By Yanis Fekar
Thanks to IHAV and CIPR, I got to attend the 2022 Oxford Media Convention. Here are some of my thoughts.
Everything is fine except for major existential threats
Lack of trust in the so-called “mainstream media” is on the rise and the established giants do not have anything like the reach, trust and influence they aspire to, especially among younger generations. This decline in trust is partly due to the deluge of low-quality, misleading and often outright dishonest media outlets financed by the infamous press barons of 21st century Britain. Rupert Murdoch and Lord Rothermere alone own more than 70% of the UK’s weekly newspaper circulation. Moving the UK away from these models of ownership will be long and difficult but it must be done. Enormous power in the hands of a select and unaccountable few is not the way forward. As Channel 4 presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy rightly pointed out, “challenging media is a prerequisite for a healthy democracy”.
On the other hand, journalists who engage in the work that characterises citizen-serving media, such as investigative journalism, face even greater threats than lack of funding. When big fortunes seek to silence journalists digging into their shady affairs, they turn to the UK’s strict libel laws in order to silence and ruin them. When investigative journalist Catherine Belton published her groundbreaking book “Putin’s People” on the corruption of Putin’s entourage, she was the victim of a campaign of legal harassment by Roman Abramovich and other Russian oligarchs which ended up costing her publisher £1.5m. This intimidating environment leads to self-censorship and discourages the kind of journalism we urgently need. One example is Cambridge University Press refusing to publish “Putin’s Kleptocracy” by the US political scientist Karen Dawisha, due to worries about litigation.
As if that was not enough, high-quality and highly trusted broadcasters face threats of their own. The BBC faces significant financial uncertainty due to its reliance on the licence fee. These difficulties, coupled with the government’s regular efforts to undermine the editorial independence of the BBC, mean the corporation has an unclear future. Channel 4, another giant trusted by the majority of UK citizens, faces threats from who should be its number one supporter. The current Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is doing everything in her power to push for the privatisation of Channel 4, going as far as trying to intervene to alter the wording of Channel 4’s annual report in order to fit her plans according to the broadcaster’s chief executive.
2. There is hope
There is, in parallel to the institutional media space, a growing ensemble of counterbalancing grassroots media projects. Thanks to digital tools in particular, individuals who are passionate about the values of citizen-serving journalism are able to become journalists themselves.
Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, Tiktok and Facebook all host these independent providers which are sometimes for-profit, but most often not. One example that I think should have been mentioned is the TLDR News project. I invite anyone reading this to check their Youtube channel for an idea of what high-quality media that reaches young people first looks like. As Lexie Kirkconnell-Kawana, head of regulation at the Independent Monitor for the Press, rightly pointed out: “We are not seeing policy interventions [such as funding] to support this new space. We should!”.
In addition, concerns with the dominant models of ownership have meant that many are turning towards community-owned alternatives. We heard from the founder of Together TV, the world’s only community-owned national broadcaster. It was born following a realisation that local channels in the UK are mostly owned by big groups and have little (if any) local content. Together TV seeks to be part of, in the words of founder Caroline Diehl, a “third-layer” of diversly-owned and citizen-led media to complement good public sector broadcasting and commercial media.