The battle for our votes has commenced. Political parties are turning their attention from Westminster to the people that grant them a mandate. But as the political propaganda is ramped-up we would do well to remember Thomas Carlyle's words about parliament in 1841: "In the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all."
The role of the media as crucial to maintaining a democratic society – by informing its citizens and holding those in power to account – has long been championed, particularly by the media itself. Unfortunately, our current mass media have shown themselves to be inadequate in this role.
Of concern is not just how issues are covered but which ones are covered at all - Drew Rose, Real Media
Of concern is not just how issues are covered but which ones are covered at all
Peter Oborne, former chief political commentator of the Telegraph, outlined in an article for Open Democracy on Tuesday his reasons for resigning from the paper, stating "coverage of HSBC in Britain's Daily Telegraph is a fraud on its readers. If major newspapers allow corporations to influence their content for fear of losing advertising revenue, democracy itself is in peril".
Reliance on advertising revenue and concentration of ownership are the first reasons for questioning the mass media's desire, or ability, to represent a plurality of voices. A report in April 2014 by the Media Reform Coalition found "70 per cent of the UK national market is controlled by just three companies (News UK, Daily Mail and General Trust, and Trinity Mirror)".
Locally, 25 per cent of all Local Government Areas aren’t served by a local newspaper at all, continued the report, while 35 per cent are covered by only a single local news outlet. Five companies control 75 per cent of regional daily newspaper circulation. This monopolisation of media resources puts too much control in the hands of too few.
A result of this can be seen in the coverage of the Scottish independence referendum which saw all local and national, English and Scottish, papers opposing independence except the Sunday Herald. Such media conformity on a highly contested issue undermines the democratic process and results in a lack of trust in the media. A specific example of which was the backlash over the BBC's editing of an exchange between Alex Salmond and political editor Nick Robinson at a press conference.
Of concern is not just how issues are covered but which ones are covered at all. The BBC's controversial decision to not include the Green Party in initial plans for the party leader debate is perhaps indicative of which issues are deemed newsworthy.
The time is ripe for a new platform of credible alternative media outlets that can make the corporate owned mainstream obsoleteJamie Kelsey-Fry, New Internationalist
The time is ripe for a new platform of credible alternative media outlets that can make the corporate owned mainstream obsolete
Ongoing research at Cardiff University has found that, in 2007, the BBC gave only slightly more time to immigration than the environment in its evening news bulletins, but by 2014 immigration received six times as much coverage. The shift was even more dramatic on ITV, with immigration receiving ten times as much coverage in 2014. The relationship between the two issues is almost never mentioned.
One journalist who attempted an interdisciplinary approach by connecting social and environmental issues for the Guardian ran into trouble. Nafeez Ahmed wrote the Guardian's Earth Insight blog from April 2013 covering the "geopolitics of environmental, energy and economic crises".
After a blog post in July 2014, putting Israel’s invasion of Gaza in the context of Palestine’s off-shore natural gas reserves, his contract with The Guardian was terminated. In response, Ahmed set up the INSURGE project to crowdfund his independent journalism.
Is this the beginning of independent journalists and publications creating new forms of publicly funded journalism?
Ahmed will be speaking about the possibility of increasing UK media plurality at the Real Media conference in Manchester on Saturday 28 February. Real Media is a new network bringing together well established independent publications like New Internationalist and Red Pepper with more recent local publications such as The Bristol Cable. The latter is a media co-operative created, funded and owned by its members.
Samantha Asumadu, a speaker at the conference and founder of Media Diversified, a platform which seeks to cultivate and promote skilled writers of colour, has highlighted that employment in creative media industries grew by more than 4,000 between 2009 and 2012. But the number of BAME people in the industry actually fell by 2,000.
She says: "I couldn’t think of a more ideal time than now for a gathering of independent media outlets and creative thinkers. The behemoth that is the mass media has not served the people’s interests for far too long. Let’s talk and plan and then act."
Jamie Kelsey-Fry, contributing editor to New Internationalist magazine, will also be speaking. He says: "The time is ripe for a new platform of credible alternative media outlets that can make the corporate owned mainstream obsolete and show it for what it is, the servant to a system that is unjust, undemocratic, unsustainable and broken."
Real Media are striving to ensure a wide diversity of opinion is heard by the public and informs debate in the run up to what promises to be a highly contested general election. To this end they plan to launch a new website in April to aggregate independent journalism from reliable sources around the country.
Drew Rose is an independent journalist, a coordinator ofThe Bristol Cable and organiser of the Real Media Gathering.
Image by United blue on Flickr