Role and Ownership of Media — a Fundamental Rethink

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Commercial media profoundly distort the discourse of modern societies, and publicly owned media are prone to government abuse. We need to fundamentally reconsider the role, ownership and operation of all of our media.

Commercial media have always thrived on sensation. They seek out extreme events and extreme opinions, and this means they cultivate fear and conflict. They also tailor their product so their audience profile appeals to advertisers, ruling out any content that challenges consumerism or the present distribution of economic power. Some proprietors blatantly peddle a restricted and self-interested view of the world, not only through the opinions they publish but also through selective news coverage.

Just as fish may not notice the ocean they swim in, we may not notice the media we are exposed to every day. Consider this: language is distinctively human and it is fundamental to the nature of human societies. Language is the primary lubricant of our social structure. However our voices and our emotional repertoire are adapted to living in small groups. Since we began to live in very large groups, like cities and nations, we have struggled to find ways to maintain a healthy social discourse. This discourse is much more than communication and news; it mediates our relationships and a large part of our culture as well.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson.

Slowly we developed technology to overcome some of the problems of communicating within very large groups, first writing, then printing, then electronic media. However there have always been groups whose interest was to restrict the social discourse. Thus the church in the Middle Ages discouraged access to the Bible to preserve its monopoly on interpretation, a monopoly eventually overcome by Gutenberg’s printing press. Today’s powerful interests also like to restrict our access to information, so they can get on with an assortment of nefarious schemes unnoticed and unimpeded. The internet is sidestepping some of their restrictions, but so far its effect is small. Most people still get much of their culture and their view of the world from evening television.

There were times in the past when news sheets and pamphlets could be produced by a small business, so the range of available views was much larger and the balance between profit and public interest was much less dominated by profit. Today the media are on the scale of large corporations, and are mostly owned by even larger corporations, because they are so directly profitable and because they can serve the broader corporate interest. This means profit and the exercise of power dominate the management of the media. Why have we allowed the means of our social discourse to fall into the hands of a few, who use them to further their own wealth and power?

Social discourse is fundamental to human society, but we don’t treat our means of social discourse accordingly. We have come to regard the legal system, for example, as strategically important, and we accord it a special status in our society, with institutions that enjoy special protections. Why do we not protect the means of our social discourse in a comparable way? It is at least as important.

How do we reclaim and protect media so they serve the broader society instead of special interests? The full import of this question has been so little recognised that a long and open-ended debate is required. We should avoid being too prescriptive, as continuing creativity and initiative — and eternal vigilance – will be required to create and maintain freer media. The following are some suggestions on how to move us in the right direction.

Properly funding the ABC and better insulating it from governments would be an important step. Appointments to the governing board should, at the very least, be subject to parliamentary review and veto to prevent the stacking of the board with government mates. The ABC model could be extended to other kinds of media, including both newsprint and digital outlets, with both national and regional services. However government-funded media will always suffer from vulnerability to government abuse, so we should explore further possibilities.

The purpose of social discourse is to serve communities, so we should look for institutions that promote this purpose. One way would be to vest ownership broadly in the community that a media outlet is supposed to serve, with a strict and very low limit on the share any individual could own, such that a significant fraction of the community were owners. This would ensure that media served a much broader range of interests than at present. The governing of such community-owned media should be mandated to be as democratic as possible.

At some stage, if we really want media to serve our communities and our larger society, we will also need to move to paying for their services more directly, so as to break the stranglehold of advertisers. This would create the challenge of keeping the media accessible to and serving the poor. In an economic system characterised by acute concentrations of wealth this may be difficult. One possibility might be to allow ‘informational’ advertising, meaning advertising that more genuinely announces and informs rather than manipulates, although policing such a category would itself be challenging. The difficulty of such challenges should not deter us from trying, because the present state of affairs is not defensible.

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