bulwarks against marketing logics.

Liberalism is needed for at least two main reasons. The first is that the values for communications that arise from the complex confluence of liberal thinking, include promoting conditions for mutual exchanges of a plurality of information, ideas, and imagery to safeguard democratic rule, strengthen social understanding and cooperation, and enrich cultural life. The second is that reforming media systems, such as that of the United Kingdom, will require a coalition as broad as that of Chartism two centuries ago. Liberals and radicals need to work together, because doing so enhances both the goals of and the steps towards communications reform.


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