Posts Tagged ‘Independent Broadcasting Authority’

Tony Benn’s Suggestions for Media Reform

February 10, 2020

One of the other books I picked up going through the secondhand bookshops in Cheltenham last Friday was Tony Benn: Arguments for Democracy, edited by Chris Mullins and published in 1981. Based on Benn’s speeches, articles and lectures over the previous two years, the book was Benn’s observation on the profoundly undemocratic nature of British society, and his suggestions for reform. He wanted to create a more democratic society that would empower ordinary people and move towards the establishment of socialism.

Although it was written forty years ago, the book and its arguments are still tremendously relevant. One of the chapters is on media bias against the working class and the Labour party. As we’ve seen over the past five years and particularly during the last election in December, this is very much a live issue because of the unrelenting hostility by nearly all of the media, including and especially the Beeb, against Jeremy Corbyn, his supporters and the Labour party as a whole. Benn discusses right-wing media bias in the chapter, ‘The Case for a Free Press’, and on pages 118 to 120 he makes his suggestions for its reform.  Benn wrote

‘Some Proposals for Reform

Reform of the media has only recently come to be taken seriously. The Glasgow University Media Group, the Campaign for Press Freedom, the Minority Press Group and academics such as James Curran at the Polytechnic of Central London have produced a wealth of carefully researched analysis and proposals for reform which would reward seriously study. At the time of writing the Labour Party National Executive Committee has a working party considering what must be done to obtain a media responsive to the needs of a twentieth-century democracy rather than an arm of the British establishment. I do not wish to anticipate the proposals of the working party, but in the interests of stimulating debate on this important subject I set out below some of the possibilities for reform which are now being discussed in the Labour Party and elsewhere.

  1. An Open Press Authority

This has been suggested by James Curran and Jean Seaton in their book Power Without Responsibility. This would be a public agency accountable to Parliament and it would aim to extend the freedom to publish. The OPA objectives would include the following:

i Provision off a launch fund, raised partly from a tax on media advertising expenditure, to assist new publications.

ii Grants to assist publications that have failed to attract significant advertising.

iii A National Print Corporation to extend modern printing facilities to a wide range of publications.

iv A guarantee of distribution for minority publications through a new wholesale organisation.

2. Anti-Monopoly Legislation

Considerations will have to be given to legislation to break up the huge newspaper monopolies; existing monopoly legislation has proved wholly ineffective for this purpose. Such legislation should also prohibit or severely limit investment by newspaper chains in television and commercial radio.

3. Reform of the Wholesale Trade

Wholesale and retail distribution of British newspapers and magazines in dominated by just three companies: W.H. Smith, John Menzies and Surridge Dawson. In many areas one or other of these companies has a complete monopoly. The result is that non-consensus publications have great difficulty in reaching the news stands. The French have solved this problem by imposing a legal obligation on wholesalers and retailers to carry, on request, all lawful publications excluding pornography. Publishers have to pay a handling charge on all returns. As a result the French public have access to a far more diverse range of political views than we do in Britain. The French example should be studied.

4 The Right of Reply

Where a newspaper or magazine has published a report about an individual or group which seriously distorts the truth, the person or organisation offended should have the right to set the record straight in the columns of that newspaper. The reply should be allotted adequate space and prominence and it should appear as soon as possible after the original story. It should be made legally enforceable. The Campaign for Press Freedom has set out the case for a right of reply in an excellent pamphlet.

5 Broadcasting

i Instead of being composed of the ‘great and the good’, worthy citizens chosen for their alleged impartiality, the boards of the BBC and the Independent Broadcasting Authority should contain representatives of a wide spectrum of opinion and interest groups.

ii The proceedings of the two boards of governors and all internal directives on policy should be publicly available.

iii The IBA should be given a legal obligation when awarding franchises, to give preference to non-profit-making applications such as cooperatives; at present most franchises got to companies more concerned with profits than quality.

iv The BBC is too big. It should be broken up into separate independent units for television, radio and the overseas service.

v The BBC licence fee, which places the Corporation at the mercy of the government, should be abolished and replaced by a grant awarded by Parliament five years in advance.

vi The Fourth Channel, as presently constituted, is controlled by the IBA and will buy in programmes from commercial companies. It should be reconstituted as a separate, publicly financed cooperative which would act as a ‘publisher’ of programmes made by freelance and independent production groups.

6 Satellite Broadcasting

By the mid-1980s satellite communication systems will make it feasible for American or European commercial television to be relayed into Britain. The result could be a diversion of advertising revenue away from existing publicly regulated services and an end of any chance of creating and maintaining public service broadcasting. As a matter of urgency Britain must contact other European governments with a view to placing under international control all companies using satellites for this purpose.’

He concludes the chapter with this:

These are some of the ways in which the British media could be developed to serve democracy rather than a consensus which has long been overtaken by events. I list these suggestions simply as a basis for consideration in an area where, until recently, there has been very little positive discussion. The free flow of information is the life blood of democracy and the present ownership structure and organisation of our media is incompatible with democracy. At a time of crisis, such as we now face, itis important that people should be able to choose freely between the various alternatives that political parties are seeking to put before them. To do that they need to be properly informed. That should be the role of the media in a democracy.

I’m not sure how many of these suggestions are relevant today, given the expansion of satellite and cable broadcasting,  the establishment of Channel 5 and the rise of the Net. My guess is that much of it is still acutely relevant, and the situation regarding the press monopolies has got worse since Benn wrote this. Murdoch now has an even firmer grip on the press and his own satellite channel, Sky, which he’d like to replace the Beeb. The Beeb has shown itself craven and massively biased towards the Tories, but they’re going to break it up and sell it off if they can in order to please Murdoch and the other commercial broadcasters. I think most of these reforms are still very much needed, but can’t see them ever being put in place given the massive opposition they provoke among the press and media barons, who control public opinion.

Corbyn’s supporters found a way round that with the internet, and Richard Burgon at the recent Labour deputy leadership hustings in Bristol suggested that Labour supporters should look to this and other alternative media rather than the old media. There are problems with this too, as the right have also latched on to the power of the Net. But it might just be the best, or only, way to move forward.