Media Democracy Festival 2019 – Making Better Media

Owen Jones speaking at the Media Democracy Festival

Media Democracy Festival 2019

16th March 2019.

The Media Reform Coalition organise the Media Democracy Festival each year, with the help and support of Professor Natalie Fenton of Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media Research Centre. This year’s festival took place at Birkbeck College, at the University of London. It was a packed event, with standing room only in many of the lecture theatres and seminar rooms. As the day went on it got busier as more people came to listen to the discussions and ask questions about the state of media democracy in the UK. Clearly there is a lot of dissatisfaction with the state of the British media, so seeing so many people gather to discuss what can be done about improving the situation is encouraging.

Professor Natalie Fenton introducing Owen Jones.

The Guardian columnist Owen Jones was the main morning keynote speaker. Jones read an extract from his new book, about the power of corporate media and the way international media organisations stifle democratic accountability. Jones’ proposal was to introduce forms of public subsidy for all forms of alternative media, and let people directly decide what forms of media they value and are prepared to pay for. The major caveat to this argument being that to receive this money the media organisation has to be constituted as a not-for-profit organisation with social gain objectives. As Jones put it in his recent Guardian article

“How can we overcome this crisis to build a dynamic media ecosystem that informs and educates, holds the powerful to account, challenges myths, and creates an active, informed citizenry?”

The festival was tied-in with the Media Reform Coalition report into the ownership of UK media, that has identified that the concertation of ownership of British media continues unabated and is now at critical levels that are anti-democratic and regressive. The Media Reform Coalition argues that the

“Concentration in news and information markets in particular has reached endemic levels in the UK and that we urgently need effective remedies. Concentrated ownership creates conditions in which wealthy individuals and organisations can amass vast political and economic power and distort the media landscape to suit their interests. Urgent action is needed in order both to address high levels of concentration in particular media markets and to protect against further concentration in others.”

Much of this argument – and it is perhaps sad to say this – still follows James Curran’s book Power Without Responsibility  which was standard reading for British Media Studies students in the in the 1980s and 1990s. I say this is sad because we are still dealing with many of the same issues, and media reform doesn’t seem to have been advanced in the way that could have been by the reform-minded media studies academics that I learnt from in the 1990s. Many people have argued against the market-based media reforms that have been imposed for the last forty years, and perhaps now there is an emerging view from across the political spectrum that the effects of media concentration are problematic. It’s worth reading Peter North’s blog about the revolving door of British media and the UK parliament.

My reason for attending the festival was to fly the flag for community media. One of the problems that needs to be tackled is that community media doesn’t get much recognition in the political and policy debates that take place in the search for civic engagement, community development or democratic reforms. Indeed, a read through the documentation produced for the festival didn’t mention community media in any substantive way. I wanted and still want to know why this is?

There are over two hundred and seventy licensed community radio stations in the UK, and while there is no specific pattern of delivery that we can point to that says these stations are making a sustained difference in our communities, there is plenty of evidence that volunteers across all social groups and classes are out there having a go at making their own media. They are doing what many of the media reformers at this festival are calling for. They are living evidence of a pluralistic, grass-roots movement that supports alternative voices, to get involved in their communities on the basis of inclusive access to platforms that people are otherwise denied.


Gloria Kamkar speaking about community media

Gloria Kamkhar from the Community Media Association Council spoke in a panel dedicated to rebuilding local media and addressing the democratic deficit. Gloria shared her experience as someone who came to the UK from India, and who wanted to volunteer as a community reporter, but felt restricted by the active gatekeeping that takes place in most media organisations, commercia and BBC. Gloria described how she found, instead, a role at Unity101 in Southampton, a community radio station, and how she believed it is essential to support community media at the grassroots, because this is where the biggest and most long-lasting differences can be affected.

The framing at this year’s festival for many of the discussions was tied with the Cairncross Review and the DCMS Committee Report into misinformation and disinformation. Much of the discussion focused on how the inequitable distribution of media access can be challenged, how the decline in traditional media models is challenging the sustainability of local media, and the forms of discrimination that keep minority communities off the airwaves, out of the editorial meetings, and problematised in the reports that are printed or published online.

Regular suggestions were put forward about how the BBC might be reformed, and how to make the BBC’s corporate structure more democratically accountable. At a time of considerable technological change, it’s fascinating to listen to ideas of how alternative forms of media that can be economically sustainable, and work on a decentralised and dispersed media model. There is clearly a lot more scope to explore these issues in more detail, especially as there is still some reliance on centralised models of media development talked about by many contributors to the festival, such as the body proposed by Cairncross review to promote quality journalism, or a UK version of Netflix or Twitter.

Often, when potential reformers get together to discuss what developments and improvements might be made to our media, they fall into one of three traps. Either they come from an overriding sense of entitlement which claims that we have a perfect model of media democracy at present, and which is usually there to be defended by professional insiders. Or, the discussions about media democracy are subject to a sense of complacency, whereby the general expectation is that someone else will come along who can sort out any problems. Finally, there is magical thinking, which suggests that if only we can come up with a killer policy model or technical application then all our problems will be solved.

One specific word was used on a regular basis that caught my attention. The idea that media is a ‘system’ dominates many of the frameworks of analysis that were discussed. The idea of economic or social system is a common way of thinking about social organisation, and forms the basis of many political and critical forms of analysis. There is an alternative way of thinking about our media and the social situations that they grow out of, and that is to recognise them as a social experience. In a social experience our engagement is less likely to be directed or instrumantalised, and is instead something that emerges from the day-to-day sense-making of different groups of people as they live their lives in different circumstances. The subtle difference between the two is that one requires planning and structural understanding of the process, while the other is emergent and requires understanding of the motivations and drives that people work from as they try to make sense of the world.

While many of the speakers stated their clear intent that the Media Reform Coalition is working to influence the Labour Party’s media policies, it is my experience and belief that there is considerable scope for collaboration across the political spectrum, and that many of these issues might be better articulated in an a-political manner that can reach into communities that might be more locally cohesive, nationalistic or conservative in their outlook. Being pragmatic about media reform means recognising that what we have at present is broken and isn’t serving our collective interests well. The challenge is to win people over to do what we advocate at the Community Media Association – if you want better media, make it yourself!

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