Media reform is a pressing issue as corporate consolidation and globalisation bring sweeping changes in the capacity of the UK to sustain a pluralistic, locally focussed and independent media ecology. In the Media Manifesto by Natalie Fenton, Des Freedman, Justin Schlosberg and Lina Denik, a compelling argument is put for the democratisation of our media in the face of corporate libertarianism and the datafication of or lives (Fenton et al., 2020). The point is well-made that alternative approaches to media thinking and development, along with the social role of media as a structural component of our society, should be understood with an understanding of the transformative potential of media. We need to reform our media if we are to use its potential to tackle the ills of social marginalisation, political disempowerment and economic inequality. There are, however, a couple of areas that the manifesto does not address, in my view, in sufficient detail.
First, there is no mention of the role of media literacies, and the change in attitude and practice that media educators might themselves embrace and champion to bring about these changes in practice. The media studies curriculum, in my experience, has become subsumed withinin an increasingly narrow model and set of concerns that aims at preparing young people for life in, either: the consumer world of online purchasing, as seems to be Ofcom’s primary focus; or, the need to prepare workers for the creative industries. Arming graduates with digital production and management skills that will enable them to create and produce content that services the digital economy seems to be the priority of most British universities these days.
Critical and transformative media studies, while still relevant in places, has been relegated in the education marketplace. Media studies will continue to be downgraded as the value of courses is promoted for their perceived employability premium, in which the success of a course is measured by the income of a graduate, and not the difference that these graduates make. Change-based thinking and practices are being eased out of the curriculum in favour of skills suited to the precarious lives of freelancers and independent workers. Transformative media thinking is therefore diminished.
Second, there is little mention of community media and the examples of community media practice that are well established across the UK. Rightly, one of the prescriptions of this manifesto is to promote mutual and cooperative media organisations that might be able to take the place of corporate and proprietary media organisations. There are, however, over three hundred community radio stations in the UK, licenced by Ofcom. These already operate on social gain principles. They are not-for-profit, and have co-governance and co-production at the heart of their model of engagement. These are not widely discussed here, and do not inform the thinking of this manifesto, perhaps because they tend to operate at a level of community engagement that is local, consolodatory and pragmatic.
Third, there is little discussion of the potential of decentralising technologies, such as blockchain, that might have the potential to undo the work of the centralising data corporations. I share the concern about the concentration of media power, and similarly want to see a public test that ensures transparency and scrutiny, about even the most mundane forms of digital filtering and process control. However, as the blockchain becomes more widely embedded, will it have the potential to shatter, or at least diminish, those organisations that warehouse both economic and social value? The open ledger system that blockchain is based on has the potential to destabilise the position of even the information and data-processing giants. If countries are unable to bring these giants into some form of civic compliance, what will? If these gatekeepers continue to be given unfettered access to our information thee may be terrible implications for our democracies. Is the answer, however, less centralisation of the control of information? Will this include more marketisation through micro-payments and transparent transaction tracking?
Finally, the discussion in the manifesto is founded largely on the concerns associated with audiences, and not of communities. For me this implies that media is still largely being considered as a restricted practice, which needs to be guided by some well-informed actors in the public interest. It isn’t clear how these guardians of the public interest will be vetted and approved, and how they would avoid becoming a proxy for a different form of socially approved technocratic elitism themselves. As an interim measure I’m not against this, as I’ve called for the reform of our public service media to include civic engagement and democratic management principles. As a long-term measure, however, we might end up replacing what we have with something that will eventually look like what we’ve presently got.
My feeling is that we need to be more radical, and really look at ways that we can empower people to make their own media. I always say, if you want better media, make it yourself. We can only do this, though, when we have a proven technology that locks-in civic decision-making, identity rights and social transparency into its structure, and is balanced with a technology that keeps producers, writers, programme makers, reporters, and so on, accountable for the words and ideas that they share in the public domain. It’s good that these discussions are moving forward, we need to get the debate out into wider public circles in ways that are meaningful to local experiences.
Fenton, N., Freedman, D., Schlosberg, J., & Dencik, L. (2020). The Media Manifesto. Polity Press.