Next month the Federal Communications Commission in the US is likely to lift remaining restrictions on media cross-ownership. Michael Powell, chairman of the FCC and son of Secretary of State, Colin Powell, has made it clear he believes the marketplace should be the mechanism by which the media business is managed. It sounds fair. But in a country where about six major conglomerates control the bulk of all forms of news and entertainment media from books, film, newspapers, radio and television, the June decision will open the way for further consolidation where a single company could own newspapers, radio and network/cable TV in the same city.
The debate in the US has been limited since the public's main source of news—television—has not covered the issues of how media monopolies affect the public's news since they are owned by the main media giants. For the American public the obscured debate—which occasionally makes the business pages of mainstream newspapers—highlights the very dangers of a hyper-commercialisation of news. It is not so much a matter of bias but the absence of information which truly disenfranchises people.
The recent Iraq conflict was a showcase for the commoditisation of news. The key media winner in the US was Fox News—the 24/7 cable news channel owned by Rupert Murdoch's company, News Corporation, which claimed a 300 per cent increase in viewers during the war.
The network channels ABC, NBC and CBS all lost viewers, while the cable channels, led by Fox's example, won audiences by being there on demand and also for selling the war news through a patriotic filter where the US flag was put front of screen and both anchors and reporters embedded with the troops used "we" throughout their coverage. The battlefield war for the cable channels was a means to fight the ratings war. They used it as a hook to break the news connections with the network houses, and CNN, a very different product in the US to what is broadcast in Europe and the Middle East, chased Fox in an opinion-led war coverage style.
In the US, the weakness of public broadcasting, particularly on TV where PBS has neither the resources nor newsroom to compete on war coverage, means that the counter balance to the market-led extremities is absent. NPR and PBS relied on relays of the BBC on radio and television to maintain a concept of full coverage and hence the BBC's man in Baghdad, Rageh Omaar, was named the "Scud Stud" by the New York Post - ironically another Murdoch house. Once CNN was thrown out by the Iraqis at the end of the first week no US TV crew remained to report the news.
The BBC is using the opportunity to expand its news profile in the US. Its audiences are up 28 per cent and it will put its 24 hour news channel on cable here later in the year. The BBC director general, Greg Dyke, bluntly told an audience at Harvard Business School, during the war, that the US electronic media had "wrapped the flag around itself and given up the ghost of real journalism". And that's the point. For the AOL Times Warner, Disney, Viacom and News Corporations of the world it is not "real journalism" or informed democracy, which is the end game—it is the rewards of the market—the profit margin. It is unrealistic to expect a commercial conglomerate without legal requirements (there's no longer a legal fairness statute in the US) to behave like a not-for-profit trust or public service broadcaster. But for the US, which has the most deregulated news media market and the weakest public broadcasting sector in the developed world, the real losers are the citizens who at the end of the "war" were still left in the dark about key events like the use of cluster bombs, the impact on civilians, and the conflicting statements of record on what happened in a range of incidents, including the market bombing ones.
This week both the BBC and the Guardian boasted that their websites had taken off in the US during the war. BBC News on-line increased by 47 per cent, while traffic to the Guardian news site was up 83 per cent (obviously from a relatively low base). While it's good news for the two UK media groups, the real trend is that the gap in public services or not for profit news provision in the US is being increasing met by overseas sources—indeed by the British licence—fee payers in the case of BBC News.
It is ironic that at a time when the US is debating its lonely super-power status that it lacks a super news media. France's President Jacques Chirac has already set aside a budget for the creation of a French language 24/7 global news television channel to compete with the growth of global "soft power" forces like the BBC. For Europeans and indeed small countries like Ireland, the Iraq war with its image saturated 24/7 coverage; from embedded, largely US/British journalists (two thirds of the 600 embedded reporters were American) has underscored the need to debate the fate of a public's access to information.
Market forces can lead to monopolies that are just as undesirable for citizens as state-controlled monopolies. The threat to public access to information was clear in totalitarian states but the threat may be just as significant in a news media world run solely to generate profit rather than spread information and seek the truth. A world where a handful of business interests dominate the provision of news needs a balance.
It may be too late for the US public to engage the FCC in debate before the June deadline, but for those of us on the other side of the Atlantic, where the wave of global media is hitting, it is the time to start learning lessons not just from the inspiration of Thomas Jefferson, who said the right to information protected every other right, but also from the reality of the limits of a free falling market.