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Media: business or public service?

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In his statement to the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices, and ethics of the press that followed the phone hacking scandal in 2011, the Sun’s associate editor Trevor Kavanagh (a former Bristol Post journalist) described news as being “as saleable a commodity” as any other.

“Newspapers are commercial, competitive businesses, not a public service,” he said.

That Kavanagh got away with denying any accountability to the public for the output of the country’s most widely read national paper under oath, and on public record, is even more depressing when you consider he wasn’t the only one shirking responsibility – and that very little has come of such admissions made during Leveson.

I don’t agree with the sentiment of Kavanagh’s statement. But it offers a handy springboard for discussing the fact that he was essentially correct.

We might talk of the ‘democratisation of the media’, but the industry more broadly is dominated by business, not public, interests.

You could argue that local media offers an antidote to globalised media. Yet in the wake of the switch to free online engagement, print circulation and staffing levels of local papers are in steep decline. Papers’ continued existence hinges on whoever’s holding the purse-strings – and the puppet-strings.

The same media conglomerates that own the national dailies dominate the UK’s local news. In 2012 The Bristol Post, along with around 100 other local titles and 70 news websites, was sold by the Daily Mail group (DMGT) to Local World for £53m (and a 39% stake in Local World for DMGT.)

Just four companies – Johnston Press, Trinity Mirror, Newsquest and the Daily Mail and General Trust – have a 70% market share of local news. Each has its its own regional monopoly.

Research published by the Media Reform Coalition (MRC) revealed that, in 2013, 70% of news consumed online was provided by just five corporations. In print, meanwhile, according to the MRC: “Just three companies control nearly 70% of national newspaper circulation – Rupert Murdoch’s News UK; DMGT, chaired by Jonathan Harmsworth, 4th Viscount Rothermere; and Trinity Mirror.”

This means many of the key information channels controlling what people get to find out about their society, and therefore the contexts in which they understand the world, are shaped by a handful of rich, white billionaires. That clique represents, of course, a true ‘minority’ – though you’re unlikely to see their legitimacy as hard-working British citizens being questioned in the Mail.

In the run-up to the general election on May 7th the MRC have launched a campaign for media reform. (Subsequent to Lord Justice Leveson’s report on the inquiry into press standards calling for a new system of self-regulation, the industry simply ignored the non-legally-binding recommendations.) During April, the groups making up the MRC will be calling on all political parties to commit to five proposals for media reform to tackle the crises of media ownership, regulation, and accuracy.

Fourth estate: still

It’s in this context that the Bristol Cable was founded, to reshape a bland, inadequate Bristolian media landscape. As a co-operative it’s not owned by any one person, but by the people who choose to become members.

A board of 12 directors (disclaimer: I’m one of them) to ensure legal accountability was recently elected by the growing membership. But decisions about what gets published don’t lie with the board. The co-operative ethos of a small, local, and public-facing media organisation is evident in the activity surrounding the paper’s physical publication. Talks, workshops and skills-sharing sessions with media practitioners are held frequently, free for members and open to all for a donation.

The Cable operates on a multi-disciplinary spectrum, allowing for further public involvement and engagement. Having completed my first feature film, The Fourth Estate, on the influence of big business in news media, my first thought was to approach the Cable to organise a screening event.

This allows for much more than just showcasing our work. It demonstrates to an audience that making a zero-budget film outside the mainstream industry isn’t impossible. It provides a space for open discussion about the media and political economy and for people interested in the subject to connect and potentially engage in further activism, and an opportunity to share skills and stories with those who don’t have the financial means to take standard professional or academic routes to learning about filmmaking and film theory.

Made part-time over two years by two filmmakers with cheap cameras and old laptops, The Fourth Estate’s production operated on the same premise as a media co-op. In the face of media colonisation and consolidation by those with too much money and power, it’s necessary for counter-voices to respond, work together, and support and rouse others to assert the presence and interests of the majority.

Numerous coalitions between grassroots political and interest groups are emerging in response to the crises of neoliberalism and the consolidation of power, media and otherwise. That growth must be maintained, nurtured – and shared – if we’re not to burn out. Without financial means and commitment of increasing groups of people, constant defence of our communities against austerity and scarcity gets draining. One thing we’re all working towards, of course, is reclaiming financial means and public resources to increase the ability of independent organisations to work in the public interest.

The internet gives us a potentially transformative, democratic portal to global and local news and communication networks, but only if we can develop and maintain pluralistic, fair strategies for how these are managed. This is why the politics of presence, fostered by local networks, is so important – and Bristol has an increasing wealth of these politically-active groups.

I encourage you to get involved with groups fostering political change. At their operational core are the media tools and outlets by which we communicate about them – of which the Bristol Cable is just one.

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