Challenge the Blight Paper!

By Daniel Schechter

daniel-schechter.jpgDaniel Schechter

From an address to the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom 24/02/01

Tony Blair is bracing himself for a new Battle of Britain with regard to his media policies. The gauntlet on the issue was thrown down when the government recently published a White Paper on a “New Future For Communications”. Such papers are prepared – at least theoretically – as a basis for democratic discussion in the run-up to the introduction of proposed new laws into Parliament. Usually the procedure provides ample time for consultation. But not on this issue! This one, which affects the whole future of British broadcasting, was rushed through in only eight weeks, including the Christmas and New Year break. As a result, critics – many of whom are allied through the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (CPBF), an advocacy coalition founded in 1979 – complain that the process is closed and favours “those with money and knowledge to respond.”

They are right; the public, for the most part, is being left out of a debate over legislation that threatens to transform the media environment with more privatisation, relaxed regulation and giveaways to vested interests. In the eyes of the Campaign, Blair’s White Paper might be more appropriately called a “Blight Paper”, because it threatens to undercut the strong, publicly-owned but independently-run, public-service broadcasting tradition exemplified by the BBC.

The Knives Are Out

The British government is not proposing to sell off the BBC – far from it. There would no doubt be a national revolt if they tried that. Nevertheless, “it is increasingly clear that the knives are out for the BBC,” Stephen Barnett, Professor of Communications at the University of Westminster, writes in The Guardian. “[The BBC] is in severe danger of being caught between the self-interested animosity of commercial rivals and the less self-interested but equally threatening moves toward government intervention.” That intervention would be facilitated by the creation of a new oversight body called Ofcom, a pan-industry regulator that ostensibly will have no oversight of the BBC but will be used by media industries to restrain the growth of public sector broadcasting. Former BBC producer Ian Hargreaves, writing in The Financial Times, fears that elements within the BBC want to commercialise its operations and are rooting for industry forces to win.

john-pilger.jpgJohn Pilger 

The government says that it likes the BBC and includes in the proposal a number of sweeteners to the Labour Party rank-and-file, including a recognition of the need for a strong public service role in the new media environment. Their proposal includes non-commercial public-service digital channels, a call for more community media initiatives and a commitment to impartiality and accuracy in all broadcast news services. The authors of the White Paper also acknowledge that the concentration of media ownership in fewer and fewer hands affects the range and quality of service. Some of these points would be considered radical in the United States, or anywhere market-based systems dominate.

At the same time, it is precisely those market values which inspire the government ministers who came up with this plan. The document is built around a blind faith in the magic of market forces and competition. Its proposals will strengthen the power of commercial networks in the name of offering more consumer choice, which will inevitably weaken the power of the BBC. Despite reservations about the effects of consolidation, it will promote mergers in exactly the same way as the U.S. “Telecommunications ‘Reform’ Act of 1996”. A year after its passage, the U.S. Government Accounting Office reported that a bill sold to the country as a way to protect consumers through more competition resulted in more concentration of media ownership. Moreover, the CPBF contends that “the White Paper neglects to establish structures of democratically constituted bodies in the regulatory process, leaving regulation to a mix of industry lobbyists, politicians and media companies.”

The Corporate Role

The government is not the only player in this debate. The corporate sector is also highly vocal and influential. Already one of those lobbyists is hard at work as a spokesman for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which wants all restrictions on media cross-ownership lifted. His name is Dr. Irwin Stelzer, labelled “the most powerful lobbyist in Britain, bar none” by Gregory Palast, who writes the Observer’s “Inside Corporate America” column. Stelzer himself has a column in the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times and is a frequent guest at No. 10. An American and a contributor to Murdoch’s Washington organ, The Weekly Standard, Stelzer worked at the American Enterprise Institute alongside Larry Lindsey, now chief of the Council of Economic Advisors. Lindsey has already demanded that the European Union lift all trade controls, especially restrictions on films and TV programmes made in the United States.

challenge-the-blight-paper-3.jpgThe Ballad of Tony Messer by Martin Rowson

Palast claims that these demands are met in the White Paper. The Financial Times reports that “Blair is already adapting to the new order… the Government has accepted the view that media markets have changed significantly since [communications legislation] was devised and that there was an argument for no regulation [of ownership] because of the proliferation of new services”.

Translation: if this goes through, Murdoch will get the right to buy into terrestrial (i.e. over-the-air) broadcasting networks along with his satellite channels and press holdings. Recall that before Blair ran for office for the first time in 1996, he flew to Australia to speak to a Rupert-run meeting of global shareholders. Afterwards, Murdoch’s Sun laid off its traditional Labour-baiting. The Sun, like Murdoch’s New York Post, is often deployed during campaigns as a political masher unit to maul politicians the boss doesn’t like. Politicians like Blair live in fear of Murdoch’s media attacks because they are so orchestrated and vicious, and often masquerade as the populist voice of common sense, never the overtly hard-line, right-wing stance they really represent.

Britain’s media activists understand what’s at stake and are mobilising to fight back. I was one of the participants in a February 24 conference, organised with the backing of the National Union of Journalists, on how to respond to the White Paper. Several hundred people turned out, including many trade union members, labour activists and students. The roster of speakers included Mike Jempson of the PressWise Trust; Bettina Peters of the International Federation of Journalists; producer Phillip Whitehead, who is also a member of the European Parliament; Carole Tongue, a former member and a formidable crusader for audio-visual diversity; Dorothy Byrne, current affairs Editor at Channel 4; Tony Lennon, a CPBF activist and leading light in the film and broadcasting trade union BECTU; press regulation expert Tom O’Malley; and never last or least, John Pilger, one of Britain’s most outspoken and famous TV journalists and writers.

Opponents of the White Paper have a persuasive critique. Now they need an effective outreach effort to build political support. They need to create a media presentation to bring their case to the country. The challenge facing the CPBF and others opposed to the White Paper is how to use the media to fight this assault on the public service media and to organise the many people – professionals and consumers alike – who want to save what quality media they have left. Unfortunately, the British government is much slicker than its adversaries in packaging its message. They know how to use the modern media to their advantage, and anyway elements of the media, the press in particular, need little encouragement to support the White Paper, since they actually stand to gain financially from this deregulatory bonanza. Moreover New Labour is terrified of re-igniting the press barons’ traditional hostility to the Party and appears to be only too happy to give them what they want in terms of deregulating the media once and for all. Can this unholy alliance be stopped?

Activists need to learn how to fight fire with fire. The White Paper could pass into law unless its many opponents are as adept in their criticisms, as the government is in support of it. As one activist said at the close of the Campaign conference: “Once something like the BBC is lost, it’s almost impossible to get it back.”

"For the first time since broadcasting began in Britain, legislation will take away a universal public service obligation, and commercialism will be unleashed, bringing standards crashing…" – John Pilger

"Broadcasting is not simply part of the communications industry. It is part of the very fabric of society, essential to the maintenance of our democracy. Broadcasters have a duty and responsibility to ensure that their viewers and listeners receive good quality information about local, regional, national and international issues." – Public Voice

"Be glumly clear. What we have here, unless we are extraordinarily vigilant, isn’t an enabling mechanism for greater freedom. Precisely the reverse. Our new breed of regulators doesn’t come fresh and innocent into the world. These men and women have their governmental marching orders. They are hand-picked for whatever job the government thinks appropriate at the time We may have complained in the past about the alphabet soup of broadcasting regulation. Chris Smith ladles out that broth himself but in one sense the inchoate confusion between at least four tugging regulators was a defence mechanism… Now one agency and one set of appointments fixes almost everything in an area that isn’t about gas or electricity but ideas, culture and the many shades of truth. Ofcom is big brother. Time to get excited!" – Peter Preston

"I want to see diverse, lively, good quality, world-class media in this country… a whole variety of different types and different ownerships, and I think it can be achieved." – Chris Smith 1995 Interview with Vertigo

Danny Schechter, executive editor of, is the author of Falun Gong’s Challenge to China: Spiritual Practice or ‘Evil Cult’? (Akashic Books, 2000) and co-editor of the MediaChannel book, Hail to the Thief: How the Media ‘Stole’ the 2000 Presidential Elections (Innovatio, 2001). Feedback: