The big selfish media companies

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The big selfish media companies

There are so many voices online. Does that mean more diversity and democracy in the media? No,says Laura Basu:


Radoman Durkovic/ Thinkstock

With the rise of the internet and social media there are some positive ideas that the new technologies are leading to democracy in the media. After all, now everyone can report the news or give their opinion on Twitter. For many commentators, the 2017 UK general election results showed us the end of the big media companies. Labour did not win the election but Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn did better than we expected. A lot of the media said he sympathised with terrorists, but he created a lot of positive talk on social media.

But more voices online doesn’t always mean democracy or real diversity. In the UK, US, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, it is the organisations like the BBC, CNN, ABC News, CTV News and the Mail Online that are still the leaders in the media offline and online. Google, Yahoo, Facebook, YouTube. and Twitter are also popular ways of getting news. These big international companies are certainly changing the way we get news and bringing different news outlets. But their algorithms choose the well-known big media companies. So, in the 2017 UK election, most people followed their websites. The Daily Mail received 717 times more page views than the new The Canary, which supported Jeremy Corbyn.

The truth is that news across large parts of the world is still very concentrated in a few big companies. In the social media age, it is easier to get access, but it is difficult to find people to listen to you. In other words, if you have a good internet connection, you can give your opinions. But that doesn’t mean someone will hear you. Another important point is that companies like Google and Facebook send traffic to conventional and non-conventional news outlets, but they are also very big media companies themselves. The internet has led to more voices online, but communications professor Robert McChesney says it has also made the biggest monopolies in economic history.

Why worry?

Does it really matter who owns the media? Media owners like Rupert Murdoch say it doesn’t matter. They say that the users are king – we use media that we like and news companies change their news to fit their readers or viewers. But who owns the media has a big influence on content and public opinion. We need only think about the role of Fox News in the Trump election win or the part played by the pro-Brexit press in the UK referendum.

Social media companies may seem far from this sort of ideological reporting. But, as controllers of news, they have a lot of power – and that power is mostly not checked. And there are other problems with the media that have a serious impact on democracy. Most of the profits made by the big social media companies comes from advertising. This means they are always getting data about us and using it to sell advertising space. Social media companies make their profits by misusing their users’ privacy, but they worry a lot about their own privacy – especially their finances. Social media companies are well known tax avoiders just like media owners like Rupert Murdoch. They are also highly financialized and in some cases financially unstable – and we know the risks of financial bubbles to real people’s jobs and lives.

The important point is that the money the few big media and social media companies have comes from the rest of society. We shouldn’t forget that only 42 per cent of the world’s population has the internet. And digital media involves poor working conditions and is bad for the environment, especially in the Global South.

Public solutions

Taking action on media concentration needs to be at the centre of a media policy. A cap on how much of market one company can have is one possibility. By mid-2016 Rupert Murdoch’s companies owned 32.5 per cent of the British and 57.5 per cent of the Australian media. In the UK it is trying to buy the 61 per cent of Sky TV it does not already own.

Another possibility at the same time is to support small media. For example, there are subsidies in Sweden for newspapers to increase diversity. Ownership caps and public subsidies for small newspapers could help increase diversity.

Some say that public control and funding of media should go much further. In the US, media analysts Robert McChesney and John Nichols want an ambitious plan costing about $35 billion a year. It would include subsidies, a contribution to journalists’ salaries, and financial support for high school journalism and trainees. And every adult would get an annual $200 to give to news media they choose.

In countries that have a strong public service media, people are asking for independent finance to pay for more public service journalism, especially online. Christian Fuchs wants public social media too. He writes that we ‘need a YouTube run by the BBC and a Facebook organized by Wikipedia or a global network of public universities’.

Where would the money from? Taxing the big media companies, of course. The authors of Misunderstanding the Internet say that only one per cent tax on the profits of computer software and hardware, internet services and sales, entertainment, and telecoms companies would bring about $1.7 billion annually worldwide. There are two important things with these ideas. They ask for public money through the state, but they also want public journalism to be independent from the state and also the market.

There are other bigger ideas. In the 1960s, the cultural scholar Raymond Williams said that media workers should have control over mass communication. More recently, Dan Hind has suggested that members of the public vote on what kinds of investigations they would like journalists to do and how to publish the information.

These kinds of ideas may seem a long way from where we are now. The political and economic situation most of us live in prefers large companies, and this is true for media too. But it is important to think about a lot of different ideas to solve the problem of media concentration and to ask for the kinds of media we want. The struggle over media is part of the bigger struggle between what the many own and what the few own. We will need big ideas if we are to have better sharing of those resources.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)