I yesterday had the pleasure of giving evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications.
The House of Lords, unlike their counterparts in the Commons, have plucked up the courage to do a serious examination of the impact of media ownership on news.
I say courage because, despite the enormous changes happening in news and the difficult questions these changes raise about public interest reporting and the role of the Fourth Estate, MPs have studiously ignored the problem.
Indeed there have been more blue moons since 1997 than there have been government inquiries or consultations into the media. It was only as Tony Blair left office that he felt brave enough to challenge the influence of the news media (in his now infamous ‘feral beasts’ speech). The Conservatives have been even less critical – indeed so comfortable is David Cameron with media malpractice that he snapped up Andy Coulson as his director of communications – shortly after Coulson had resigned as editor of News of the World following the royal phone tapping scandal (see previous post).
So the House of Lords should be applauded for launching such an inquiry, and for not being scared off by the danger of bad headlines.
Yet this said, I can’t help but be anxious about what the Select Committee will achieve. By focusing on media ownership the inquiry could end up being either anachronistic or prescient. Working out what to do about media owners has been a bugbear of the government ever since mass media arrived. The first Royal Commission on the Press, back in 1947, was set up because of ‘increasing public concern at the growth of monopolistic tendencies in the control of the Press’. Now, 60 years on, we’re still worrying about it, and not much closer to working out a solution.
But the focus on media ownership could also be prescient. If, by ‘media ownership’, the Lords are thinking about the economics of news production. The financial model that used to underpin news is being eroded every day, and so the question of how public interest reporting will be funded in the future is horribly unclear.
If the Select Committee can raise awareness about the seriousness of this problem, and can suggest some innovative ways for how we might address it (preferably ones that don’t include the term ‘Public Service Publisher’), then they will have done a great service.