Jeremy Corbyn: Alternative Mactaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival, 2018
News reporting is a vital and a proud profession. One of my early jobs after leaving school was on the Newport and Market Drayton Advertiser and I chaired the National Union of Journalists’ parliamentary group. Working on the local paper was hard work but huge fun. And I found it incredibly rewarding because I could see the role we were playing in my community.
Too often, we take journalism and journalists for granted. At their best, journalists challenge unaccountable power and expose things that the rich and powerful would rather keep hidden. Far too often around the world, journalists pay for that with their freedom or even their lives. Fearless journalists and those who support them in their work are some of the heroes of our time.
The inaugural MacTaggart lecture was delivered in 1976 by the radical Scottish playwright and theatre director John McGrath. His theatre company, whose aim was to take popular, political, working class plays to venues outside the mainstream, was called 7:84.. Two numbers. 7. 84. They represent a shocking statistic that McGrath had read in The Economist: 7% of the population owned 84% of the country’s wealth.
In this fast changing industry in particular: far too few people have a grip on most of the power and our current system is making that situation worse.
So my message today is: for all the brilliant work done across its multiple outlets and platforms, the British media isn’t ready for the challenges of the 21st century and so cannot properly serve the interests of a truly democratic society.
When it comes to news and current affairs, so vital for a democratic society – our media is failing.The latest statistics from the European Broadcasting Union show that the British people simply don’t trust the media.Trust in British TV news is below the EU average and it is more distrusted than its German, Swedish or Belgian counterparts.
At least our TV news operates under some basic rules ensuring an element of balance. We felt this keenly during the General Election campaign last year. When additional election rules on political balance kicked in, broadcasters were required to report the Labour Party in our voice effectively for the first time for two years so we could properly lay out our policies for the country. It turned out, to the surprise of much of the media, that our ideas are pretty much the commonsense mainstream and it was the establishment gatekeepers who were shown to be out of touch.
Preconceptions of editorial staff could still be spotted in less regulated vox pops which were more slanted against us. A vox pop looks unfiltered but what makes it onto TV or radio is chosen by editors on the day.
The British press is the least trusted press in Europe, including non-EU countries like North Macedonia and Serbia. Let that sink in for a moment. For all the worry about new forms of fake news we’ve ignored the fact that most of our citizens think our newspapers churn out fake news day in, day out.
The owners and editors of most of our country’s newspapers have dragged down standards so far that their hard-working journalists are simply not trusted by the public.
A free press is essential to our democracy, but much of our press isn’t very free at all. I want to see journalists and media workers set free to do their best work, not held back by bosses, billionaire owners, or the state.
So much of the media is close to the rich and powerful and I’m not just talking about the revolving door that saw George Osborne walk out of the Treasury to become editor of the Evening Standard.
Leveson One and campaigning from people like our Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and Deputy Leader, Tom Watson who helped to expose the cosy relationship between senior press and broadcasting executives, media owners and senior politicians.Let me be clear, Labour is committed to Leveson Two and there is no better person to be leading for us on this than Tom.
But we must also break the stranglehold of elite power and billionaire domination over large parts of our media. Just three companies control 71% of national newspaper circulation and five companies control 81% of local newspaper circulation. This unhealthy sway of a few corporations and billionaires shapes and skews the priorities and worldview of a powerful section of the media.
And it doesn’t stop with the newspapers, on and offline. Print too often sets the broadcast agenda, even though it is wedded so firmly to the Tories politically and to corporate interests more generally.
A parallel process of concentration and tightening oligopoly is advancing in online news and could intensify with moves towards phone apps and push notifications. Multinational companies want to create worlds you’re locked into: your phone operating system, your music streaming app, your online viewing service and your news.These dynamics further undermine diversity and pluralism and I have real doubts that such a model will value the high quality journalistic work that challenges the interests of the powerful and wealthy.
Today, I want to make some suggestions for how we can build a free and democratic media in the digital age where journalists and media workers are set free from the elite control, whether the billionaire class or government, which is holding them back from producing their best work.
These suggestions aren’t yet Labour policy, as they’re still in the process of development but I hope they show how we are thinking about major change and open up space for more research and discussion.
Active support for local, investigative and public interest journalism
The best journalism takes on the powerful, in the corporate world as well as government, and helps create an informed public. That work costs money. So, we should look at granting charitable status for some local, investigative and public interest journalism.
A strong, self-confident government could negotiate with tech giants to create a fund, run entirely independently, to support public interest media. Google and news publishers in France and Belgium were able to agree a settlement. If we can’t do something similar here, but on a more ambitious scale, we’ll need to look at the option of a windfall tax on the digital monopolies to create a public interest media fund.
Investigative journalists are looking to alternative models of ownership to carry out their work. Here in Scotland, The Ferret uses a cooperative model, with a board comprised of readers and reporters. They cover issues such as human rights, environment and housing, providing a public service to communities in Scotland.
This important part of the media could also be supported by reform and expansion of an existing BBC scheme, which sees ring fenced funding for ‘local democracy reporters’ employed in local papers.
Part of these funds could be made available to local, community and investigative news co-ops, with a mandate to use significant time and resources reporting on public institutions, public service providers, local government, outsourced contractors and regulated bodies. To root out corruption, improve services and empower citizens, we need a dogged local media with the time and money to work on stories.
One of the greatest tools that journalists can use to hold power to account, The Freedom of Information Act, was introduced by a Labour government. I remember talking to ministers at the time it was going through Parliament, especially Mark Fisher, and later working with my friend John McDonnell and others against proposals to charge journalists for submitting FOI requests. Currently, ministers can veto FOI releases. On two occasions, this veto has been used to block information about the UK’s decision to pursue military action against Iraq. That can’t be right. We will look at ending the ministerial veto to prevent the Information Commissioner being overruled.
A more democratic, representative and independent BBC
Now we know that in the UK, one media organisation leads the way – the BBC. It is a great institution which rightly commands a special place in our country’s story and national life. Some powerful private corporate interests – and those who know the history will know which ones I mean – have long wanted to break up and cannibalise the BBC. I think that would be a disaster. The BBC must not be broken up or privatised but should lead positive change, with stable, secure funding so it can drive up standards right across the sector.
But the BBC should be freed of government control, democratised and made representative of the country it serves to help it do that. The BBC is meant to be independent, but its charter grants governments the power to appoint the chair and four directors of the board and set the level of the licence fee.
One proposal would simultaneously reduce government political influence on the BBC while empowering its workforce and the licence fee payers who fund it. That would see the election of some BBC Board members, for example of executive directors by staff and non-executive directors by licence fee payers. National and regional boards could also be expanded, with elections by BBC staff and local licence fee payers. All boards should be representative of the country, with a minimum representation for women and minority groups.
I commend the BBC’s move to Salford, and Channel Four is also looking at proposals to move its headquarters out of London. This should be encouraged as part of rebalancing Britain. A better regional balance should help the diversity of our media workers. The BBC could lead the way by setting best practice with complete transparency on the makeup of its workforce by publishing equality data, including for social class, for all creators of BBC content, whether in-house or external.
Sustainable quality journalism requires decent pay – and 24% of journalists now earn less than £20,000 per year for what is a skilled job. Many journalists work for the love of their profession but they deserve a decent income and a secure contract too. Insecure employment, which many journalists increasingly face, is a curse on our society.
If we want an independent BBC, we should consider setting it free by placing it on a permanent statutory footing, with a new independent body setting the licence fee.
A digital licence fee, supplementing the existing licence fee, collected from tech giants and Internet Service Providers, which extract huge wealth from our shared digital space, could allow a democratised and more plural BBC to compete far more effectively with the private multinational digital giants like Netflix, Amazon, Google and Facebook. This could also help reduce the cost of the licence fee for poorer households.
With secure funding and empowered staff and audience, the BBC would be on a firm footing to move forward into the 21st century educating, informing and entertaining, and be a vehicle to drive up standards for the rest of the media.
Empowering private sector journalists and audiences
We should also think about ways to empower journalists, audiences and readers and reduce the power of media bosses and owners in the private sector.
One of the more radical and interesting ideas I’ve heard is to give journalists the power to elect editors and have seats on boards for workers and consumers. Journalists at the Guardian now elect their editor by indicative ballot and there’s no reason why that precedent shouldn’t be spread more widely.
Setting up a publicly owned British Digital Corporation
The public realm doesn’t have to sit back and watch as a few mega tech corporations hoover up digital rights, assets and ultimately our money. Government is standing by and letting the few take advantage of the many using technology.
The idea of setting up a publicly owned British Digital Corporation as a sister organisation to the BBC. was floated by James Harding, former BBC Director of Home News in the Hugh Cudlipp lecture earlier this year. A BDC could use all of our best minds, the latest technology and our existing public assets not only to deliver information and entertainment to rival Netflix and Amazon but also to harness data for the public good.
The BDC could work with other institutions that the next Labour government will set up like our National Investment Bank, National Transformation Fund, Strategic Investment Board, Regional Development Banks and our public utilities to create new ways for public engagement, oversight and control of key levers of our economy.
It could become the access point for public knowledge, information and content currently held in the BBC archives, the British Library and the British Museum. Imagine an expanded Iplayer giving universal access to licence fee payers for a product that could rival Netflix and Amazon. It would probably sell pretty well overseas as well.
I hope some of the ideas I’ve put forward today generate further ideas and the debate widens as Tom Watson and others in the Labour Party develop our policies in this area.
Without big, bold, radical thinking on the future of our media we won’t take advantage of the opportunities in front of us as a country and for the kind of journalism that makes the world a better place. At worst, a few tech giants and unaccountable billionaires will control huge swathes of our public space and discourse.
We can build a free, vibrant, democratic and financially sustainable media in the digital age. We just need to harness the technology, empower the best instincts of media workers, wherever possible put the public in control and take on the power of unaccountable billionaires who claim they are setting us free but in reality are holding us back from achieving what we can all achieve together.