The Rupert and Tony show

The Mass Media and Power in Modern Britain - New Media, New Policies
March 28, 1997

Last year, there was a moment in a House of Commons committee considering amendments to the Government's Broadcasting Bill that appeared to be strictly for connoisseurs of the political bizarre, but in fact symbolised an important political shift. Iain Sproat, Virginia Bottomley's deputy at the Department of National Heritage, was arguing that in the debate about cross-media ownership, the Government could not be neutral, it had to insist on there being limits on the degree to which large media conglomerates could own both substantial sections of the national press and large chunks of commercial television. Meanwhile his opposite number on the Labour benches, Lewis Moonie, accompanied by a handful of libertarian Tories, was arguing that the issue of cross-media ownership should best be left to the free market and that all that was required, to make this mechanism effective in the public interest, was a strong regulatory regime.

Richard Collins and Cristina Murroni unlike Rupert Murdoch would not necessarily applaud every dot and comma of Labour's policy as then articulated by Moonie, but they would certainly have found much to support in its general approach. Their comprehensive and timely book is the first fruit of a major study of the media and telecommunications industries. And the origins and structure of the project tells us almost as much about the media and telecommunication industries, as does the research itself. The study was undertaken by the Institute for Public Policy Research, a left-of-centre think tank. It soon identified the media and communications industries as an important area of public discourse that was ripe for ideological plucking and successfully sought funding from many of the major players in the telecommunications and media industries - British Telecom, the Cable Communication Association, London Weekend Television, Mercury Communications, the Pearson Group and News International - media players that only in the last few years would have considered supporting such a Labour-inspired project.

Collins and Murroni argue that both the old left's analysis of the mass media as simply the ideological apparatus of the capitalist state and the new right's characterisation of the media as simply a commodity like any other subject to the same rules of the market, were not only inadequate but patently wrong. In their place the authors argue for an analysis and prescription of the media and telecommunications industries that is not dissimilar to new Labour's approach to the public utilities. These industries, they argue, are neither wholly autonomous nor wholly subservient to the state, but they do require both the freedom to grow, to compete internationally, while at the same time the public interest requires a strong regulatory regime. But at the moment media and telecommunications regulation is in almost complete chaos; the authors identify no fewer than 11 bodies involved in regulating various aspects of these sectors. Consequently they call for a single all-powerful new regulatory body, Ofcom, capable of making decisions that take into consideration the whole gamut of media and communications activities of those companies and corporations it is seeking to regulate. Despite being formally rejected by the Labour party, it is an attractive proposal which has much to recommend it, but it does beg the inevitable question, who regulates the regulator?

On the face of it the authors appear not to have ducked the question. "How well do the gatekeepers represent British society?'' they ask, and go on to say: "A new mechanism for appointing regulators is needed to ensure that those who take decisions for the UK public are more representative and accountable.'' But what is that new mechanism? And search as one might the answer is not be found in this study - perhaps that is the "come-on" to buy the follow-up book?

Nor can any suggested mechanism of regulation be found in Eldridge Kitzinger and Kevin Williams's book. For if Collins and Murroni's approach is almost wholly institutional, and none the worse for that, then Eldridge and colleagues almost wholly ignore media structures. For this book is about media players, practices and audiences and it defines its approach by raising, at the very beginning, the questions "who is communicating with whom, by what means, for what purposes, with what effects and in whose interests? The answers to such questions'', the authors go on to say, "tell us much about the kind of societies we live in and the ways in which power and control operate."

The Mass Media and Power in Modern Britain is a useful, if limited, introduction to the mass media in Britain. It represents a synthesis of the work of the Glasgow University Media Group whose pioneering study of television news, Bad News, was published over two decades ago and among whose authors was Eldridge. The work of the GUMG was both ground-breaking but also problematic. The approach of Eldridge and colleagues, reflecting the "Glasgow tradition", is to look at the way the media, with a particular emphasis on television, have covered a particular subject - for example industrial relations, armed conflict, Aids - to analyse the shortcomings of the coverage, as perceived by the researchers and their respondents, and to ask the question, who benefits from this distorted coverage? Such an approach does tell us much about power in modern Britain, which is the task the authors set themselves, but it is too blunt an instrument to enable students to understand the rapidly changing structure of the media and telecommunications industries in Britain. For as structures change, so too does the allocation of power. After all, it was not that long ago that Labour frontbenchers were arguing for stringent controls against cross-media ownership. However, as the nature and structure of the Labour party has changed so too has its policies. And it is the same for the media industry: even though audiences and players remain the same, its structures have been transformed.

Ivor Gaber is professor of broadcast journalism, Goldsmiths College, University of London.

The Mass Media and Power in Modern Britain

Author - John Eldridge, Jenny Kitzinger and Kevin Williams
ISBN - 0 19 878172 5 and 878171 7
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £.50 and £8.99
Pages - 199

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