On Wednesday, British Prime Minister David Cameron came out in support of an “independent regulatory system” to oversee Britain’s scandal-torn media. In the last two years, one of the biggest scandals dealt with Rupert Murdoch’s global media company, News Corporation, which came under fire for phone hacking, bribery and other desultory journalistic practices.
Though Cameron’s attempt to address the problems in the media is commendable, there is little government regulation can do to reform the media without compromising free speech. If the media and government do not remain separate, news organizations’ ability to act as a check on government power is eroded. Rather than increased regulation, the news media industry, both in Great Britain and the United States, needs more independent journalism outlets to create a system in which unethical news corporations and their respective publications will be held accountable.
Currently, six major media conglomerates, including News Corporation, control 90 percent of the media that Americans consume. This pseudo-monopoly of control allows these corporations to often get away with extremely unprofessional conduct. There are allegations that the phone hacking scandal at News Corporation included not only celebrities and politicians, but also the families of fallen soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Media companies like News Corporation, which are of immense size, resources and influence, are thus enabled to practice this kind of unethical journalism. And large media corporations dictate so much of the media Americans consume that it is difficult to boycott or refuse to support them.
Cameron’s resolution to this problem for the British press is to create an independent regulatory body with certain formal powers over the press, designed to moderate and reverse the media’s propensity for unethical practices. Though Cameron’s proposal concerns media in Great Britain, it addresses many of the issues also seen in American companies. His proposed reforms, however, involve the possibility of government regulation, which would compromise the media’s role as a watchdog.
Any kind of government-led control over media is suspect. Even if a government body was able to regulate news outlets fairly, there would be too much room for the government to regulate in its favor. By involving itself, the government would undermine its own credibility and that of the news publications it is trying to control.
This isn’t to say, however, that the problem of a few large companies monopolizing media control doesn’t need to be addressed. According to News Corporation’s website, the company has assets of approximately $60 billion and operates worldwide. Its resources and influence are obviously too great to go unchecked. And rather than maintaining high standards of journalistic integrity, companies like New Corporation become businesses focused on earning profits and gaining influence. Coupled with media corporations’ vast resources, this emphasis on earnings creates an environment in which companies are more likely to engage in questionable practices to “get the scoop.”
The answer to this problem is not government regulation. Media consumers, rather, should make an effort to support fully independent publications that prove themselves based on credibility and quality, not size and profits. If these kinds of publications — blogs, local newspapers or anything else not controlled by major corporations — gain momentum, it will force the larger publications to follow their example to compete.
Cameron’s ideas address issues that plague the news media globally: a concentration of power in too few companies and a lack of responsible journalism as a result. If left unchecked, unethical news practices could grow to become the norm, potentially destroying readers’ trust in news and forcing future generations to cope with a world of shaky information.
Burke Gibson is a sophomore majoring in economics and is the Daily Trojan’s chief copy editor. His column “Press Pass” runs every other Thursday.