Wednesday, 20 July 2011

'Ridiculous opinions'

I think that we've got to look at the situation whereby one person can own more than 20% of the newspaper market, the Sky platform and Sky News ... I think it's unhealthy because that amount of power in one person's hands has clearly led to abuses of power within his organisation. If you want to minimise the abuses of power then that kind of concentration of power is frankly quite dangerous.
The ED 9000 computer, (which is, by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error).
Ed is not doing badly, but his call at the weekend for Rupert Murdoch to sell his newspapers showed that he sometimes loses touch with reality (who does he suppose will buy the loss-making Times?). It may hurt, but to get back on-piste, he must disown the more ridiculous opinions of those he surrounds himself with.
Daniel Knowles, writing in the Torygraph

Who's right here? If individual media organisations are less powerful, will this curb a nation's press freedom?  I looked at the top ten countries in the 2010 Press Freedom Index on the Reporters Without Borders web site (the UK ranked 19 last year, just below Australia and just above the USA). The OCED also publish a set of Sustainable Governance Indicators, which include the levels of media pluralism in the various OECD countries, so it's easy to compare how diverse the media are in the top ten countries (apart from Estonia at no. 9, which isn't in the OECD).

The OECD table offers qualified support for the notion that nations a free press doesn't necessarily entail the sort of market dominance enjoyed by the Murdoch empire. Eight, out of the top ten countries with the freest press* apparently have more plurality of media ownership than the UK. Correlation isn't causation, but at the very least this suggests that curbing oligopolies doesn't actually harm press freedom. I say 'qualified' because Iceland, which was deemed to have the very freest press in the world, (joint first with Finland) actually seems to have less media pluralism than the UK. Perhaps the relative concentration of media interest is counterbalanced by Article 73 of the Icelandic constitution, which states that:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and belief.

Everyone shall be free to express his thoughts, but shall also be liable to answer for them in court. The law may never provide for censorship or other similar limitations to freedom of expression.

Freedom of expression may only be restricted by law in the interests of public order or the security of the State, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights or reputation of others, if such restrictions are deemed necessary and in agreement with democratic traditions.

Estonia doesn't appear in the OECD figures, so I haven't been able to compare directly it with the others in the group when it comes to media plurality. Apparently, media ownership Estonia is mainly regulated by the country's Commercial Code and Law on Competition, rather than by any specific legislation about media competition, but I don't know how its media diversity compares with the UK.

In theory powerful media oligopolies might put the fear of God into politicians, keeping them on the straight and narrow and keeping the public informed about things the powerful would rather keep hidden. In practice, the UK's leading oligopolist was rather too cosy with politicians and senior cops to be taken seriously as an outsider speaking truth to power. If the media-political complex was a tent, News International was on the inside pissing out.

A convincing majority of the nations with (arguably) the freest presses in the world aren't dominated by such concentrations of media interests. Conversely, Italy, with Europe's most developed oligopolistic media-political complex, comes 50th in the Press Freedom Index, sandwiched between Burkina Faso and El Salvador. Italy's  incestuous tangle of media and political power, doesn't strike me as a model to emulate.

Press freedom might be in danger from ill-thought out or restrictive regulation of what the press can say or do, but it's not clear to me that rules ensuring media pluralism represent any such threat. Maybe Daniel Knowles has a point about large, profitable media companies subsidising loss-making but worthy projects, but somehow or other, a more diverse and apparently free press stubbornly continues to flourish in Finland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Austria, New Zealand and Ireland. All in all, I think this is one of the less ridiculous ideas in the EdBot 9000's memory banks.

*of course that's only according to one organisation, Reporters Without Borders,but it'll do for starters.