A Global Village
Issue 1

The Financial Threat to Free Speech

Rhodri Oliver, Imperial College London

In an age where the media plays such a pivotal role in a person’s life, influencing elections, careers and livelihoods, we have an increasingly corporate attitude to the public message.

Although this commercial approach in itself undermines the freedom of expression of the individual, the current economic climate has exacerbated the situation.

In this time of lean credit, small newspapers and news companies are struggling, like all businesses, to survive. Indeed, unlucky ones are likely to have been absorbed by their more affluent rivals or shut down completely. This is not only an inconspicuous effect of the recession but also a threat to free speech, as we know it.

Spiralling Shares for Media Magnates
Mecom, a big player in the media world, has been in difficulty for over a year now. The company has already sold all of its titles in Norway and Germany and raised funds via a rights issue, citing a steep fall in advertising revenue for their woes. Mecom has recently seen their share price drop to as low as 0.73p from over 20p two years ago.

‘This is not just a subtle effect of the
recession but a threat to free speech,
as we know it’

Johnston Press, a media company owning more than 140 titles in Britain, has recently suffered a dramatic decrease in newspaper sales. At present they are suffering crippling debts having racked up a £400 million loss this financial year.

These major companies represent the best positioned to survive a downturn.

So what about smaller, more vulnerable, companies?

It is clear that current financial stresses, and with an already failing business model, will ensure a high attrition rate for such businesses.

The Recession Bites
Share prices underpin the interest on, and availability of, loans to a company from lenders such as banks. In essence, they represent what the market feels the company is worth at any given time.

Thus for any company, but particularly for the exposed media sector, refinancing becomes much more costly and perhaps impossible as a result of poor share price performance. In essence media companies suffer the same financial stresses and strains as other sectors however, in this case, the stakes may be higher.

‘This may contribute to a polarisation in
viewpoint within a population, possibly
encouraging radical factions to emerge and
stifling more moderate, unifying voices’

As a result of tighter credit lines, newspaper closures and job cuts in the media industry have become the norm. This trend clearly damages the diversity and quality of the
newspapers available and, in particular, threatens to impede a wide and balanced reporting of both topical and sensitive issues.

News Surfing
The dawn of the digital age has heavily impacted newspapers and media outlets. This has resulted in a fall in hard copy sales as a proliferation of free news sources
has become available online.

Recently, however, Rupert Murdock declared that customers would have to start paying for online news content. This drastic step was proposed as revenue from advertising, a key source of income for most news websites, has been all but eradicated by the recession.

Whether to charge for online content is currently a very real debate among media groups as competition from free news providers such as the BBC has dampened any appetite for online pay-per-view services.

A secondary, but related question, of payment methods is also under discussion. Both subscription-based services and micropayment systems exhibit drawbacks. Few are
willing to commit to a lengthy subscription, but intermittent income from micropayments is not attractive to companies and a hassle for consumers. The industry appears to be far from consensus on the issue.

A Responsibility To Act Impartiality?
The key problem is that when small newspapers die so does the unique viewpoint that came with them. This results in a loss of angles, and opinions, and therefore a less balanced reporting of the news.

For instance, certain newspapers owned by Rupert Murdock, which supported Tony Blair back in 1997, now attack Gordon Brown with vitriol. This political bias, grounded in commercial interests, exacerbates an unbalanced spectrum of reporting.


Likewise in America, certain radio and television stations have a blatant bias towards a particular political ideology whether it be conservative or liberal. This may contribute to a polarisation in viewpoint within a population, possibly encouraging radical factions to emerge and stifling more moderate, unifying voices.

‘This trend threatens to impede a wide and
balanced reporting of both topical and
sensitive issues’

Indeed, such a saturation of the market by any single actor, that actor not accepting a responsibility to act impartiality, will inherently affect the public’s perception of issues and events to an unacceptable level.

Thus for the same reasons that we abhor censorship we should fight to maintain the diversity of media production and ownership across the world.

Hyperbole
The growth of international media conglomerates has given rise to an increase in the number of enterprises more concerned about their bottom line than the reporting of salient events.

Thus we are enduring the rise of sensationalism and hyperbole as newspaper giants seek to inflate their readership through shock tactics and big headlines. We are reading an increasingly centralised set of opinions with newspapers bombarding the everyday reader with stock edits.

Post-War Propaganda Machine
An abuse of position and influence with regards to freedom of the press may originate not only in industry but in government too.

‘Is it acceptable that those in power may
influence public opinion from such a vantage
point as the media itself?’

Italy’s Berlusconi has an entire media empire at his disposal that has been used relentlessly to attack political opponents and defend some of his less popular social and political moves.

Similarly in the US, Fox News is seen as the voice of the Republican Party as the line between commercial and political interests blurs.
 
Is it acceptable that those in power may influence public opinion from such a vantage point as the media itself?

Encouraging Diversity
Can we prevent any further slip in the diversity of news outlets available in Britain?

Firstly, supportive grants and funding may be provided to smaller publications that are starting up or provide a small independent circulation. The use of advertising by newspaper companies on television could be regulated thus helping to level the playing field for those smaller providers who would not be able to afford such television
exposure.

Finally, regulations should be introduced that make charging for online news content a favourable option for content providers. This would then encourage more readers to buy newspapers and prevent large companies from dominating the news market with free online services.

‘We are enduring the rise of sensationalism
and hyperbole as newspaper giants seek to
inflate their readership through shock tactics
and big headlines’

These measures should ensure healthy competition between media companies of all sizes such that the public hears and reads a diverse set of voices and opinions.

Preserving Freedom of Speech
Media, in the form of written, spoken and visual mediums, should be an asset to society.

It should inform cogently and objectively via a wide selection of opinions, stories and approaches. However, the recession and strength of multi-national companies is
leading to a homogenization of the printed word, a rise in sensationalism and a drop in the quality of political and domestic dialogue.

Free speech is about choice and it is imperative that we have that choice - the option to access news from many angles, voices from all walks of life and stories about our
neighbours both near and distant.

Rhodri Oliver is a physics student at Imperial College who, amongst other things, enjoys debating and learning to fly.

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