We hear a good deal these days about the ‘liberal media’, much of it critical. In the United States it has long been a reflex action of the conservative Right to condemn loudly much of broadcasting and the press as a nest of ‘pinkos’. In Britain a similar line is taken by the Murdoch press, and by—the Mail, the Express, and the Telegraph—against the BBC and the Guardian. Meanwhile, critics such as Edward Herman, Noam Chomsky, John Pilger, and Media Lens argue that the media are nothing like as liberal as their right-wing critics claim. And just to make things more complicated, those who want to deregulate public service broadcasting, particularly in the United Kingdom, often talk in terms of liberalising the broadcasting system—by which they mean replacing regulations designed to ensure the existence of a media sphere whose function is to protect and enhance citizens’ communicative rights with regulations designed to further the economic interests of media corporations whose sole concern is the extraction of revenue from advertisers and consumers.
It’s clear here, then, that the word ‘liberalism’ is being used in different ways by different people in relation to media systems. To put it at its simplest, it is being marshalled by some to denote a particular form of ideology, which they either support or dislike, whilst others are employing it in a primarily economic sense as part of an argument for changing the way in which broadcasting operates and is organised in Britain and in other western European societies. In such a situation, a large number of questions suggest themselves as possible topics for debate. For example, what is generally meant by ‘liberal values’ in media terms? Are such values in fact the values proper to journalism, if it is understood as a Fourth Estate? If so, how might they be best protected, encouraged, and enhanced? Is the market the most effective guarantor of the freedom of the press, or can and do market forces act as agents of censorship in certain important respects? And, specifically in the case of much (but not all) of the national press in the United Kingdom, how is it that papers so firmly wedded to economic liberalism, in both its classical and ‘neo’ forms, are so profoundly illiberal in social terms?