Laurie Fitzjohn is founder of the campaign Let’s Own the News that has launched a crowdfunded bid to buy The Times and The Sunday Times from News Corp. He is a former Chairman of Cambridge University Conservative Association
The current proposed reforms to combat media concentration revolve around regulation and market share caps – and as such media reform is viewed as a left wing cause. However, the aim of ensuring well-funded independent journalism should receive support from all parties. A free press is the cornerstone of democracy, and it’s hardly a free press when five families control 80 per cent of the national newspapers we read.
With the state of journalism in flux due to challenges created by the internet, we need a structural market based solution, rather than regulation. A crowd acquisition of the Times and Sunday Times would be an important step to showing that we can reduce media concentration without government involvement.
To briefly summarise, the aim is to collectively acquire the Times and Sunday Times using crowdfunding and then run them as a normal company with fragmented ownership, an elected board of directors and the payment of dividends. The target is to raise £100m, or £120 a reader. See the website for more detail (www.letsownthenews.org).
The common proposal to reduce media ownership concentration is tougher ownership laws, limiting what market share one individual can own. But this has a number of problems.
First, in the world of converging media this is almost impossible to define: how do you compare a 20 per cent newspaper market share to 10 per cent TV market share, and how do you measure market share on the internet? How does a content aggregator compare to a content producer?
Second, the shift to online is making it harder for newspapers to monetise their content (though it is also increasing the benefits of scale by turning news into a global market and requiring investment in a strong online platform – for example, MailOnline has become the world’s most widely read online newspaper). Therefore market share laws risk constraining our newspapers to remain subscale and struggling to make a profit. As James Murdoch has said: “the only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit”. If we put a size limit on our newspapers, they may forever require funding from the state or rich individuals.
Therefore we should not be limiting the size of our newspapers, but instead should be encouraging them to grow. However, we also need to limit the concentration of media power that is undermining our democracy. Therefore to allow our newspapers to be profitable but also avoid an excess concentration of power, the cleanest solution is to create a fragmented ownership structure with an elected board of directors holding the editor to account in a clear and transparent process.
A crowd acquisition would deliver this structural solution without any involvement from the state. This would be a perfect example of the Big Society in action, showing how when restrictions are removed, in this case through the internet, it can empower individuals to take action themselves to solve society’s problems.
A crowd acquisition provides a market solution to media concentration, and in doing so helps defend the freedom of the individual. For what is our freedom worth if a few people control the information we receive? A free press should be free from state interference but also free from the control of a select few. For democracy and capitalism to function we need to challenge unaccountable concentrations of power wherever they exist, be it trade unions that take action without a true mandate, companies that occupy a monopoly position, or press barons who control what information we read.
We are of course far from such an Orwellian vision of media control, though our politicians are already afraid of taking on the media owners and, if we do not make a stand, power will slowly concentrate. We only have to look abroad for what can happen if an individual owns a significant portion of a countries media, especially if they then chose to enter politics.
One counter-argument to reducing the power of the press barons is that they merely offset the power of the BBC. It is true that the BBC dominates UK news provision and any debate on plurality should not ignore this. However, to engage in any debate around reducing the dominance of the BBC, the alternative needs to be preferable. If newspapers are owned by their readers, then this case becomes stronger.
Therefore media concentration is wrongly seen as a left-wing cause because people only talk about left-wing solutions, when instead creating a truly free press should be supported by everyone. We need a solution that makes markets work by creating profitable news companies that are held to account in a clear and transparent process; a crowd acquisition of the Times and Sunday Times would be an important first step.