Over the last year Culture Matters has been commissioning a series of short films about cultural democracy, called culture for all. The films cover a range of cultural topics, including the arts like poetry, film, theatre and music, and also other cultural activities like sport, religion, the media and videogames. The films were made by Carl Joyce and Mike Quille, with the support of the Communication Workers Union. We will be uploading them onto our website over the next few weeks, together with the text of the talk.
Here is the introductory video......
....and here is a video on the media, by Professor Natalie Fenton, followed by the text of her talk.
Why the Media Matters
By Natalie Fenton
We live in a society full of information and entertainment, coming at us from all kinds of media. The TV we watch, the radio we listen to, the newspapers we read, the content we consume online, are a crucial part of our daily lives. From watching ‘Strictly’ to getting our daily diet of news, our media are a source of pleasure as well as a means of education and information.
The media we consume stimulate conversations and provide collective experiences – from the televising of the football or the Olympics – to gaining knowledge about the Coronavirus Pandemic – to figuring out who to vote for and how we build our own identities. The very ideas and concepts that people use to make sense of an increasingly confusing world are to some extent dependent on the images and frameworks offered by the media.
So it matters who owns, controls and produces this content. It matters how messages are communicated and the sorts of values, beliefs and forms of understanding that the media promote at any one time. It matters which voices are excluded to the preference of others; who or what is marginalised or misrepresented; which sets of ideas are prioritised and which are neglected.
Ownership of newspapers is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few billionaires. Newspapers continue to set the news agenda of the nation yet just 3 companies dominate 90% of the UK’s national newspaper market, Rupert Murdoch’s News UK, DMG Media and Reach. Concentration of ownership creates conditions in which wealthy individuals and organisations amass huge political, economic and cultural power and distort the media landscape to suit their interests.
The same happens online. Our digital media space is dominated by a few unregulated tech companies and social media platforms. Apple is the first trillion-dollar company in history. Jeff Bezos, founder and owner of Amazon, is the richest person in history. In 2018 his net wealth increased by $400 million a day. These corporations – the likes of Facebook, Google, and Amazon – form the largest oligopolies the world has ever seen.
They exist to make money out of advertising – they seduce us onto their platforms, monitor our behaviour and then sell that information back to advertisers so that they can target their goods more precisely. These tech giants exercise considerable gatekeeping power over how UK audiences discover, access and consume media content constantly adjusting their search algorithms to maximise their advertising revenue. And although some independent media are flourishing online, their business models are precarious and their audiences tiny compared to legacy national media like the Mailonline, that benefit from algorithms that prioritise well-known brands.
The BBC is still a powerful presence, but a decade of funding freezes has kept its budget far below that of its immediate domestic and international competitors. Over the last 3 decades its independence from government has also been steadily eroded and its programme making increasingly commercialised. Boris Johnson is threatening further cuts to its funding, and suggesting he might sell off Channel 4. So unsurprisingly, the editorial culture of the BBC has become increasingly Conservative.
And two rival news channels – GB News and News UK TV (from the owners of the Sun, The Times and Times Radio) – will launch soon. Murdoch’s move back into British TV will only increase his already tremendous power over UK politics.
This is bad news for democracy. Major shocks like the coronavirus pandemic have made it clearer than ever how much we need public media – accountable media institutions, run in the public interest, which help a divided society talk to each other and hold the powerful to account. ‘Public media’ are media institutions that act in the public interest, rather than the interests of politicians and governments, billionaire owners or powerful corporations. In the UK today, public media are the best of public broadcasting, as well as independent media cooperatives and democratically-run community media.
Public media are essential to a functioning democracy, and for facing the huge challenges of the 21st century. Our current media system is very far from this ideal, which is why we have to fight for change and for cultural democracy in the media. One vital area for change is access to the internet. 11% of the UK population still does not have access to the internet at home – that’s 7.5m people – more than the combined population of the cities of Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Bradford, Liverpool, Bristol, Newcastle, Sunderland, Wolverhampton, Leicester and Nottingham.
Many do not have the appropriate device, quality of connection or required skills to make use of digital technologies and services. Digital exclusion extends to all of life – access to work, quality of education, availability of healthcare, costs of goods and services and the ability to connect with loved ones as well as voice, information and political participation.
Studies also show that the varying forms of political participation online correlate to social class and educational achievement. In other words, although half of the world may now be online, those using the internet for political purposes are still largely middle-class and well educated.
So what can we do?
Firstly, we need to lobby government for regular media plurality reviews that will ensure plurality of media ownership and redress existing concentrations to deliver a rich mix of media at both local and national level.
Ensuring plurality also means ensuring our media serve a more diverse set of interests. So we need to encourage alternative models of media ownership such as co-operatives and employee buyouts that promote equality and financial security over shareholder returns through offering tax relief and direct subsidies for media that function in the public interest and not for profit.
Social media and other fundamental media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google need to be brought under public ownership and control, in various national and international ways.
We need our media to be fully accountable to the public they serve through independent and effective regulation so they can no longer be discriminatory and cause harm.
We need to ensure equality of access to careers in the media for working-class people, women, people of colour and others who are systematically excluded from sustainable, satisfying careers in TV and broadcasting, newspapers and publishing as well as online provision.
We need to ensure equal and fair representation of working-class people, women and people of colour and others who have historically been under-represented and unfairly represented in the media.
We need a more democratic, diverse and devolved public service broadcasting that is fully independent of government and fully representative of all UK citizens.
And we need free broadband for all.
We need these changes now – there can be no meaningful democracy without media reform.
The Media Democracy Festival is on Saturday 26th March, see here.