Media policy failures

Our communications systems are not in any sense ‘natural’ but created in the shape of the vested interests that dominate at any one time; communications policy is a highly political, valueladen, interest-driven field of decision-making. Since the 1980s, this has generally followed a market logic whereby decision makers have been in thrall to rhetorics concerning innovation, efficiency, and consumer sovereignty. Under the guide of neoliberalism (Freedman 2008) or ‘corporate libertarianism’ (Pickard 2014), communications markets have been restructured better to enhance capital accumulation and elite influence and to inscribe a commercial logic ever deeper into the cultural field.

Yet this policy restructuring is executed not simply through visible and identifiable legislative or regulatory acts but often through flawed decision-making processes that remove certain issues — notably those concerning concentrations of media power — from the policy agenda. Thus we have ‘media policy silences’ (Freedman 2014) and ‘media policy failures’ (Pickard 2014, 216) characterised by ‘inaction’ and ‘invisibility’ and often caused by the ideological affinity between and the mutual interests of policymakers, regulators, and industry voices. This underlies the ‘regulatory failure’ that Robert Horwitz (1989, 29, emphasis in original) describes as taking place when ‘a captured agency systematically favors the private interests of regulated parties and systematically ignores the public interest’. 1 argue that a series of media policy failures and silences have taken place in Europe and North America that have further distorted our communications landscapes and worked to the advantage of parties and movements on the right.

Failure to tackle concentrated ownership

Traditional ownership controls in media markets that seek to prevent any single company from gaining undue dominance or any single voice from gaining undue prominence have long been a key part of a democratic toolkit. According to Ed Baker (2009), concentrated media ownership ‘creates the possibility of an individual decision-maker exercising enormous unchecked, undemocratic, potentially demagogic power. . . . Even if this power is seldom exercised, no democracy should risk the danger’. This fear of‘demagogues’ is at the heart of liberal opposition to all forms of populism — borne out by the warnings posed by the reign of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose control of media outlets was essential to his populist success. Yet, as a result of pressure from lobbyists arguing that ownership rules are both a brake on innovation and an impediment to profitability at a time when traditional business models are under pressure, ownership rules in countries like the US, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand have been systematically relaxed since the 1980s. We have seen consolidation in terrestrial and satellite television markets, in the national and local press, in wholesale and retail radio, and online such that the top ten content companies in a study of 30 countries from across the globe account for an average 67 percent of national market share while the top four digital platforms account for a whopping 88 percent of their national media markets (Noam 2016, 9).

Concentrated media markets do not, of course, create populist movements out of thin air, but the desire of neoliberal policymakers to cement commercial values in, and to minimise regulatory controls on, accumulations of media power is hardly without consequence. First, this simply enhances the visibility, in particular, of far-right politicians who can be relied upon to generate the provocative speech and nativist appeals that play well with ratings. As Victor Pickard has argued in relation to Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, ‘the news medias excessive commercialism — driven by profit imperatives, especially the need to sell advertising — resulted in facile coverage of the election that emphasised entertainment over information’ (Pickard 2020, 2). Second, size matters, especially in media landscapes where there is a fierce battle for attention and, therefore, strong incentives for political leaders to accommodate media power. The agenda-setting roles of Fox News in the US and of the tabloid Daily Mail and The Sun in whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment in the run-up to the Brexit vote were partly made possible by their status as dominant and very influential players in their respective news media markets. As long as liberal politicians and policymakers continue to exercise only a rhetorical commitment to plurality, the incentives for large news organisations to amplify the controversial — and often racist — content that far-right populists are only too pleased to provide will continue to exist.

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