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Prof James Curran: 'We Want to Shrink the Media Moguls'

03/07/2013 14:11 BST | Updated 01/09/2013 10:12 BST

Two more Sun journalists were charged by police last month.

Jamie Pyatt, a reporter, and John Edwards, the tabloid's pictures editor, were charged with allegedly making payments in excess of £30,000 to public officials. They face trial on July 8th.

Pyatt and Edwards are the latest in a series of journalists from Britain's best-selling paper to be charged with bribery-related allegations since Scotland Yard launched Operation Elveden - an investigation into allegations that newspapers paid public officials for information. The Operation runs alongside the inquiry into phone hacking at the now defunct News of the World which has led to charges being brought against more than 30 people, including police and executives at Rupert Murdoch's newspapers, as well as journalists.

Unsurprisingly, the news of the charges against Pyatt and Edwards didn't cause much of a stir on Fleet Street, with the outlets covering the story only giving it a few hundred words. Such is the crisis facing British journalism that two hacks facing criminal charges is no longer considered unusual.

The phone hacking scandal, combined with widespread public mistrust and the problems brought by declining readership and falling advertising revenue, has left those at the top of the British newspaper business with little option but to accept that some kind of reform of the rules governing the industry is necessary. Meanwhile, long-standing critics of the press, like James Curran - Communications Professor at Goldmiths University and co-founder of the Media Reform Coalition (MRC) - have been emboldened to call for radical change to the rules governing the nation's media.

"We want to shrink the media moguls," says Prof Curran when explaining the key proposals of the Media Reform Coalition.

"Four publishers: Rupert Murdoch, Paul Dacre, the Barclay Brothers and Richard Desmond control over three quarters of national daily titles. They've bought the national conversation. We don't have a truly free press; we have press dominated by press oligarchs.

The Media Reform Coalition are pressing for something Curran refers to as the "elephant in the room". A 15 percent cap on cross-media ownership, giving up 20 percent of any given news market to public service obligations, and in the case of the 15 percent threshold, diluting share ownership to further undermine the power of publishers.

Arguing that all past attempts at reform have failed because "the press have ensured that it is totally ineffectual", the group is also calling for an independent, self-regulatory system, with statutory underpinning to oversee the press.

Such dramatic change is unlikely. In his report into press standards Lord Leveson largely ignored the ownership question, merely calling the current situation "unsatisfactory" without providing a solution; comments which Curran describes as "shrewd".

"I can understand what Lord Leveson was doing: he proposed the most minimal reform, he avoided controversial areas, and not withstanding that a storm was broken around those proposals. People talked about losing 300 years of press freedom and so on. He was deliberately not giving hostages to fortune, and the result is that the majority of the public and the majority of parliament support a Lord Leveson style reform. So I think he was very shrewd in biting off a very small amount of media reform and taking on the power of the press," he argues, before adding. "It is however looking as if the press may win again."

An important voice in the current debate over the state of our nation's media and described as the "intellectual inspiration" of the Hacked Off campaign by the Daily Telegraph's Andrew Gilligan, Prof Curran believes that the current problems facing the press are about more than the misconduct of few journalists. He argues that the British media is "inadequate" and "weird" because of the influence a few powerful media barons hold over most national titles.

He claims the proposals of the Media Reform Coalition and the Hacked Off campaign, which MRC is a partner organisation of, are about "empowering journalists"; shifting the British media to what Curran sees as a more American-style system where journalists and managers have greater control over content.

In an attempt to illustrate the impact influence powerful publishers have over content, Curran chooses the example of the western media coverage in the run-up to the Iraq war.

"Every single newspaper owned by Murdoch supported the Iraq war, with one exception. In Australia, Britain and America, the publications all followed the owner's line," he says.

"But there's a further problem. It seems to me that the independence of the press is undermined when publishers and politicians establish a cosy relationship. In the 1980s most of the press established a strong relationship with the government. In the early part of the Blair government, there was a very cosy relationship between the press and the government. So it's the ability of a small number of publishers to in effect reach a tacit alliance with government which undermines the independence of the press."

These comments will irk those who see the kind of reforms proposed by Prof Curran and the Hacked Off campaign as a threat to press freedom. Andrew Gilligan has even claimed that the ties between the Media Reform Coalition and the Hacked Off campaign show that the movement wants "to claim the country for the authoritarian Left."

Other commentators have bemoaned the level of involvement Hacked Off enjoyed during high-level discussions about the future of press regulation in the UK; with Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins saying that the proposals drawn up by prominent members of the organisation and politicians gave the suggested reforms the appearance of a new BBC charter drawn up by the victims of Jimmy Savile.

Always forthright with his opinions, Curran calls the arguments put forward by Jenkins et al "humbug". He claims that Editors were in closed negotiations with the government for a long time and came up with a package that was close to Leveson, before publishers exhorted pressure and they changed their position, meaning the package that the Editors were negotiating for an improved self-regulatory system was reversed. Fed up by this change of attitude, the government opened channels to Hacked Off. "It was an example where journalists were undermined by their publishers," argues Curran.

To counter those who argue that statutory underpinning of a press regulator would diminish press freedom and usher in the death of traditional, confrontational British journalism, Curran again uses the example of Iraq.

In the post 9/11 environment, with patriotism sky-high in the United States and the usual voices of opposition reluctant to speak out against a popular government, many American outlets presented favourable, or at least uncritical, coverage of the Bush administration's attempts to invade Iraq. Even the traditionally left-of-centre New York Times got caught up in this atmosphere, writing in an extraordinary editorial in 2004 that their coverage in the run up to the invasion had "not been as rigorous as it should have been" and that "we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged - or failed to emerge."

By contrast with the American media, the BBC tended to be more challenging in its coverage of the run-up to the conflict, being drawn into open confrontation with the Blair government by reporting that they had exaggerated the evidence to go to war.

For Curran the performance of the American media when compared to the BBC represents a paradox. "The paradox is this: the behaviour of the free press in America, which is completely unregulated, was insufficiently critical of official sources. Contrast that with the performance of the BBC - under-pinned by statute, subject to a frame of law - it had a running confrontation with the government for exposing the shortcomings of the reasons to go to war," he argues.

"On the one hand you had a free market press that failed in the run-up to the Iraq war, and on the other you had a state under-pinned, but independent broadcasting system which upheld its duty to the public. This shows that the cataclysm one hears that the free market guarantees freedom and any state under-pinning compromises freedom is not borne out by what happened."

Curran would like to see more public involvement in the media as a whole, believing that the internet has "not lived up to it's potential" as a news source, and has even served to harm the news business in some ways; diverting advertising away from the traditional press and therefore making it harder for outlets to subsidise lengthy investigative pieces, and even making it difficult to pay journalists salaries.

"Just in the way that state involvement enabled television to grow as a great public service, so we should be thinking about how state support can enable the internet to do the same," he says, before suggesting something surprising.

"I think we should be looking for a digital subsidy from Google to support independent journalism. Already Google has come to an arrangement with the French and Belgium governments to make available in affect a voluntary tax contribution. We should negotiate a similar package in Britain and it should be administered by an independent online trust, supporting independent online initiatives.

"Google doesn't pay any tax, but it makes enormous profits, so why can't it contribute to reinvigorating local journalism? It seems to me that where there needs to be major new initiatives is in independent online local journalism.

"I think there should be support for online journalism in local markets and in niche markets. Otherwise the internet will not have delivered its potential to greatly increase the diversity of expression. The trouble at the moment is that the news part of cyberspace is colonized by major news organisations, and we need help and support to get independent voices online."

James Curran is Director of the Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media Research Centre, and a Professor of Communications at Goldsmiths University. He is the author of several books, including 'Power Without Responsibility' which he wrote with Jane Seaton (Professor Media Hsitory at the University of Westminster)