Fixing the media’s democratic deficit

Some political quotes stand the test of time. One of my favourites and most-quoted comes, unsurprisingly, from the late, great, Tony Benn. When faced with those with any kind of power, he encouraged us to ask five important questions:

What power have you got?
Where did you get it from?
In whose interests do you use it?
To whom are you accountable?
How do we get rid of you?

With huge concentrations of ownership, crumbling local representation and an increasingly desperate need for democratisation, is it time we started asking Benn’s five questions of one of the most central parts of our democracy – our media?

When it comes to power, the media’s influence needs little explanation. The media, both at home and internationally, play a major role in the construction and continuation of public opinion and social norms. There’s a reason for US presidential candidates battling it out for media endorsements – the same reason political leaders all over the world are plagued by the tone of their media coverage. And in the digital age, we are never further than a few clicks away from 24/7 news updates, vox pops and seemingly endless hot takes. The power this holds should not be underestimated. In the 2016 US presidential primaries, media mentions and voter support were highly correlated, aligning almost exactly for top candidates. Media matters, and those in power know this better than anyone.

Things get interesting when we start asking in whose interests the media operates, and in what way it is accountable. Increasingly, our media is facing a huge democratic deficit, even when claiming to act in the public interest. The media may say they are acting for us, but they certainly aren’t acting with us.

The issues are straightforward. Pluralism of media is considered one of the most central tenets of a free and fair democracy. Indeed, one of the most high-profile media scandals in recent decades, the Leveson Inquiry, concluded that “it is only through plurality…that the public is able to play their full part in a democratic society”. And yet, here in the UK, a huge 83% of our national newspapers are owned by just three companies. The issue is local too – just five companies account for 80% of local newspaper titles. The same applies for social media – Instagram and WhatsApp are both owned by the equally giant Facebook. Alongside this, the vast majority of the media is controlled by hugely powerful moguls or distant boards, with little to no opportunity for members of the public to influence what they do or how they do it.

The solution? Democratic public ownership of our media.

This isn’t a new idea. Collectively-owned and co-operative media outlets enjoy great success, particularly in the world of print media. The Scottish West Highland Free Press transferred to employee-ownership in 2009, and now its democratic model allows it to continue to be a strong local voice in a world where local press is too often in decline. But better democracy isn’t the only perk – co-operatives are also economically sound, being twice as likely to survive the tough first five years as other business models. Democratically-owned media is tried and tested, so why not, in the first instance, apply it to one of our most treasured media organisations, the BBC?

‘But the BBC is already publicly owned!”, I hear you cry, most likely from my Twitter mentions. Yes, but is it democratic? The BBC’s corporate-style board is appointed either by government figures or by existing board members, but as a public service broadcaster, it should surely be owned by and accountable to those it claims to serve. Mutualisation, or the creation of a ‘People’s BBC’, would give every TV license holder a say and a stake in the BBC’s management, operation and direction.

In practice, this would probably work through a system of elected representation. License payers and staff would elect representatives to a board to oversee all BBC decisions, taking power away from a select group of politicians and those they appoint and into the hands of ordinary people. With its 25 million licence fee payers and thousands of staff, this large-scale democratic exercise would bring democracy right to the heart of the BBC. And free from political influence, the BBC could better lobby for funding, diversity and regional representation, all while being properly accountable and transparent.

Tony Benn’s five questions were intended to empower ordinary people, challenge established authority and exercise our rights as citizens of a democratic state. When an informed, educated and empowered public seems more important than ever before, now is the time for a properly democratic, people-powered media, one exercising its power in the interests of us all.