A Free Media for a Free Society
Thank you Natalie for that introduction, and thank you to the whole Media Democracy Festival team for putting together such a brilliant programme of events.
And thank you to the Media Reform Coalition for all the research and campaigning you do to bring about a more democratic media for our country.
Campaigns to build a better and more democratic media are so vital. The media is too important to be left in the hands of the few.
All around the world truth-seeking journalism is under attack while client journalism – little more than stenography for the powerful – expands.
There is a reason why the powerful seek to shut down and curtail truth-seeking journalism where they can. They know that knowledge is power, and if their abuses were known, the people would challenge them.
Take India, for example. Journalists in that incredible country are under attack through a new digital news censorship law. Why? Because India is currently experiencing a remarkable uprising.
The crony capitalist, authoritarian nationalist government of Narendra Modi tried to force through two laws attacking the livelihoods of India's farmers. Modi wants to sacrifice the incomes of millions of farmers to support Indian billionaires, like Ambani and Adani and multinational companies.
The response from Indian farmers and workers has been inspirational. They held the biggest industrial action in human history with over 250 million people out on strike.
Let me say that again because people in the UK probably don't know about these historic events. It has barely been covered here despite being the largest and most significant social struggle taking place on earth today which says a lot about the British media's news values.
Indian farmers and workers held the biggest industrial action in human history with over 250 million people out on strike.
That's one in thirty people on the planet taking part in the same strike. Unprecedented.
The farmers have faced water cannon, tear gas and brute force. But they've also had to withstand another type of assault – their simultaneous demonisation in government-linked media and restrictions on journalists that might cover their struggle factually and fairly.
The farmers themselves understand how important the media and reporting is. In the face of attacks on themselves and those reporting on their struggle, the farmers have created their own biweekly free newspaper.
But in much of the government and billionaire-linked media the farmers have been denounced as “anti-national” and part of a conspiracy to undermine India. These divisive, disgusting attacks are flat wrong. The strikes and protests involve practically every community in India and enjoy wide support which is why the government is going to so much effort to prevent them being reported on accurately.
Journalists and independent outlets like News Click have faced harassment and now online media faces a new digital censorship law.
These latest attacks are so bad that Sabina Inderjit, secretary general of the Indian Journalists Union, has said that “democracy in India is in danger. Its fourth estate is badly bruised and battered. Over the past five years, the country's independent and free press is being systematically and ruthlessly attacked like never before.”
I was pleased to quote Sabina Inderjit in the UK parliament last week and I salute the Indian farmers and the journalists who risk so much to report on their struggle. They are heroes of our time, and are on the right side of history.
We owe them our solidarity and I'm delighted that the Indian journalists are receiving support from the International Federation of Journalists and the UK's National Union of Journalists.
The NUJ is a fantastic union, standing up for journalism and journalists every day. I'm proud of my long association with it. Before becoming Labour leader, I was the chair of the NUJ parliamentary group, and supported them in their campaigns and disputes.
The media is something I've had an interest in for fifty plus years and I've enjoyed writing for a number of publications, including around 500 columns for the Morning Star.
I know we get labelled all sorts of ridiculous things when we criticise particular aspects of the media. But our desire for radical reform of the media, to see greater democracy in it and more freedoms for journalists is all about a love of journalism- real, truth-seeking, power-challenging journalism. Without that sort of reporting, progressive social change is so much harder, and some might argue impossible.
Over the years, I've seen journalists challenge power and expose corruption and wage the most hateful campaigns against migrants, trade unionists, socialists and many many individuals.
I suppose I've had a bit of a taste of that myself these past few years.
I've seen publications and programmes come and go. The rise of Murdoch. The rise of the internet. Mergers and acquisitions create greater and greater market concentration.
The media isn't static. It isn't an unchanging force that we can't influence. The media can enhance democracy or it can harm it. It can promote public interest journalism or it can suppress it.
But through all the changes in the last fifty years, one thing has remained constant, the media is a powerful force in shaping society. So if we want it to empower people through fact-based, truth-seeking, power-challenging journalism we will have to actively and radically reform the media.
And we must, because for democracy to function properly, it is essential to have a free media that truly works for the many, not the few.
But right now, much of the British media isn't very free at all.
And it is getting even less free.
We face five challenges that will further narrow the space for communication and further shift the media into the hands of unaccountable billionaires, and government control.
Taken together I think these challenges are so substantial that they threaten democracy itself.
First, media ownership is congealing in fewer and fewer hands. Today just three companies control almost 90 percent of national newspaper circulation. Three companies control over 60 percent of the local newspaper market, and over a quarter of council areas in the UK don't even have a local paper. Two companies dominate commercial radio with more than two-thirds of licences.
Some argue this doesn't matter because so many of us increasingly find our news on social media. But social media platforms are exactly that, platforms. Most of the news people find on social media comes from the dominant news organisations. And what we see is determined by those platforms algorithms.
Second, public media is under attack. Boris Johnson has appointed a Conservative Party donor, a banker and Rishi Sunak's former boss as chair of the BBC, in a blatant assault on the organisation's independence. This government has no respect for public media and is actively trying to intimidate it and shift it to the right.
We saw these bullying tactics in the general election. Channel 4 invited all of the party leaders to a special debate on the environment. The invitation very clearly said it was for party leaders only and the broadcaster would accept no substitutes. I happily agreed.
But Boris Johnson didn't want to debate the climate crisis and so he didn't show up. Channel 4 replaced him on set by a melting ice sculpture, as an inventive form of empty chairing.
The Conservatives reacted with the fury of a bully, and threatened Channel 4's very future when its license is up for renewal in 2024.
Third, Boris Johnson wants to place Paul Dacre, the editor in chief of the Daily Mail group, as head of OFCOM – the body that's meant to regulate broadcasters. Inserting such a noted reactionary and political figure to head the regulator will clearly make it more sympathetic to the interests of billionaires and big business and less sympathetic to the ordinary citizen. Democratic socialist ideas, many of which are held by the vast majority of the population, and are in reality mainstream, will likely be further marginalised. Part of the reason for the surge in support for Labour in 2017 was the effect of election period broadcast regulations giving us fairer access to broadcasters. It seems the Tories don't want to risk a slightly more level playing field again.
Fourth, two new TV stations are set to launch. Both will shift the centre of gravity in UK news further to the right and further in support of corporate interests. One is GB News, which is being set up by former Murdoch man and chair of the Spectator, Andrew Neil.
The other is News UK TV, part of Rupert Murdoch's conglomerate responsible for Fox News in the US.
While both stations will be regulated by OFCOM, what will that mean if the regulator is headed by their political soulmate Paul Dacre?
Fifth, the unaccountable power of social media platforms. The idea behind social media is brilliant, and potentially extremely democratic. At various points and in different countries, in its fifteen year or so history, social media has aided people's voices to be heard, helped spread suppressed news, allowed for democratic organising, and provided a partial way around the editorial control of the established media.
In the 2015 Labour leadership election social media helped spread the word about what was happening in our campaign, get huge numbers of people involved, and provide an alternative source of information from the established media which mainly ridiculed us.
In the 2017 general election, the print media was hugely biased against us but the massive demand for fair representation of Labour's policies could be met on social media. A number of publications – new, independent outlets and one or two established ones – saw phenomenal traffic through Facebook in the campaign by presenting our policies more fairly than, say, the Daily Mail would.
But since then, Facebook has repeatedly changed its algorithm to downgrade politics and certain types of news from people's feeds. And each time they have done so without any transparency. People are getting more and more information through these platforms but there is no accountability for the platforms over what they make more likely, and what they make less likely for users to see.
We've seen this lack of accountability be weaponised in other countries. In Bolivia's 2019 election campaign, which ended in a US backed, hard right coup, bots and fake accounts spread bogus attacks about the government to such an extent that the Facebook official responsible for overseeing this effectively public online space said she had “blood on her hands”. In Ecuador the Pink Tide former president Rafael Correa and his supporters have had their accounts suspended.
When you take these five challenges together, the threat to democracy is clear. Unaccountable billionaires, through print, broadcast, and tech platforms can overdetermine what news and information to read, hear and watch.
The problem here isn't that there will be more right wing output but the overall media landscape will be made even more unrepresentative, shutting out voices and perspectives, which huge numbers of people hold.
And this threat couldn't be more pressing in the context of the pandemic.
In public health emergencies, information and accountability take on life or death significance. In the past year, the British media, of course with some great and notable exceptions, has failed.
And next the national debate will be over how we come out of the pandemic and what sort of society will we be. Here media power is so important. Look what happened after the last crisis; the bankers' crash of 2008. Most of the media fell in lockstep behind the idea of austerity, which damaged our economy, led to 130,000 preventable deaths and made us less ready for the pandemic when it hit.
We cannot let that happen again.
So what can we do?
We have to both act within the established media, build the alternatives, and campaign for media democracy.
So we have to make sure that social justice arguments are made in the established media. That means that those who have a voice in the media have a duty to use it to argue for the progressive alternative. And as activists ourselves we have to encourage those that can make the arguments in the media on our behalf, like political leaders, to have the courage to do so.
Movements can change media output through their actions. In 2019, the debate on the climate crisis changed in the UK, in large part because of the mass activism of the youth climate strikers and XR. They made news and demanded to be heard.
Black Lives Matter forced editors to debate racism and produce programmes on black history, life and culture.
I am hopeful that after the appalling murder of Sarah Everard, the women's movement will be able to change the media debate on violence against women, through actions and campaigns that simply can't be ignored.
We also have to help build the independent media alternative for its own sake and to pressure existing media.
Take the issue of cronyism, and dodgy PPE contracts. The issue received relatively little mainstream attention. But it would have received even less coverage were it not for the work of Byline Times and others in their endless investigations into contract after contract. Great journalism doesn't just produce one story for one publication but it encourages others to dig deeper themselves and find out more. Independent media can create a positive copycat effect.
But we shouldn't be under any illusions about the scale of the inequality between independent and established media. In January, the Mail Online had nearly 150 million visits. OpenDemocracy had around 300,000.
So I encourage everyone taking part today and through the festival to support independent media any way you can. Read, listen to, and watch it. Share it on social media. Subscribe. And donate if you can. News costs money. If we aren't paying for it, billionaires and big business is, and they don't have our interests at heart.
Earlier this year I set up The Peace and Justice Project, and we've made media democracy one of our core campaigns.
PJP is working with the Media Reform Coalition, the Independent Media Association, and a good number of independent media outlets to develop shared infrastructure to support the whole sector.
It has been so inspiring to get involved with so many brilliant publications and organisations, to hear about the excellent work they do, and plan how we can collectively empower truth-seeking independent journalism.
In the coming weeks, we will announce some exciting projects, and shared infrastructure to support independent media, and more ways for you to get involved with supporting them and building campaigns for a democratic media.
Please sign up at thecorbynproject.com to find out more and get involved.
The first media campaign we're working on is to stop Rupert Murdoch and his plans to re-enter the UK television market. Unlike his last attempt to buyout Sky, this time there's no one stopping him. We know how close he is to the government. Last year, research found that Murdoch and his senior executives continued to enjoy unrivalled access to government, meeting with senior ministers and officials over 200 times over a period of 24 months.
So we need an urgent Parliamentary commission to protect our news media from oligarchy and monopoly control.
We have started a petition for this Parliamentary commission on our website. I hope you'll go to our website and sign up to our campaign for media democracy and sign the petition.
The Media Reform Coalition are also running a campaign called ‘The BBC and Beyond: Re-imagining our public media'. For the next year they will be working with political parties, trade unions, media organisations, civil society and audience members to develop a new understanding of the vital importance of a renewed and reformed public media. Join the MRC and get involved.
Alongside our support for independent media and our campaigning work, we need to develop our vision for a democratic media and the policies that would make it happen.
The Peace and Justice Project will work with academics, experts, journalists and activists to develop and champion these policies.
To build a more democratic media, we need much more support for public interest journalism. It's expensive work, and we have to value it.
We will look at ideas like giving charitable status to some local, investigative and public interest journalism. Or creating a public interest media fund from a tax on digital monopolies. Google, Facebook and the rest of them benefit from the media produced elsewhere and then consumed via their platforms. It seems only fair that they should give back.
We also need to develop the ideas for how we democratise the BBC and liberate it from government control. PJP and others will assemble practical ideas for how BBC Board members could be elected by staff and licence fee payers,for how the BBC can be decentralised and made more representative, and how it can be placed on a secure footing, without constantly looking over its shoulder for its license renewal, and funded fairly through reform to the license fee system.
Without radical policies owners and bosses in the private sector will continue to become more and more powerful. We will examine policies to guarantee greater media pluralism and reduce the influence of owners and executives on news rooms. For example, when an outlet or conglomerate achieves a certain audience share, certain public interest provisions could kick in, such as NUJ representation on the board, election of editors, and enforced shareholder dilution with equity and seats on the board awarded to workers and the readers, viewers, or listeners.
These are big ideas but we need big ideas if we are going to have a media that serves the public interest.
Major action will be needed too if a few mega tech monopolies aren't going to hoover up digital rights, assets and ultimately our money.
Firstly we need to recognise what role they play in our country's communications system. They are becoming the means through which we communicate, campaign and receive information. In reality they are public utilities and should be regulated like a public utility, with real transparency and accountability for the decisions their algorithms make in what you see, and what you don't.
We also need our own public alternative. And we could have one. Imagine if all of the material the public had ever paid for, everything on BBC, everything on Channel 4, every bit of publicly funded art, theatre, music, every museum exhibition, every library, were available online in one place.
It should be. We paid for it. And the technology exists to put it there.
So I think we should set out plans for a British Digital Corporation that could rival Netflix and Amazon, and also to harness data for the public good.
We need to think big and act now if we are going to head off the threat to democracy from a media that too often holds back rather empowers public interest journalism.
Democratising the media must be at the core of progressive politics. It's about who gets to tell their story; who gets to shape the world.
And it really can be us, the many, all over the world that can tell our story. The pandemic has kept us physically isolated, trapped in our homes and unable to travel, but we've all discovered how easy it is to connect with people all over the world online. In the past year, I've had meetings with people on Zoom that simply wouldn't have been possible a few years ago.
We have the tools and the power to organise together in every part of the UK… but also right across the world.
And we must.
Because the media is too important to leave in the hands of billionaires, or to let the government gain more control over.
So let's commit to come together now to fight back against the forces that want to use our media as the propaganda arm of the few, and to support fact-based, truth-seeking, power-challenging journalism in every way we can.