DemocracyFail was started by worried “media-watchers” in early September 2010, in response to an impassioned Observer piece by Will Hutton on the “Berlusconisation of Britain”. The article was prompted by the News Corporation plan to take over the whole of BSkyB, which would have led to the Murdoch empire owning over half our mass media.
To us this was the final straw. For years, we and many others had been increasingly alarmed by the concentration of Britain’s media ownership and its impact on democracy. The thought of Murdoch taking yet more, when he already owned so much, was nothing less than frightening. And it wasn’t just Murdoch. Other media empires and moguls wield huge amounts of influence, not only politically but also by promoting values which, to us, are at odds with a fair-minded, enlightened society.
Will Hutton made a strong case for the establishment of a media commission to review ownership and regulation and, when we started out, this was our specific aim. Very few politicians supported it and there was little appetite to challenge the media empires but, spurred on by activists and concerned individuals on Twitter, we discovered more and more people who agreed that something must be done. Equally, we did all within our means to agitate against the BSkyB takeover, as a scroll through our blogs will reveal.
The phone-hacking factor
Coincidentally, a few weeks after we began our campaign, a New York Times article and Channel 4 Dispatches programme placed the News of the World phone-hacking scandal firmly on the map. Since that time, there have of course been more and more revelations about the unacceptable power and influence of the Murdoch empire and the criminal activity and unethical standards within it. This reached epic proportions in July 2011, when the hacking of Milly Dowler’s voicemail became known. Even as we write, more muck and mire are emerging, a situation likely to continue for months and years to come.
The wider fall-out from the scandal has turned out to be fortuitous – it would be misleading to pretend otherwise. Politicians from all parties finally admitted they had been lap-dogs to Murdoch and his chums, whose personal attractions appeared to diminish overnight. This in turn led to the withdrawal of the BSkyB bid – at least for now – and an apparent willingness by politicians for greater transparency.
Above all, it has provided unprecedented and massive opportunities for media reform – but only if we relentlessly pursue them! And it is as important now as ever. For while the Murdoch clan may no longer be flavour of the month, theirs and other corporations remain as powerful as ever. Indeed some are becoming more powerful. The closure of the News of the World, for instance, has left a gap which other powerful media groups with large market shares are fighting to fill.
Leveson and the Communications Reveew
The establishment of the Leveson Inquiry is something we had only dreamt of when we began campaigning for a commission on media ownership. It may not be the be all and end all, but it is a great leap forward and means there will be proper scrutiny of media regulation and a small window for debate on media ownership. An important task for activists like us is to enlarge that window and keep the issue alive. It will be hard to sustain the momentum and public outrage currently driving the desire for reform, but we must guard against complacency. Another factor is the powerful vested interests of the corporations, who will be doing their utmost, with their massive resources, to preserve and increase their domains.
The industry itself is undergoing rapid change, particularly with the demise in printed news and the growth of the internet. Jeremy Hunt’s forthcoming Communications Act will further alter the landscape, and there are important implications for the future of local media. If we are not careful we will have a situation where one company owns all the local TV, radio and newspapers in a given area.
What we’d like to see
What we’re hoping is that Leveson, politicians and the public will be persuaded that other models of media ownership are more suited to a modern democracy than corporate, commercial interests. Co-operatives, mutuals, partnerships and trusts, like the BBC, which are not there for profit maximisation, seem to us to be fairer and healthier structures. (If Parliament not only recognised this but recommended incentives for their creation – now, that would be progress!) But, as a bare minimum, the proposal that no proprietor should own more than a fifth of the national press, should become enshrined in law.
While we want to see a break up of the concentration of media ownership, we’re equally concerned about the not unrelated elements of propaganda, ethics, structure, economics, future and standards of the whole of the UK media. For instance, the way we see it is that many of the values that have permeated the tabloids, as they battle with each other for circulation, are for their profits but against our interests. Given that we are “progressive”, however, we do try to be balanced and, from time to time, gripe at the blessed BBC and even the sainted Guardian!
All very grand, but what do we actually do?
Research and we erm … tweet!
The main way we operate, within our limited resources, is as a channel for news and information through Twitter. We’re always on the look out for the latest developments and interesting opinions and share as much as we can as fast as we can. Social media has been responsible for much of the success in bringing the Murdoch empire to account and, collectively, we have shown that we are a handy little force for truth and democracy!
We also take a close interest in the international machinations of the Murdoch empire, particularly in the USA and Australia. We have many Twitter friends in these countries and across the world, and try to serve as a small communications link.
… and blog a bit
Our blog is mainly for comment and analysis on a range of media related topics. We apologise for sounding a bit preachy and pompous at times, but it’s hard not to when discussing issues which are fundamentally about morals and ethics. We really do have a sense of humour and often use parody and spoofs, such as Mickyleaks, to make a point or simply raise a laugh!
… and participate and lobby
Jacquie Reed from DemocracyFail is on the national committee of the long-established Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom. She is also on the Pluralism and Public Interest working group of the newly created Co-ordinating Committee for Media Reform. This important coalition is spearheading collaborative representations to both the Leveson Inquiry and the Communications Review.
If you don’t already, please follow @DemocracyFail on Twitter.