Electronic Working Paper 18

What's wrong with media monopolies? A lesson from history and a new approach to media ownership policy

Steven Barnett, Professor of Communications, University of Westminster

Abstract

It is almost universally accepted within advanced industrial democracies that concentration of media ownership within too few hands contradicts the basic tenets of democracy, threatening diversity of expression and risking autocratic control of communicative spaces. Although these principles of diversity and pluralism have routinely underpinned American and European policy statements on media ownership, recent policy initiatives have moved inexorably in the opposite direction, towards relaxation of restrictions and hence greater consolidation. These trends have been exacerbated over the last two years by a sustained economic recession, allied to structural shifts in advertising revenue, which have left hard-pressed media enterprises lobbying intensively for even greater deregulation. This paper argues that the dire state of the media industry, which threatens the very existence of public interest journalism, may demand a more benign response to arguments for corporate consolidation than traditionally articulated by critical scholars. It suggests that the focus of regulatory intervention should switch from structural regulation which prevents greater concentration of ownership to content regulation which imposes substantial public interest obligations on the output of media businesses in return for a less restrictive corporate environment. It examines the early monopoly days of commercial television in the UK, and argues that the clear regulatory imperatives then imposed on monopolistic licensees offers a policy benchmark for permitting greater consolidation today while safeguarding vital public interest content. While a broad legislative framework currently exists, the paper argues that it would require a significantly more ambitious range of public interest requirements rooted in a normative vision of journalism's contribution to a healthy democracy.

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