Mass media does not threaten democracy. Harriet Harman does.
Harriet Harman, the Shadow Deputy Prime Minister, has called for a 15% cap on national media ownership. She is also advocating a compulsory test to determine whether or not media owners are robust, fit and proper people. Together these ideas amount to a two pronged attack on press freedom that is entirely disproportionate to the problems faced by the industry. It is blatant and overzealous state interference that has no place in a modern, liberal democracy.
This demonstrates that the free market is a fragile thing. It is inherently vulnerable to corruption, and exists under perpetual assault by the state, monopolists, cronyism and countless forms of influence and abuse. The free market concept should be protected at all costs from those who would manipulate the laws that govern it for their own ends.
Media monopoly matters in a democracy. The concentration of unaccountable media power distorts the political system – Harriet Harman speaking at the Charles Wheeler Lecture.
I agree completely with the alliterate assertion that media monopoly matters. But there are no media monopoles in the United Kingdom. There are individual companies with large shares of the media, but they are not monopolising it. They are not excluding competition. They are incapable of doing so. The largest media stakeholders do not own the printing presses, or restrict access to them. It is undoubtedly true that the media has an effect on the decisions made by politicians. But it is not fair to say that media power is unaccountable. The media is accountable to its readers. The readers wouldn’t buy it if they didn’t like it, and thus the free market regulates itself.
It is worth pointing out that this is not always the case. The Guardian, the least popular broadsheet in the country, has been running at a significant loss to its owners for years. It is held afloat by the Scott Trust, which uses the profits from its other less politically minded business ventures (such as Auto Trader) to keep the newspaper going. This is not at odds with the free market principle. Business owners should be free to lose money if they wish. The point I am making is that profitable newspapers such as the Sun and the Telegraph are not unaccountable as Harriet Harman suggests.
Plurality ensures that no media owner can exert too much influence on public opinion and on policy makers. It ensures that no media company can have so much influence that it feels itself invincible, above, even, the rule of law. It ensures no private interest can set itself above the public interest.
Plurality, as Harman calls it, would indeed mean that no individual media owner would have as much influence on policy makers. This individual influence would be replaced by a collective influence, which would arguably hold more power rather than less. Curbing media ownership would not change the nations reading habits.
The real issue is that Harriet Harman disagrees with the views put across by the biggest and most successful media companies, as personified by the plasticine bogeyman Rupert Murdoch. She is going after them for the simple reason that she doesn’t like them. The problem with people like Harriet Harman is that they think they know what is best for everyone else. Not content to let society get on with it, she would like to legislate against everything she disagrees with.
Returning to the issue of the ownership cap, you might reasonably ask why Harman is suggesting that it is set at fiteen percent. Claire Enders is the CEO of Enders Analysis, the company that proposed the cross-media percentage cap that Harriet Harman is so fond of. She also just happens to have worked for a string of companies that are in direct competition with News Corp. Call me cynical but this quote from an article she wrote in the Guardian seems to suggest that the figure was chosen at random.
The simplest way to ensure plurality in the UK would be a clear limit on the share of all media revenues held by one company – 15% seems reasonable, but an open debate is needed – Claire Enders writing in The Guardian.
Ofcom, the government-approved independent (now there’s an oxymoron) communications regulator, currently has the power to carry out a test to ensure that broadcast media owners are fit and proper people. Harriet Harman would now like to extend this test to owners of other forms of media. In an ideal world everyone who owns a major media company would be robust, fit and proper. It is the idea that the state (via Ofcom) can define this that is worrying. Not content to pass laws to control what is published, Harriet Harman would like to decide who can publish it by tinkering with the “fit and proper person” test to suit her own political agenda.
Although the legislation suggested by Harriet Harman is largely irrelevant in this century, where information flows freely between people and continents, the principle that it betrays is not. Governments fronted by people like her will always seek to exert control and interfere, whatever the medium of communication.
The great threat to democracy isn’t the mass media. It is people like Harriet Harman.