liberty could scarcely be entrusted to a more rackety bunch. Journalists are,
quite rightly, almost universally reviled. But the freedom of a nation depends
in large measure on the freedom they enjoy. If reporters are forced to show the
world not as it is but as a handful of multimillionaires would like it to be,
then the people they reach are less able to choose wisely. It is the curious
duty of democratic governments to defend this freedom, often at great cost to
themselves. It is a duty this government has just comprehensively flunked.
you want to know why the media needs to be regulated, take a look at Greg Dyke’s
speech to the CBI last month. "Too much of Britain’s mainstream news and
current affairs programming," the BBC’s director-general complained,
"has ignored or failed to understand the real business agenda." In
future, he insisted, the BBC must show more "understanding" of the
difficulties companies face. "I am totally committed to taking business
centre stage in the BBC."
imagine what the response would have been had Mr Dyke said the same about any
other political or economic movement: socialism, fascism, trades unionism, the
aristocracy or the European Union, for example. It is surely a measure of how
effectively the corporations, working through the media, have colonised our
minds that his speech elicited barely a squeak of protest. In principle, Mr
Dyke’s enthusiasms are supposed to be restrained by the BBC’s governors. But
their chair, previously chairman of both the freight company NFC and the Private
Finance Initiative, is hardly likely to intervene. Power shall speak peace unto
Dyke’s views might be less consequential if the rest of the media were busy
confronting wealth and power. But almost every deviation from the pro-corporate
political consensus has now been stamped out. For the past three years, Channel
4’s science and public health programming has been dominated by the view that
big business has our best interests at heart. ITN shares its staff and studios
with its part-owned subsidiary, Corporate Television Networks, which makes
programmes for British Airways, Philip Morris and Shell. Granada used a
corporate lawsuit as an excuse to shut down its investigative series World in
newspapers expose only the misdemeanors of the powerless, while the central
political issue of our age, the corporate takeover of public life, is left to
tiny underfunded groups such as Corporatewatch to investigate. Almost every new
commercial development is represented by the mainstream media as a "jobs
boost", even if, in reality, it is a job-destroying, self-serving
monstrosity. And dumbing down and trivialisation are, in this increasingly
complex world, the foremost enemies of radical analysis.
the web in Britain is proving vulnerable to censorship, as our libel laws are
used to force service providers to remove material the rich and powerful don’t
like. Shell, for example, is currently seeking to close a site (www.nuclearcrimes.com).
which alleges irregularities in its handling of nuclear waste.
far from seeking to defend free speech, the government is proposing to subject
the media to even fewer effective controls. The white paper on communications it
published on Tuesday will allow companies to regulate the "qualitative
elements of public service broadcasting" themselves. It rightly defends
multiculturalism, but offers no new protections for political diversity. In
practice, the "impartiality" it demands is seen to have been achieved
if neither of the two main political parties are offended. If they do not
disagree upon an issue, then there is no statutory need to explore it further.
As the scope of politics contracts, in other words, so does that of the media.
white paper celebrates Britain’s libel laws (which do for big business in this
country what official censorship does for oppressive states) as a "bedrock
of legal protections" which helps "to achieve the right balance".
The ban on advertising companies buying TV stations will be rescinded, but ads
by groups such as Amnesty International will remain forbidden, in case
broadcasting is "skewed by those best able to fund advertising".
Corporate adverts, of course, present no such dangers. The paper envisages
"greater consolidation of the ITV network" and fewer contraints on
newspaper mergers. It gives proprietors everything they want, in other words,
while enabling dissenting voices to be stifled.
times of universal deceit," George Orwell wrote, "telling the truth
becomes a revolutionary act." The government has backed universal deceit.