Sala de Prensa

61
Noviembre 2003
Año V, Vol. 2

WEB PARA PROFESIONALES DE LA COMUNICACION IBEROAMERICANOS

A R T I C U L O S

   
   


Changes in the landscape of
media ownership worldwide

Steven Barnett *

Introduction

My brief is to look at changes in media ownership regimes around the world, and I want to talk about developments in some European countries as well as the US and Australia. One of the advantages of university teaching is having access to bright foreign students who are happy to do research for you, and I've had a couple working on recent developments in certain countries which I'll come on to. I want to go a step further than a straightforward description of trends in ownership legislation and talk about the bigger picture: the reasons why these changes might be happening now, and more importantly the implications for independent journalism around the world.

I want to start with a few comments about the big picture - what are the pressures for change, why is it that we seem to be witnessing a wholesale restructuring of media ownership statutes and what are the forces driving it. Then I'll go into some more detail about some individual case studies, and finish with what I hope will be the core of our subsequent discussion - the implications for a free press and quality journalism.

The most obvious structural shift is the impact of globalisation. This is an ill-defined and nebulous term which is often quoted as a major agent of change, so it's worth spending a bit of time detailing exactly what it means for international media.

Since the 1970s, a number of factors have transformed the nature of the global economy: a wider choice of locations for capital investment; the 24 hour presence and importance of global financial markets; the rise and increased financial muscle of transnational corporations; and, vitally, the communications technology on which all these factors rely for smooth and efficient operation. The emerging global corporations are constantly seeking expansion or, in the present economic climate, simply survival. In the search for further investment or expansion opportunities, they will seek to influence and mould the boundaries of any state regulation which tries to limit market opportunities in the public interest.

At the same time, the political landscape has also been transformed to accelerate the process of globalised trading: the breakdown of the old Soviet Union, and the emergence of capitalism as the only viable means of existence - as in Francis Fukayama's thesis about the End of History - means that production, distribution and selling can take place virtually anywhere in the world. Politically, throughout the developed world, the last 20 years have seen an astonishing unanimity about the kinds of political rhetoric being employed by virtually all parties across the political spectrum. Liberalisation, the free market, deregulation and withdrawal of state intervention have become the new battle cries, while rival parties quarrel only about the speed and extent of withdrawal of the "nanny state". It is now just as important to achieve credibility with the financial markets and business leaders as with the ordinary electorate, and that means adapting policies in accordance with corporate requirements.

The impact on domestic policy making extends beyond media policy to almost every aspect of decision making. While politicians claim to be acting in the public interest, and still talk about the importance of community and collective welfare, in practice much of the decision-making flexibility has been finessed by the need to placate the private sector.

This process is exacerbated by two separate factors, one general and one related specifically to the media sector. First, there is the vast gulf in lobbying power between on the one hand the corporate interests wishing to push back the boundaries of state intervention, and on the other the public interest and consumer groups attempting from an array of different perspectives to persuade governments to put citizens before corporations. This is particularly true in Europe at the EU level, where public interest groups find it difficult to operate across national boundaries while global corporations can invest hugely in identifying which European directorates and commissioners to target and then overwhelming them with arguments for looser regulation. Proposals for regulating ownership at the European level were dropped as a result.

Second, within the media sector, media owners have access to the one of the key drivers of opinion formation - the mass media themselves. As consolidation increases between newspapers, TV, online and other areas of publishing, different parts of a media empire can be exploited not just to cross-promote other parts of the empire but to promote forceful arguments about how governments should be legislating in the very areas which might limit corporate expansion in that field. An excellent example within the UK is the way in which Rupert Murdoch's newspapers have consistently argued for limits on the BBC's freedom to operate. These newspapers are likely to play a vociferous role in the debate on renewal of the BBC charter which expires in 2006. Of course, if the main corporate beneficiary also happens to be prime minister - as in Italy - lobbying yourself through your own newspapers becomes less essential.

On top of globalisation, there are the technology arguments. There is no doubt that technology is changing what is possible. You can read today's paper on your computer, catch up with a programme you've missed on your mobile phone, pause a programme in real time with a PVR box like TiVo or SkyPlus. In those senses, there is convergence of screen and print and "convergence" continues to be a major battle-cry from those who seek to remove traditional regulatory structures in electronic media.

The problem with this argument is that there is actually little sign of convergence on the ground in patterns of consumption. Most people do not watch TV on their computers or mobiles, nor download newspapers from the internet. There is some evidence of slow change, but convergence is being exploited as a motor of regulatory change, even if consumer behaviour so far renders it a redundant concept. Even if broadband cable or telephony can genuinely wire up millions of people to the net, there is little evidence so far that this will revolutionise traditional media behaviour. Most realistic forecasts suggest that any online revolution is at least 20 years away, and is probably greatly overstated anyway.

So that's a fairly crude attempt to paint a big picture, which I think offers some clues to what's happening across the international stage. There are still a sufficient number of national cultural, social and political differences for the actual legislative changes to differ from country to country, but I would certainly argue that those differences are simply a matter of scale rather than direction. The forces of deregulation and corporatisation are gathering pace and the consequences - as I will come on to explain - are a tendency towards monopoly, loss of diversity and innovation, less risk taking and more homogenised forms of journalism which are less equipped to challenge vested interests.

The USA

Now to the examples, starting with the home of corporate life - the USA. At the end of May, protesters in America staged demonstrations in more than a dozen cities urging federal regulators to reject changes in American media ownership rules. In Los Angeles people marched outside Clear Channel's radio station KFI with signs reading, "No Choice, No Voice: Reclaim Our Airwaves." This direct action accompanied the written, telephoned and emailed protests of 750,000 Americans with the same message to the Federal Communications Commission: that allowing large media companies to own television, radio and newspaper in the same cities stifles diversity and is fundamentally anti-democratic.

This was certainly not a protest confined to the left of the political spectrum. Opponents included the ferociously right-wing National Rifle Association as well as well-known conservative columnists like William Safire. In the New York Times, Safire blasted the current affairs programmes of the main television networks because they "found the rip-off of the public interest by their parent companies too hot to handle". He called on the right, in particular, to rise up against the FCC's position.

What prompted these outbursts were proposals on media deregulation on which the Federal Communications Commission was about to decide. In the event, the protests went unheeded as the FCC's commissioners voted along party lines 3-2 on 2nd June to remove some long-standing restrictions on media ownership. The main proposals which the three republicans voted through to relax ownership restrictions were:

  • Cross-ownership. The ban on owning a newspaper and television or radio stations in the same city to be lifted in large markets served by nine or more television stations. In markets with 4-8 TV stations, one company can own a newspaper, a TV station and half the radio stations it would be entitled to; or a newspaper and all radio stations allowed under the rules; or two television and some radio stations but no newspaper.
  • National TV limit. Broadcast networks (ABC, CBS etc) can own TV stations reaching 45% of the national audience rather than the current 35%.
  • Ownership limits of local TV. In markets of 18 or more stations, one company can own 3 stations as long as only one is in the top four. In markets with 5 or more TV stations, the limit is 2 stations with only one in the top four.

The current prohibition on one of the top four networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox) buying any of the others remains. Supporting these proposals, the FCC chairman Michael K. Powell said the new regulations were "modern rules that take proper account of the explosion of new media outlets for news, information and entertainment, rather than perpetuate the graying rules of a bygone black-and-white era". This was echoed by his fellow republican commissioner Kathleen Q. Abernathy:

"For me, given the rules we adopt today, the breakneck pace of technological development, and the ever-increasing number of pipelines into consumers' homes, it is simply not possible to monopolize the flow of information in today's world."

By contrast, the two democrat commissioners who voted against the proposals were scathing in their criticisms and in their analysis of the implications. Jonathan S. Adelstein called it "the most sweeping and destructive rollback of consumer protection rules in the history of American broadcasting". In his dissenting statement, he drew attention in particular to three vital arguments against allowing more consolidation in the media marketplace.

First, there is the impact of the enormous lobbying power of the media corporations and their ability to drive policy priorities: "In the end, this Order simply makes it easier for existing media giants to gobble up more outlets and fortify their already massive market power. It capitulates to many of the longstanding demands of the media companies we oversee".

Second, he drew attention to the actual on-screen effect of greater consolidation and the unproven assumptions of those who argue for its benefits: "As big media companies get bigger, they're likely to broadcast even more homogenized programming that increasingly appeals to the lowest common denominator.... in the absence of some other compulsion, the logic of marketplace competition and the media companies' fiduciary responsibility to shareholders will require them to maximize profits rather than serve the public interest. The record does not support the dangerous assumption that the many mergers contemplated under these rules will invariably serve the public interest".

Third, he made the crucial link between the need for regulation and the role of the media in sustaining a healthy and dynamic democracy - particularly unusual in American political culture where the free market is assumed to be politically "neutral" and any state intervention is deeply distrusted:

"It violates every tenet of a free democratic society to let a handful of powerful companies control our media. The public has a right to be informed by a diversity of viewpoints so they can make up their own minds. Without a diverse, independent media, citizen access to information crumbles, along with political social participation. For the sake of our democracy, we should encourage the widest possible dissemination of free expression through the public airwaves."

The combination of this outspoken dissension and the widespread concern being expressed at grass roots levels has produced something of a stand-off. Both the Senate and House of Representatives - each of them held by the Republicans - have passed spending bills which block these deregulatory rules, and 10 days ago a US federal court in Philadelphia ruled against the plans taking immediate effect. Further court hearings are due this year. Meanwhile, the four big networks have launched an advertising campaign aimed at opinion formers restating the case for the FCC rules to be retained.

I have deliberately spent some time on the American position for two reasons. First, as the natural home of arguments against state regulation and in favour of market solutions, it perhaps offers some foretaste of what will happen elsewhere in the world: that at some point in the corporate drive towards consolidation, it is possible to mobilise non-corporate citizen and consumer groups to oppose such deregulatory proposals in sufficient numbers to make it at least politically uncomfortable if not unsustainable.

Second, the American example demonstrates how political media ownership decisions have become, and how inextricably bound they are to the desire for existing administrations to stay in power. This becomes especially important in countries like the UK, as we shall see, when significant proportions of the national press are owned by the very corporations which are lobbying for changes and which can potentially exercise substantial influence on the opinions and voting intentions of electors.

Australia

Similar attempts at liberalisation by the Howard government in Australia have met equally stiff political resistance. In March last year, the government introduced a Broadcasting Services (Media Ownership) Amendment Bill. The government rationale demonstrates the essentially economic thinking which drives these initiatives: "The Government's proposed reforms will improve Australian media companies' access to capital, facilitate investment in new technologies, enable media companies to grow and expand in the new content-driven converging global media environment, and ensure that Australian consumers have access to high quality media offerings. Current restrictions on foreign and cross-media ownership constrain Australia's media sector within outdated structures, while around the world media businesses are being driven by the imperative of delivering readily adaptable content across multiple platforms."

The proposal was both to remove all restrictions on foreign ownership, and to relax cross-media ownership restrictions. Under current Australian rules, foreign ownership of television licences is capped at 20 percent and newspapers at 35 percent. Moreover, a television licence holder cannot own more than 15% of a newspaper in a capital city. If government proposals were passed, it would allow both Rupert Murdoch - who already owns over 50% of the Australian press - and Kerry Packer to buy up lucrative TV licences as well.

Although the government controls the House of Representatives, a majority in the Senate requires the votes of four independents. In June, despite extensive negotiations between Communications minister Richard Alston and the dissident four which resulted in substantial amendments, the Australian government's proposals were defeated. While Alston bemoaned the loss of an opportunity to "free up markets in such a way that you allow the industry to expand", the Tasmanian senator leading the opposition said he could not accept that cross-media growth was "in the interests of the general public". Within days, the government controlled House of Representatives had rejected the Senate's decision and re-passed Alston's legislation. Alston has announced that he will that demand the Senate pass it next month.

The UK

Similar protests through the second chamber in the UK had a slightly different outcome, although the government starting point was much the same. Ownership proposals from the British Labour government - which appeared with very little warning that the government was planning a major deregulation exercise - also removed restrictions on foreign ownership of British broadcasting as well as allowing, for the first time, a major newspaper group to own a TV station. The rhetoric in this case was more balanced - the familiar arguments about wanting to create "the most dynamic and competitive communications sector in the world" was balanced by recognition of the need to protect pluralism and diversity. In practice, the deeregulation of ownership owed much more to the former than the latter.

Both proposals came under vigorous attack not, strangely, in the elected House of Commons but in the unelected House of Lords where the government was less able to exert pressure on individual members to toe the party line. In the event, the proposal allowing foreign ownership was passed, paving the way for major American corporations to buy up British commercial television and radio stations.

There was more resistance to the proposal which allowed newspaper proprietors to buy the second commercial channel, Five, in what quickly became known as the "Murdoch clause". Existing rules prevented any newspaper proprietor with control of more than 20% of the national press from owning more than 20% of a commercial television station, which in practice prohibited only Murdoch's News International. Once again, it was vigorous lobbying from non-partisan interest groups like Public Voice and Voice of the Listener and Viewer - supported by a few media academics - which tried to draw attention to the potential monopoly consequences of allowing a major newspaper proprietor into television. The position in Britain is further complicated by Murdoch's virtual monopoly of the satellite television platform through BSkyB and fears that News International would simply exploit a terrestrial channel to promote its satellite enterprise.

In the event, a significant number of Labour peers - including the film maker Lord Puttnam and commercial TV director Lord Bragg - made it clear that they would engineer a government defeat and forced a concession. The Communications Act now states that any merger or acquisition has to pass a "public interest plurality test" and satisfy both the new regulator Ofcom and the Secretary of State that the proposed consolidation will actually add to the plurality of voices. Given that the final decision still lies with a senior member of the Cabinet, and given the sensitivity of political decisions involving media ownership, the effectiveness of this compromise has yet to be tested.

It is now quite possible that in the UK within a few years, one corporation - and ultimately a single individual - could control 37% of Britain's national press, a leading free-to-air television channel and the dominant means of access to digital television. No government or opposition spokespeople have objected to this, although they cannot explain how this unprecedented concentration of media power fits with their parties' commitment to pluralism and the public interest.

Italy

Governments have less trouble in getting their ownership proposals through if the owner is also Prime Minister, which is the current case in Italy. Interestingly, new Italian proposals appear to be grounded less in a spirit of market deregulation than trying to undo all the political complexities of Berlusconi's conflicts of interest. On 22 July, the Italian Chamber of Deputies adopted a new law on communications drawn up by the communications minister Maurizio Gasparri. The effect is to raise the ceiling on a firm's advertising revenue to 20% of the total media market rather than 30% just of TV advertising. It also removes the ban on cross-ownership of television and newspapers from 2009 and sets in motion the partial privatisation of the state network RAI from 2004.

Most analysts are agreed that the effect of the bill will be to allow Mediaset - owned by Berlusconi via his family-controlled empire Fininvest - to increase the quality and number of its channels and pull in more viewers at the expense of RAI. It will certainly allow Mediaset to keep all three of its free-to-air channels despite a ruling by Italy's highest court that one of them should be put on satellite. On exactly the same day, the Italian Senate adopted a law allowing Berlusconi to continue to own private TV channels providing he does not manage them himself - an interesting distinction which will be almost certainly be impossible to implement and police.

The Italian sector is further complicated by the emergence of the Murdoch-owned Sky Italia, formed earlier this year from the merger of pay-TV firms Stream and Telepiu. Murdoch is now set to dominate the Italian pay-TV market in much the same way that his BSkyB dominates in the UK.

The impact of this kind of dominance by a single powerful individual was well illustrated in July when the main RAI evening news bulletin failed to broadcast the instulting remarks Berlusconi made in the European Parliament to the German MEP who challenged him about these conflicts of interests. This was particularly extraordinary given the coverage which these ill-time remarks received throughout the European Union.

The Italian position is somewhat different from elsewhere in that the conflicts of interest between high political office and media owners are concentrated in a single individual. But the principles of democratic pluralism versus the undemocratic risks of media concentration are the same. One opposition MP therefore criticised the media bill as "a symbol of, and metaphor for, the sickness of our democracy". And the secretary of the Italian national press federation, Paolo Serventi Longhi said the measure would act to "the detriment of RAI and the written press" and was "a licence to kill off newspapers".

The Netherlands

I want to talk briefly about two smaller countries just to offer some illustration of how the arguments around media concentration issues alter somewhat when applied to smaller economies where ecomies of scale become more important issues.

In both Belgium and the Netherlands, ownership policy is partly dictated by competition law and partly by sector-specific cross-ownership regulation. This was underlined in the Netherlands by a report on concentration in the Dutch media in 2001 by their regulatory body the Commissariaat voor de Media, CVDM.

The Dutch Media Act has provisions which impose cross-ownership restrictions, in particular debarring any concern which controls at least a quarter of the daily newspaper market from controlling more than a third of a commercial broadcaster. At local level, a company which controls more than half of the newspaper market can't be licensed as a broadcaster in the same area unless a public service broadcaster is also operating in the same area. A growing company can lose its licence to broadcast if it becomes too powerful and crosses these ownership threshholds.

One interesting point about the CVDM is that - although it is an independent regulator - it is accountable to the Minister of Education, Culture and Science who can suspend or rescind any decision taken by the regulatory body. The CVDM report, published earlier this year, concluded that concentration is increasing with just 3 major players in the newspaper sector and two commercial players plus the public broadcaster in television. However, it specifically acknowledged that new initiatives can emerge from consolidating groups and that concentration of ownership does not always have a negative impact on the evolution of new ideas.

With this in mind, it specifically recommended that cross ownership regulation should be relaxed to promote investment on condition that maximum permissible shares are defined for each market. It specifically referred to the significance of convergence and the fact that current cross ownership regulations hindered the major newspaper publishers from exploiting the internet as a medium of communciation.

These recommendations were published during the formation of the new coalition government in May, and there are so far no published or stated plans to implement them. However, they almost certainly represent the current state of thinking on ownership amongst Dutch politicians, and there certainly appears to be little scope for increased regulation.

Belgium

Belgium is a little more complicated because competition regulation is imposed at the federal level, whereas media policy is undertaken separately by the Flemish Community and the French community. Within the Flemish sector, there are very few regulations on media ownership, and the recent trend has been towards relaxation particularly in radio and cable. There are practically no regulations on cross-media ownership, and broadcasting organisations can merge very easily.

In fact, in 2001 the then Director-General of the public service broadcaster VRT, Bert De Graeve, and its Chairman Guy Peeters, complained publicly about the concentrated media landscape in Flanders. As a result, the Flemish Media Council compiled a report which concluded that there was little regulation, that the Federal Council of Competition was inefficient and that there was little cooperation between the Flemish and Federal level. The then Flemish Minister of Media ordered a report on concentration from the consultants Ernst and Young but specifically ruled out measures which would impose ceilings on concentration fearing that it would "harm the pioneering initiative by media entrepreneurs that were able [through consolidation and editorial cooperation] to sustain a signficant number of titles in Flanders". No new measures are therefore to be implemented because, according to the Minister, the VCM and the Council of Competition have sufficient powers to stop exaggerated concentration.

Regulation within the French community is undertaken by the Conseil Superieur de l'Audiovisuel (CSA) who delivered a status report on pluralism and concentration in 2001. There are in fact very few cross-media regulations beyond a rule preventing owners of a private TV station from owning more than 5 radio stations. The CSA concluded that federal competion law was inadequate to combat decreases in pluralism, but that "it is necessary to take into account the [limited] size of the public sphere and the available resources in the French community". It therefore opposed harsh ownership regulation on the basis that it would be harmful rather than helpful and concluded that other policy measures should be adopted. The aim is to maintain pluralism by making consolidating firms build in enough diversity through content regulation, rather than to stop consolidation itself.

Repercussions

So that's a fairly brief survey of a few randomly chosen countries, just to give a flavour of international trends. I think it's a fair conclusion even on this small sample that the forces I outlined at the beginning are evident throughout the developed world. I want to finish by looking briefly at some of the inherent problems in this seemingly inexorable shift towards concentration and consolidation of ownership.

The biggest problem is diversity. Every time a government policy paper on ownership is published, the rhetoric is all about the need to protect diversity. Here are two quotes from recent UK papers, the first from a discussion paper on ownership in 2001: "We want a plurality of voices, giving the citizen access to a variety of views... Competition law.... is not designed to deliver diversity and plurality in the media".

The second is from the previous Conservative government's consultation on Media Ownership in 1995: "A free and diverse media are an indispensable part of the democratic process... Special media ownership rules... are needed therefore to provide safeguards necessary to maintain diversity and plurality". As in other countries, there is agreement across the political spectrum: we need to legislate for pluralism in the mass media because the mechanisms of the market-place on their own can't be trusted.

And the reasons they can't be trusted is because owners influence content. Their motives may be ideological or commercial or personal, but ultimately those who own the media dictate the content. It is axiomatic that the fewer gatekeepers there are, the less diversity we have.

It's important to be realistic about how this process works. In a few extreme cases, there is evidence of direct and frequent interference where owners use their editorial staff effectively as puppets for their own views. But I think that's the exception. Most of the time, we're not talking about ham-fisted table-banging interventions where proprietors bark their orders about what their writers or editors should be saying, who they should commission or what the editorial line should be each day. It is usually more subtle than that. Consider this wonderful quote in a letter from the proprietor of the Telegraph newspapers in Britain, Conrad Black, to his then editor Max Hastings about a previous day's editorial with which Black profoundly disagreed:

"I don't regard it as my job to instruct the leader writers, to write the leaders myself, or to respond to the leaders.... Rather I look forward to discussing with you how to avoid these fates".

Another example from Britain is the sudden affection being displayed by the Express newspapers for the mayor of London Ken Livingstone, a man who is second only to Saddam Hussein in the vitriol heaped upon him in the British press. Unlike most of the papers, The Sunday Express effusively praised Livingstone for introducing a charge on London motorists for driving into central London. Was the paper really bowled over by the success of the mayor's congestion charge, or does it have something to do with the owner Richard Desmond's determination to break the distribution monopoly of his deadly rival Associated Newspapers on London Underground? Desmond has made no secret of his wish to start another London newspaper, but he needs the help of the mayor to break Associated Newspapers' stranglehold on key sales points throughout the capital.

And there's the 175 Murdoch owned newspapers around the world, every one of which supported the war on Iraq. Anyone with any doubts about Rupert's inclination to dictate editorial agendas should read the books written by two of his editors, Harry Evans and Andrew Neil, or the generally positive biography by Willie Shawcross.

It's more subtle for TV, but the influence still works. Murdoch himself has said that he wants to push his very successful Sky news service in the same direction as the tub-thumping, flag-waving Fox News in America - whose unashamed right-wing bias has propelled it to the position which CNN held 10 years ago as America's most popular 24 hour news service.

At a London seminar last year on ownership, one of the UK's top independent TV producers who makes programmes for the ABC network in the US gave us an insight into the implications of Disney's ownwership of the network. He said: "the effect of Disney on ABC is.... actually to do with feel-good and family. Disney's lawyers and Disney's control of ABC network says 'this is going to be an American family network in keeping with the Disney ethic'". In other words, there are direct consequences for programme content and diversity on ABC which flows directly from the editorial philosophy of the corporate parent. The same is true, at the other extreme, of the Fox network which is far more willing to commission violent and prurient programmes such as "America's Most Wanted" because it fits with the ethos of a network which is prepared to push out the boundaries of acceptability.

The reason I give these examples is to show that you cannot legislate away the influences of ownership through content legislation. Media owners make their views felt in subtle ways either directly or through their choice of senior managers and commissioning editors who do their bidding. Decisions are taken to protect an owner's commercial interests or to further an editorial approach which is consistent with the owner's view of the world.

And I should add that, although we are talking essentially about broadcast and print journalism, much the same logic applies to music radio. In the UK, the creative community has been lobbying furiously to stop the government from allowing consolidation in the radio industry because the end result is centralised playlists, much reduced local discretion, and a homogeneity of musical output that can crush originality and new talent. All the evidence from America since consolidation started seriously in 1996 is that it produces fewer artists and less musical diversity.

The problem with all these editorial consequences is that they cannot be regulated away. You can have impartiality rules, you can have minimum local content or regional requirements, you can have measurements and quotas imposed by regulatory bodies set up to try and mitigate against the worst excesses of editorial interference, but you cannot legislate for the programme that isn't made, the music that isn't played or the editorial decision that anticipates your boss's views on Iraq or anything else. Ultimately if you want diversity, I think you have to legislate for diverse ownership. And that is becoming increasingly difficult.

The reason it is becoming progressively more difficult is that politicians are finding it increasingly hard to stand up to corporate interests. Media conglomerates want to expand, consolidate and exploit economies of scale. Front bench politicians are desperate either to retain power or regain it, so all political reason seems to fly out the window. When media owners say jump, most leading politicians around the world fall over themselves to see who can jump the highest. In virtually every country I can think of there has been a spectacular failure of political courage on issues of media concentration.

I have concentrated on diversity and pluralism as the major threats from consolidation, but I think there are other consequences which I haven't discussed in detail. For journalism, I think there are three particular areas of professional practice which are likely to suffer.

The first is localism and regionalism. One of the driving forces behind consolidation is the need to centralise in order to cut costs. Major corporations will insist that they can still deliver genuinely local content without having their roots in particular cities, regions or even countries, but experience suggests otherwise. Whether it be local radio, local newspapers or local television, journalism which originates from those who know and can identify with a particular area is qualitatively different from journalism which is practised by those from outside, often to a very precise formula dictated by an anonymous corporate centre. The same problem applies at the state as well as local level: with the onward march of big, mostly American, global corporations it becomes more difficult to protect indigenous national and regional cultures from the homogenising forces of American influence.

The second is investigative journalism. In the preface to its paper on European Media Ownership, the European Federation of Journalists talks about "an increasing perception that journalism is failing to carry out its watchdog role in society because of the vested interests that drive the media business". In other words, the traditional fourth estate function of uncovering corruption or abuse of power - whether at corporate or government level - becomes much more difficult when the corporate interests of media businesses are better served by protecting rather than exposing the establishment. There is also, of course, the cost factor: good investigative journalism is more expensive than straight reporting or confessional journalism, and corporate centres tend to resist expenditure which has no immediate return.

Finally, there is the issue of quality. This is a vague concept in journalism, but most practising reporters and editors know the difference between a high quality journalistic operation which values accuracy as well as originality, and one that runs according to flexible professional criteria which is judged purely on its success in increasing readers or ratings. American television news is one generic example of how news divisions under pressure to deliver ratings must materially change their output to the detriment of the mix of stories available to the American public. One side effect of the move towards consolidation is the threat being posed in several countries to public service broadcasting which has traditionally provided a benchmark for quality and professionalism and can rise above the corporate fray. Private corporations seeking to expand are, throughout the world, looking enviously at the market shares of PSBs and gradually weakening the already flimsy resolve of politicians to maintain public funding.

I am not trying to promote a "private bad, public good" message through this paper, and most countries have benefited from advertising and subscription funded media businesses which can operate with genuine editorial freedom. I am arguing simply that, to a greater extent than ever before, that editorial freedom is being eroded by the inexorable process of global corporate growth and consolidation; and, moreover, that politicians around the world are either unwilling or powerless to stand up for the interests of independent journalism and therefore a more informed and robust democracy. It is a depressing picture, and I would be very happy to be disabused by those practising at the coalface.


* Steven Barnett es profesor de la University of Westminster, en Inglaterra. Esta es su participación en la reunión anual de la Organization of News Ombudsmen, celebrada en Estambul, Turquía, en septiembre de 2003.


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