By Callum MacRae
Nov 26, 2016
@themediafund | The Media Fund on Facebook | The Crowdfunder
It’s clear to all those paying even the most cursory attention to the British media that something drastic is afoot. The disappearance of the well-established Independent from newsagents’ shelves earlier this year was just the tangible tip of a largely digital iceberg – one that threatens to jettison any number of the UK’s mainstream media outlets. Monumental drops in circulation and nose-diving advertising revenues are now very much old news (so much so in fact that the ‘Decline of newspapers’ now has its own Wikipedia page). And as news dissemination has increasingly spread to online platforms, the capital-intensive overheads associated with print media have disappeared as an obstacle to entering the news market. With entry costs slashed, independent, alternative, low-cost organisations such as Now Then, Open Democracy, and Consented have flooded onto the scene – often with the explicit intention of remedying perceived inadequacies in the traditional, mainstream media.
So far, so neo-liberal-utopian.
1. High Quality Independent Media Requires Resources
Yet, every article that finds its way onto a website like Novara or Open Democracy has to be researched, written, fact checked, edited, formatted, checked against a style guide, etc.
The absence of a widely applicable revenue model is just as much of a problem for alternative media as it is for the mainstream – even well established and respected outlets like Novara Media are staffed by almost entirely unwaged volunteers. And although these publications are often able to maintain a laudably high quality in their output, the constraints of a shoestring budget are nevertheless keenly felt – by editors, contributors, readers, and ultimately society at large.
2. Without Money Alternative Media Is Limited to Analysis
One of the main impacts of insufficient funding for alternative media is that their role is limited to commentary and analysis, rather than original, independent investigation and data collection. Whether this comes in the form of opinion pieces, close dissection of mainstream news output (see, for example, Spin Watch), or even just straight reposting of already-existing articles – the diversity and high quality of this sort of alternative media often masks a disturbing gulf: the absence of original reportage and investigation of events themselves.
The dangers of not expanding the remit of alternative media through surmounting the perennial problem of funding are extensive. In the UK, Rupert Murdoch and Lord Rothermere share almost 60% of the national newspaper market, and where private corporations’ domination ends, the state’s begins – with the BBC, 73% of whose statistics come directly from the government, commanding considerable swathes of UK news (particularly of television and radio).
Consequently the terms of debate are set by the powerful. Although alternative media might provide us with excellent commentary and analysis explaining the various artifices and omissions exhibited by the mainstream media, without the necessary resources to undertake their own original investigations, they have little say in what it is that is being analysed and commented on. The result is a media systematically skewed towards the interests of capital and state, and away from the interests of the people.
3. The Mainstream Media Fuels Far Right Fascism
Where these media outlets aren’t responding directly to the right-wing political biases of their bosses, they’re putting circulation figures above ethics.
The tangible effects of this mechanism can be all too keenly felt in recent political history. One of the major phenomena of British politics over the last ten years has been the meteoric rise of UKIP. In 2006, UKIP were little more than an often electorally harried peripheral force in British politics, ridiculed by David Cameron as ‘fruitcakes, loonies’ and ‘closet racists’. However, with the increasingly news-friendly, slick PR operation put into place by Nigel Farage after his ascendancy to the leadership of the party in September of 2006, UKIP’s fortunes began to reverse.
The centrepiece of Farage’s re-branding operation was a series of close ties to the media – notably cosy relations with Rupert Murdoch (Farage was named The Times’ ‘Briton of the Year’ in 2014) – and an emphasis on cultivating a reputation as a charismatic figure likely to pull in extra viewers on talk shows and the like. Sure enough, Farage’s and UKIP’s airtime rose, far out of proportion with their popularity amongst the electorate – from 2008-2012 Farage was the second most frequently featured guest on the BBC’s flagship debate program, making a total of 11 appearances.
More worryingly, at various points throughout the party’s rise, there were significant periods of time in which, despite waning popular support, media attention for the party intensified. These periods were almost always followed by a correlative rise in the party’s popularity. In a recent paper published by researchers at the University of Southampton, evidence was found after the application of a number regression analyses that in the case of UKIP’s rise in popularity, there is a good case to be made for significant media responsibility in fuelling the party’s popularity. In summarising their research, they write
Some have argued that extensive media coverage of UKIP is justified due to public support for the party. The findings here, on the other hand, suggest this is an unacceptable argument: the extraordinary media coverage which has been given to UKIP cannot be explained or defended on grounds of public support. We find that media coverage has no reliable relationship to public support in the one month, two months, or three months before a particular month of coverage. Indeed, we find that coverage may have independently and uniquely driven some of the very public support which media regulators would later point to as their justification for the extraordinary coverage given to UKIP.
Although alternative media were doing a great job throughout this period commenting upon and analysing the output of mainstream media – when a disproportionate amount of this coverage was focusing attention on UKIP, there was little these alternative media sources could do to stop the wave of publicity the party received and the resultant rise in their electoral appeal.
4. The Mainstream Media Keep Getting It Wrong
Trump. Brexit. Scottish Independence. Corbyn. The 2015 General Election. On the vast majority of the major calls in current affairs in the last few years the mainstream media have either been downright wrong, or have massively underestimated the extent to which their readers’ views differ from their own. An elite complacency has sunk in that hampers their ability to accurately predict and take seriously the vast reserves of anti-establishment sentiment that exist in most western post-industrial societies. Time and time again, the mainstream media has shown itself to be out of touch, inaccurate, and downright harmful in affording sensationalist and hateful rhetoric the publicity that it feeds and thrives on.
The mainstream media is unreliable and unfit for purpose – we can depend neither on their investigative results nor their data collection. We need our own studies, our own reports, our own polls. And for this we need our own funding.
The Media Fund - online, ongoing, and on point
The Media Fund - launching on December 10th at the Media Democracy Festival at Birkbeck College, University of London - is hoping to revolutionise the funding process for independent, alternative media organisations. Spearheaded by Real Media, alongside a number of other independent UK media organisations (including Novara, Consented, Spin Watch and other examples previously mentioned), the fund will have two types of membership – partner media organisations that receive the funds, and public users who contribute by monthly subscription.
If deemed of a sufficiently high quality (in adherence to a code of conduct developed from the National Union of Journalists’ code), media organisations can become members of the fund by helping cover the fund’s minimal overheads in return for featuring on the list of potential recipients of donations on the Fund website and app. Public contributors will log in, choose the organisation(s) that they want to support from a list of quality-assured news sources and pledge a regular amount of at least £1 per organisation per month.
There is no absorption of any portion of contributors’ donations into the running costs of the site – every £1 donated to a particular organisation goes directly to that organisation at the end of every month. Moreover, once established, the Media Fund hopes to expand its operations, allowing for people to contribute to campaign funds and pots for individual investigative projects.
The co-op thereby hopes to increase publicity for independent media, increase donations by simplifying the process of financially supporting such organisations, and take the administrative burdens of fundraising off of the shoulders of alternative news platforms to better allow them to do what they do best.
The Media Fund is set to be the biggest and most comprehensive attempt to collectively and independently fund alternative media in recent memory. Through collective action we can come together to be more than the sum of our parts. Through collective action our combined might can challenge the stranglehold of the state and multinational corporations. Through collective action we can own the media.
The Media Fund is currently running a £10 000 fundraising campaign to cover the costs of start-up and development. To find out more and donate, visit www.crowdfunder.co.uk/mediafund