OPINION

Pioneers of deregulation

Politics and the power of the media have been linked inextricably since the first singer sat around a fire and told a story about winners and losers in the tribe. History is written by the winners. That was in the old days. Nowadays, journalism (rightly or wrongly, with all its failings) has the ability to define who the winners and losers are, long before the war, or even the battle is over. Each feeds off the other, and the relationship is never comfortable. But rarely is there a time such as this, when news media across the world are at war with their governments and with each other in a struggle that will determine the future of the ways in which the public is informed. The war in Iraq, bitterly divisive as it is, came at a time when technological developments and the growth of some media companies to huge proportions while others were struggling or closing down had already brought great change to our living rooms. Technological advances in recent years have resulted in many alternative sources of news, beyond the newspaper and radio and television station. The Internet and cable and satellite television provide a seemingly endless stream of information and entertainment. But at the same time, fewer and fewer companies have taken control of greater parts of the market, in their home countries and, in many cases, abroad, prompting governments to consider new regulations or accelerating deregulation. Whether the issue be the clash between governments and broadcasters, between state-owned and private media, between ideologically different companies, between local ownership and networks or between national and foreign content, the current war is, in the end, a struggle about power. It is a case in which the singer of the tribe is in a battle for his place around the fire. Like every real war, things are complicated and very often the battle lines are blurred. The clash between the BBC and the Blair government, and the protests against big media companies in the United States getting any bigger are the two most striking and recent episodes in this struggle. The recent unilateralism of the United States, the home of the unfettered press, and its president’s bold portrayal of all issues in black and white, has resulted both in the «radicalization» of America’s domestic media between right and left and in straining relations between some governments allied with the United States and their domestic media. For example, the venerable BBC, the standard of journalistic integrity, is locked in a battle with the British government over which side exaggerated reports to suit its own ends. Was it the government which played up the fears of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, or was it the BBC which took a government expert’s comments and hyped them up to accuse the Blair government of doctoring the evidence against Iraq? (The most obvious victim of this is the unfortunate Dr David Kelly, though the loss of credibility by the two protagonists will cause them lasting damage.) During the war, British Health Secretary John Reid accused the BBC of acting like a «friend of Baghdad,» while Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the corporation’s coverage distorted the public’s view of events. In Australia, another US ally, Prime Minister John Howard, is planning an investigation of public broadcaster Australian Broadcasting Corporation, for alleged bias and anti-Americanism, a charge ABC denies. War, it seems, is a risky time for displays of editorial independence. The battle here, ostensibly, is over objectivity. But beneath it lies a dispute over how much power each side wields with respect to the other. And it is only natural that members of the public take sides as well. For example, a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, released on July 13, found that a majority of Americans want the media to offer neutral coverage. But when asked if they preferred coverage to have «a strong pro-American point of view,» seven out of 10 said «yes,» The Associated Press reported. The poll found also that the audience for news coverage on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News (which is much more conservative and «patriotic» than the audience for the other networks and CNN) had grown from 16 percent in January 2002 to 22 percent recently and is catching up with CNN at 27 percent. Liberals in America feel that they are being crowded out by the right-wing voices all over the airwaves. David Brooks, senior editor at Murdoch’s Weekly Standard magazine, was quoted in the New York Times as having written recently that Democrats are in «despair that a consortium of conservative think tanks, talk radio hosts and Fox News – Hillary’s vast right-wing conspiracy – has cohered to form a dazzlingly efficient ideology delivery system that swamps liberal efforts to get their ideas out.» Al Gore, the Democrats’ failed candidate for president, was said to be thinking about starting a cable network as an alternative to Fox News, but talk of this has died down recently. Last Tuesday, the US House of Representatives voted in a law which blocks a new rule allowing the nation’s largest television networks to grow bigger by owning more stations. The decision by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), backed by the Bush administration, ruled that a single company can own television stations reaching 45 percent of American households, up from the current cap of 35 percent. It also allowed cross ownership of different media, meaning that, under certain conditions, the same owner can own a newspaper, television station and radio stations in the same community. Critics argue that the dominance of four large networks – NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox – is stifling others. «Media conglomerates will now be able to buy up hundreds of newspapers, television and radio stations in communities across the United States. Competition, diversity and local content will be undermined in local markets and nationally,» the International Federation of Journalists warned. But the House of Representatives vote of 400-21 showed how overwhelming the opposition is to greater growth by the big media companies. And it reflects how bipartisan the public’s opposition is also. The Pew poll found that 50 percent believe allowing companies more broadcast and newspaper operations in the same city will have a negative effect. Ironically, simplistic US coverage plus decreasing lack of choice has given the BBC an opening into America, where 95 percent of America’s public service television stations carry BBC news. «In terms of audience reach, we now know that more than 40 percent of opinion formers in New York, Boston and Washington are touching the BBC,» Mark Byford, who heads both BBC World and the World Service, told the Financial Times. The Economist, the British elitist weekly magazine of global news and opinion, sells 352,000 of its total 880,000 copies in the United States, an increase of 81 percent in the past decade. Even the Guardian, the liberal British daily, is looking into the possibility of publishing a news magazine in the United States. Even traditional allies of the Bush administration, including a coalition of religious and conservative groups, have joined liberal organizations in attacking the new rules, transcending party lines. Many of the reasons would be recognizable in Greece. Many right-wing groups feel that local stations are more likely to give them access; local politicians also fear that ownership by large networks will make it more difficult for them to get on the air in their constituencies. The fight is not over, and President Bush might veto Tuesday’s decision, but he will do so at considerable political cost. Interestingly, the Guardian reported yesterday that Clear Channel, which owns over 1,200 radio stations in the United States, is being investigated over claims of abusing its market dominance, «including a charge that Clear Channel restricted the airplay time of music artists unwilling to use its concert promotion services.» What happens in America is important, because other countries are likely to follow in terms of how they regulate their media. But beyond this, the content of American television is what gets into our living rooms as well. «The British Television Distributors Association estimates that the United States controls more than 60 percent of global trade in television exports, estimated at $4 billion,» the Financial Times reported last week. Furthermore, Murdoch controls satellite systems in Europe, Asia and Latin America and has been trying to take over the dominant one in North America. In Europe, new legislation in Britain will allow a major newspaper group (theoretically one like Murdoch’s, which has four papers in Britain) to buy Channel Five. The Italian Parliament is moving ahead with legislation that does not solve Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s conflict of interest and increases the concentration of media in the country. He heads a business empire that includes Italy’s largest private broadcaster, Mediaset, and publishing interests. As prime minister, he also has influence over RAI’s three state networks, meaning that, directly or indirectly, he controls about 90 percent of the television market. The new legislation will make it illegal for the prime minister and government members to run a business while in office but they can still be owners. In Greece, we might be surprised to learn, private television and radio stations have been operating without any legal framework for most of the 13 years since their birth, allowing owners to do pretty much as they please. Only last year did the government provide licenses to 35 radio stations in Attica, after closing down 60. Private television channels are operating on temporary permits. Since the beginning of the year, a tender for six national permits is pending, with 10 likely bidders. The National Broadcast Council was set up as an independent state body just a year ago. As other countries work toward increasing deregulation, we’ve been there, done that. Pioneers of no law at all, we’re headed in the other direction.