Media reform – are the parties up to the challenge?

The central role the media has played in the General Election Campaign is undeniable. So is the pro Conservative party dominance of much of the national press together with its anti-Labour party bias. Social media has again offered alternative platforms for the parties and people to get their messages across. Since the last election we have seen increasing consolidation of media ownership, the latest takeover being announced at the end of November when JPIMedia sold the i newspaper and website for a reported £49.6m to the billionaire Lord Rothermere’s  Daily Mail and General Trust, which owns the Mail on Sunday and MailOnline. Meanwhile press baron David Montgomery is in talks to buy JPIMedia which owns dozens of major local British newspapers.

So what new policies do the parties offer to counter these concerns and make our media ‘fit for purpose’?

The Conservative Party’s manifesto does not say much, generally happy with the status quo, and the support they get from the majority of the press, but what it says is significant. On free TV licences for the over 75s, it states that: “We recognise the value of free TV licences for over-75s and believe they should be funded by the BBC.” The BBC has said it will continue to provide TV licences to over 75s who claim means-tested pension credit.

On the press: “…we will repeal section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which seeks to coerce the press” and: We will not proceed with the second stage of the Leveson Inquiry”. This is not new. After the last election the May government said it would repeal section 40 and scrap Leveson2, but these proposals were not implemented. The government did not have the numbers to pass the necessary legislation.

The Section 40 decision is heavily criticised by Natalie Fenton of the Media Reform Coalition who says; “Section 40…is key to persuading the press to join a recognised regulator through a system of carrots and sticks – if a news publisher joins a recognised regulator then access to low cost arbitration becomes mandatory. This removes the threat of potentially huge losses for both ordinary citizens who may be the victims of illegal journalistic behaviour and for publishers who may be threatened by a wealthy litigant who doesn’t like what they have printed.”

However, Section 40 has been criticised by a number of press freedom organisations as well as the media owners. Tim Gopsill editor of the CPBF’s Free Press writing on Leveson in its final issue (215, Summer 2018) stated that: “…we have ended up with demure and pointless Press Recognition Panel (PRP) and above all the absurd injustice of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act under which the redress that people might attain from a publication would depend on which regulator the offender happens to be affiliated to…” Index on Censorship describes Section 40 “as a direct threat to press freedom and must be scrapped…”

Labour has six main pledges including supporting public service broadcasting and local newspapers and media outlets; action to address monopolistic hold tech giants have on advertising revenues and to safeguard a healthy plurality of media ownership.

They also promised to provide free “full-fibre” broadband for every home and business. As an article in the Guardian’s Society ( ‘Labour’s broadband plan could radically change young people’s life chances’ Sandra Leaton Gray 3 December) points out: “… This manifesto commitment goes well beyond flinging an election freebie at voters largely able to pay for subscriptions themselves. … speed and access are not the only problems. When young people do access the internet, which is most likely to be through a mobile phone, they see different things: those in deprived areas are bombarded with burger and betting advertisements, while young people in more affluent areas are shown advertisements for university open days and sports equipment. … Sneaky algorithms assess how far you live from a telephone exchange or mobile phone mast, whether you are accessing the internet by phone, copper or fibre broadband, the geolocation of your IP address, and even the monetary value and age of the device you are using. …The way to change this grubby commercial practice is to standardise provision.”

The article also reminds us that:” We see parents in deprived areas paying a small fortune for subscriptions offering a few miserly kilobytes of decrepit and creaking copper broadband…” This is happening not only in rural areas, but in urban/city internet cold spots. The proposal aims to bring about high quality provision for all.

The Liberal Democrats also offer six main pledges including the introduction of a Leveson compliant regulator and holding Leveson2, while the Green Party offer four, which include the need to: “safeguard a healthy plurality of media ownership”. Both the Scottish and Welsh national parties want devolution of media policy to their parliaments.

All but the Conservative Party have made attempts to address some of the long standing policy concerns highlighted by media reformers, but need to go much further if we are to have a media that serves our 21st century democracy. Urgent reform is needed to reclaim the media in the interest of the public.

For details of manifesto media policies see: http://thespark.me.uk/?p=1173

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