When Labour say #changethemedia, what do they mean?

Last week Jeremy Corbyn delivered the Alternative MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival, launching a series of ideas on the future of the media in our country. Shortly following the speech, our computer screens were awash with the term #changethemedia, a provocative and deliberate phrase to capture people’s attention. And for a couple of hours, it did just that, before the next silly season story stole the headlines.

Picking a battle with the media elite will seem like a sensible strategy for Corbyn and his team, who will be eager to revitalise the wave of public support that picked up such momentum during the 2017 general election. It’s an obvious strategy for a party leader aiming to reset some of society’s greatest imbalances of power. Their confidence in this strategy will have been strengthened by the success of Trump’s (albeit different) attacks on the media, whose fake news crusade has spawned distrust in the media, but also been used as a vehicle for his message against the establishment. Both have worked to his advantage. It is therefore unsurprising that Labour, with its For the Many, Not the Few strapline, have chosen the media as a group to target.

So, what do these proposals say? What are the implications for different groups? How likely are we to see any of them materialise?

The first strand looks at ways in which public interest journalism can be strengthened. The most significant is a proposal to strengthen Freedom of Information laws, both ending ministerial vetoes and including private companies who deliver public services. If implemented properly, this could strengthen the means by which civilians hold Ministers and public service providers to account. And while this will strike the fear of God into many, it should be viewed as an opportunity to create a culture of accountability in government and business. For the media, this is uncontroversial, unsexy but by many, is rightly viewed as something that will improve public-interest journalism. This is a good thing.

Other suggestions are well intentioned but unlikely to catch on in any meaningful way. Giving charitable status to some local, investigative media outlets is a nostalgic, attractive concept but a waste of energy when audiences are rapidly congregating elsewhere. To strengthen public interest journalism, policymakers should not be looking to rectify fading models. The next idea, of creating an independent fund for public interest journalism paid for by “tech giants’’ does not have legs. Rather than supporting the future of higher quality journalism, the motivation for this idea again seems to be the opportunity to attack big tech. However, there are better ways of holding them to account.

The second strand looks at ways in which the BBC could be reformed. After the recent gender-pay-gap scandal, many will agree that the BBC’s corporate governance needs reforming. It does, but rewarding it by increasing its size (and therefore its bureaucracy) can’t be the answer. Proposals such as the creation of a state-run social media platform (British Digital Corporation or the BDC) would do just that. It would quickly undermine relatively sensible efforts to improve corporate governance through the election of board members, a reduction in the government’s powers of appointment and greater transparency about the diversity and the make-up of its workforce.

The proposal for a BDC is overly ambitious and unlikely to work. Most see straight through it. Most will see this as a potentially very expensive mistake that would do nothing to democratise the media. Labour suggest that a Digital License Fee would pay for it, with poorer households having their fees subsidised by big tech. Again, another ineffective swipe at big tech. Not only this, but at a time of spiralling living costs, any additional license fee won’t be seen as a good deal by the public. Instead of suggesting wacky ideas for new social media platforms, this could have been an opportunity to recommend that the current license fee is means-tested or progressively taxed. Equally, relatively low-key proposals, such as boosting funding for Government/BBC-led training for local journalists, could have been flipped and diversified to include wider outlets in its delivery.

The political purpose of these proposals is to set the public against unaccountable power and force big tech to pay more. In almost all cases, big tech will happily oblige in the hope this creates goodwill and limits their scrutiny in other areas. It may almost feel like an opportunity. Although most would agree that big tech should pay more and be held to account more than they currently are, a selection of charges on them to bolster public interest journalism doesn’t seem like the way to do it.

Greater accountability, in general, should be applauded. Proposals to do this through strengthening Freedom of Information processes could do just that. However, a majority of the proposals in Corbyn’s speech were about growing the BBC, or at least Labour’s idea of what the BBC should be. Overall, Corbyn’s attempt to #changethemedia falls short of the mark and leaves the wrong impression. It appears as though Corbyn, like Trump, is aiming to disrupt the status quo by talking about the media elite. While they come from different political backgrounds, it is good old-fashioned populism. It is a divide and rule strategy and therefore many will view this as little more than a cynical ploy to shape, rather than pluralise the media.

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