A British Press for the Many, Not the Few

Jeremy Corbyn argues that by empowering media workers, putting the public in control, and taking on unaccountable billionaires, the British press can be vibrant, democratic, and sustainable.

Jeremy Corbyn in Northern Ireland in May 2018. Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

Not many people know this about me, but the media is close to my heart. News reporting is a vital and a proud profession.

One of my early jobs after leaving school was on the Newport and Market Drayton Advertiser, and I chaired the National Union of Journalists’ parliamentary group. Working on the local paper was hard work but huge fun. And I found it incredibly rewarding because I could see the role we were playing in my community.

Too often, we take journalism and journalists for granted. At their best, journalists challenge unaccountable power and expose things that the rich and powerful would rather keep hidden. Far too often around the world, journalists pay for that with their freedom or even their lives. Fearless journalists and those who support them in their work are some of the heroes of our time.

I want to look not only at TV and digital, but also radio, print and social media. As we charge into the digital age, we need to see our media, delivered mainly through screens of various sizes, as part of one connected system.

The challenge of the movement I am proud to lead, whose aim is to transform society on behalf of the overwhelming majority, is to ensure technological, cultural and economic changes empower people, rather than oppress them.

The mission of socialism in the twenty-first century is to lead profound change so that it benefits the many, not the few.

And while audiences of this much-acclaimed lecture – and its non-alternative sibling – don’t normally hear a socialist perspective, this is certainly not the first time.

The inaugural MacTaggart lecture was delivered in 1976 by the radical Scottish playwright and theatre director John McGrath. His theatre company, whose aim was to take popular, political, working class plays to venues outside the mainstream, was called 7:84.

An odd name for a radical theatre company, you might think. Two numbers. Seven. Eighty-four. They represent a shocking statistic that McGrath had read in the Economist: 7 percent of the population owned 84 percent of the country’s wealth. McGrath’s influence was massive here in Scotland, but also with a wider audience much further afield.

Today we face the same issue — and in your fast-changing industry in particular: far too few people have a grip on most of the power, and it seems like our current system is making that situation worse.

So my message today is: for all the brilliant work done across its multiple outlets and platforms, the British media isn’t ready for the challenges of the twenty-first century and so cannot properly serve the interests of a truly democratic society.

We need to accept some home truths about the British media. While we produce some fantastic drama, entertainment, documentaries and films, when it comes to news and current affairs, so vital for a democratic society — our media is failing.

Now this isn’t just the view of someone who has had how shall we say, an interesting relationship with the media, particularly in the last three years. The latest statistics from the European Broadcasting Union show that the British people simply don’t trust the media. Trust in British TV news is below the EU average and it is more distrusted than its German, Swedish or Belgian counterparts.

At least our TV news operates under some basic rules ensuring an element of balance. We felt this keenly during the General Election campaign last year. When additional election rules on political balance kicked in, broadcasters were required to report the Labour Party in our voice effectively for the first time for two years so we could properly lay out our policies for the country. It turned out, to the surprise of much of the media, that our ideas are pretty much the common sense mainstream, and it was the establishment gatekeepers who were shown to be out of touch.

Preconceptions of editorial staff could still be spotted in less-regulated vox pops which were more slanted against us. A vox pop looks unfiltered but what makes it onto TV or radio is chosen by editors on the day.

Jon Snow famously told viewers after the election that the media “know nothing” and expanded on the idea in a lecture to this festival last year. Well, the point is that editors do know something, of course, but that something may be somewhat removed from what most other people really think.

Having said all that, broadcast media is clearly in a better state than the printed word, with newspaper circulation heavily down for almost every title while proprietors struggle to make far larger online readerships pay.

The print barons are failing in more ways than that. The British press is the least trusted press in Europe, including non-EU countries like North Macedonia and Serbia.

Let that sink in for a moment. The owners and editors of most of our country’s newspapers have dragged down standards so far that their hard working journalists are simply not trusted by the public. It’s a travesty.

A free press is essential to our democracy, but much of our press isn’t very free at all. And, as I’ll lay out in a bit more detail, I want to see journalists and media workers set free to do their best work, not held back by bosses, billionaire owners, or the state.

We must have this debate now. We must get to the bottom of why our news media is failing and work out what we can do about it.

For all the worry about new forms of fake news, we’ve ignored the fact that most of our citizens think our newspapers churn out fake news day in, day out.

It’s not much of a surprise then that in the last four years, one political earthquake after another has been missed by most of our media.

That is partly explained by how close so much of the media is to the rich and powerful. And I’m not just talking about the revolving door that saw George Osborne walk out of the Treasury to become editor of the Evening Standard. Leveson One and campaigning from people like our Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport and Deputy Leader, Tom Watson helped expose the cosy relationship between senior press and broadcasting executives, media owners and senior politicians.

Let me be clear, Labour is committed to Leveson Two and there is no better person to be leading for us on this than Tom. But we must also break the stranglehold of elite power and billionaire domination over large parts of our media. Just three companies control 71 percent of national newspaper circulation and five companies control 81 percent of local newspaper circulation.

This unhealthy sway of a few corporations and billionaires shapes and skews the priorities and worldview of a powerful section of the media.

And it doesn’t stop with the newspapers, on and offline. Print too often sets the broadcast agenda, even though it is wedded so firmly to the Tories politically and to corporate interests more generally. Just because it’s on the front page of the Sun or the Mail doesn’t automatically make it news.

A parallel process of concentration and tightening oligopoly is advancing in online news and could intensify with moves towards phone apps and push notifications. Multinational companies want to create worlds you’re locked into: your phone operating system, your music streaming app, your online viewing service, and your news.

These dynamics further undermine diversity and pluralism, and I have real doubts that such a model will value the high quality journalistic work that challenges the interests of the powerful and wealthy.

All of you in the media industry, from BBC executives down to a niche online startup, are worrying about what business model you should adopt in the twenty-first century. But political and social activists need to get involved, too, because what model is allowed to flourish will have a profound impact on the public with all the good or harm that the media can do.

So today, I want to make some suggestions for how we can build a free and democratic media in the digital age. I will put forward four big ideas which I hope will generate debate. This lecture is all about encouraging public debate.

These ideas have at their heart the desire to create a media where journalists and media workers are set free from elite control, whether the billionaire class or government, that’s holding them back from producing their best work.

These suggestions aren’t yet Labour policy, as they’re still in the process of development but I hope they show how we are thinking about major change and open up space for more research and discussion.

Support for public interest journalism

The first idea is about active support for local, investigative, and public interest journalism.

The best journalism takes on the powerful, in the corporate world as well as government, and helps create an informed public. That work costs money. We value it, but somehow that doesn’t translate into proper funding and legal support.

So we should look at granting charitable status for some local, investigative, and public interest journalism. That status would greatly help pioneering not-for-profit organizations, like the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, to fund their vital work through tax exemptions, grants and donations. Such a change would help support groundbreaking investigations, like the Bureau’s into how many homeless people are dying on our streets.

I’d like to pay tribute to the Manchester Evening News journalists, who have also been trying to find out how many people are dying on Manchester’s streets with their powerful investigation “The Deaths They Don’t Count.” And, I’d also like to single out the Hackney Gazette, which over five weeks, using Freedom of Information requests, undercover reporting and witness testimony, powerfully exposed the hidden homeless problem in one of London’s poorest boroughs, resulting in new commitments to action from the council.

This type of journalism needs support, and the government has a role in helping develop a business model to strengthen and underpin it.

One solution to funding public interest media could be by tapping up the digital monopolies that profit from every search, share, and like we make.

A strong, self-confident government could negotiate with these tech giants to create a fund, run entirely independently, to support public interest media. Google and news publishers in France and Belgium were able to agree a settlement. If we can’t do something similar here, but on a more ambitious scale, we’ll need to look at the option of a windfall tax on the digital monopolies to create a public interest media fund.

Already, faced with declining revenues, investigative journalists are looking to alternative models of ownership to carry out their work. In Scotland, the Ferret uses a cooperative model, with a board comprised of readers and reporters. They cover issues such as human rights, environment, and housing, providing a public service to communities in Scotland. They’re setting a standard in public interest journalism in Scotland, just as the West Highland Free Press has done for local press.

This important part of the media, and its fantastic workforce, could also be supported by reform and expansion of an existing BBC scheme, which sees ring-fenced funding for “local democracy reporters” employed in local papers.

Part of these funds could be made available to local, community, and investigative news co-ops, with a mandate to use significant time and resources reporting on public institutions, public service providers, local government, outsourced contractors, and regulated bodies.

With the decline of local papers, this vital oversight is being lost. To root out corruption, improve services, and empower citizens, we need a dogged local media with the time and money to work on stories.

I’m proud that one of the greatest tools that journalists can use to hold power to account, the Freedom of Information Act, was introduced by a Labour government.

I remember talking to ministers at the time it was going through Parliament, especially Mark Fisher, and later working with my friend John McDonnell and others against proposals to charge journalists for submitting FOI requests.

Although the FOI Act was limited, we know its power. The Tories have shown disdain for FOI, with former Prime Minister David Cameron bemoaning that FOI requests “fur up” government. Accountability is the lifeblood of democracy.

We have already said that we would expand the Act so it covers private sector providers of public services. It is simply not acceptable for corporate executives to hide behind the excuse of commercial confidentiality when they are meant to be providing — and as we’ve seen with Carillion, East Coast Mainline, and Birmingham Prison this week, so often failing — a public service.

But I think we should be more ambitious. Currently, ministers can veto FOI releases. On two occasions, this veto has been used to block information about the UK’s decision to pursue military action against Iraq. That can’t be right. We will look at ending the ministerial veto to prevent the Information Commissioner being overruled.

A More Democratic, Representative, and Independent BBC

Now we know that in the UK, one media organization leads the way – the BBC. It is a great institution which rightly commands a special place in our country’s story and national life. Some powerful private corporate interests — and those who know the history will know which ones I mean — have long wanted to break up and cannibalize the BBC.

I think that would be a disaster.

The BBC must not be broken up or privatized but should lead positive change, with stable, secure funding so it can drive up standards right across the sector. But the BBC should be freed of government control, democratized, and made representative of the country it serves to help it do that.

The BBC is meant to be independent, but its charter grants governments the power to appoint the chair and four directors of the board and set the level of the licence fee.

One proposal would simultaneously reduce government political influence on the BBC while empowering its workforce and the license fee payers who fund it. That would see the election of some BBC Board members, for example of executive directors by staff and non-executive directors by license fee payers.

To help decentralize the BBC, national and regional boards could also be expanded, with elections by BBC staff and local license fee payers. All boards should be representative of the country, with a minimum representation for women and minority groups.

These elections need not be difficult to run and could build on the BBC’s current experiments with digital sign-ins. Empowering BBC staff, who share a strong professional ethos and commitment to their work, should not only make top management more accountable, but bring the organizational values of the BBC closer to the public good.

The BBC is already trying to become more representative of the country it serves, and that should be applauded. However, much more can be done to devolve program making and editorial decisions to regional or national level. The regional boards proposal I have outlined could help drive this process.

I commend the BBC’s move to Salford, and Channel Four is also looking at proposals to move its headquarters out of London. This should be encouraged as part of rebalancing Britain.

A better regional balance should help the diversity of our media workers. Currently 94 percent of British journalists are white and 55 percent are men. The industry is already trying to tackle this with the Project Diamond to monitor diversity. Again, the BBC could lead the way by setting best practice with complete transparency on the makeup of its workforce by publishing equality data, including for social class, for all creators of BBC content, whether in-house or external.

Trade unions have a crucial role to play in this process but are too often excluded or marginalized. I am proud of my long relationship with the NUJ and salute their and other unions’ efforts to fight for media workers in a difficult and fast-changing environment.

We know that sustainable quality journalism requires decent pay — and 24 percent of journalists now earn less than £20,000 per year for what is a skilled job. Many journalists work for the love of their profession, but they deserve a decent income and a secure contract, too. Insecure employment, which many journalists increasingly face, is a curse on our society.

The BBC has made efforts to close its gender pay gap by 2020, but currently remains 7.6 per cent too large. We know that this problem is not unique to the BBC and improvements in pay across the sector must be shared.

As well as being paid a decent wage, media workers should be, as far as possible, freed from political and special interest pressures from above. We know that the BBC can be tacitly influenced by government through the charter renewal process and the setting of the license fee. If we want an independent BBC, we should consider setting it free by placing it on a permanent statutory footing, with a new independent body setting the license fee.

The license fee itself is another potential area for modernization. Originally, it was charged on radio sets. Then, as the technology developed, it became a radio and TV license fee and finally just the TV license fee. In the digital age, we should consider whether a digital license fee could be a fairer and more effective way to fund the BBC.

A digital license fee, supplementing the existing license fee, collected from tech giants and Internet Service Providers, which extract huge wealth from our shared digital space, could allow a democratized and more plural BBC to compete far more effectively with the private multinational digital giants like Netflix, Amazon, Google, and Facebook. This could also help reduce the cost of the license fee for poorer households.

With secure funding and empowered staff and audience, the BBC would be on a firm footing to move forward into the twenty-first century educating, informing and entertaining, and be a vehicle to drive up standards for the rest of the media.

Empowering Private-Sector Journalists and Audiences

But we should also think about ways to empower journalists, audiences and readers and reduce the power of media bosses and owners in the private sector.

One of the more radical and interesting ideas I’ve heard, which limits the power of unaccountable media barons without state control, is to give journalists the power to elect editors and have seats on boards for workers and consumers when a title or program gets particularly large and influential. Journalists at the Guardian now elect their editor by indicative ballot and there’s no reason why that precedent shouldn’t be spread more widely.

If, for example, an outlet gets a certain audience share, then its journalists could be given the right to elect their editors, making them accountable to their staff — and their journalistic ethics — as well as to corporate bosses and shareholders. You could take this further at a higher audience share, with enforced shareholder dilution with equity and seats on the board awarded to workers and the readers, viewers or listeners.

To improve our media, open it up, and make it more plural, we need to find ways to empower those who create it and those who consume it over those who want to control and own it.

British Digital Corporation

The final idea I’d to share with you today, which I hope will generate some new thinking, is about how we, as a public and the media, as an industry take advantage of new technology.

I want us to be as ambitious as possible. The public realm doesn’t have to sit back and watch as a few mega tech corporations hoover up digital rights, assets, and ultimately our money. This technology doesn’t have an in-built bias towards the few. Government is standing by and letting the few take advantage of the many using technology.

So one of the more ambitious ideas I’ve heard is to set up a publicly owned British Digital Corporation as a sister organization to the BBC. The idea was floated by James Harding, former BBC Director of Home News in the Hugh Cudlipp lecture earlier this year.

A BDC could use all of our best minds, the latest technology and our existing public assets not only to deliver information and entertainment to rival Netflix and Amazon but also to harness data for the public good.

A BDC could develop new technology for online decisionmaking and audience-led commissioning of programs and even a public social media platform with real privacy and public control over the data that is making Facebook and others so rich.

The BDC could work with other institutions that the next Labour government will set up like our National Investment Bank, National Transformation Fund, Strategic Investment Board, Regional Development Banks, and our public utilities to create new ways for public engagement, oversight, and control of key levers of our economy.

It could become the access point for public knowledge, information and content currently held in the BBC archives, the British Library, and the British Museum. Imagine an expanded Iplayer giving universal access to license fee payers for a product that could rival Netflix and Amazon. It would probably sell pretty well overseas as well.

What’s Next for British Media

We need big, bold, radical thinking on the future of our media.

Without it, at best, we won’t take advantage of the opportunities in front of us as a country and for the kind of journalism that makes the world a better place. At worst, a few tech giants and unaccountable billionaires will control huge swathes of our public space and discourse.

I hope some of the ideas I’ve put forward today generate further ideas and the debate widens as Tom Watson and others in the Labour Party develop our policies in this area.

We can build a free, vibrant, democratic, and financially sustainable media in the digital age. We just need to harness the technology, empower the best instincts of media workers, wherever possible put the public in control, and take on the power of unaccountable billionaires who claim they are setting us free but in reality are holding us back from achieving what we can all achieve together.