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British Media

Independent Voices Leading the World

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The global media?s values are under assault by the Internet, industry consolidation, and sensationalism. But some British outlets are bucking the trend.

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Independent Voices Leading the World

By Isabella Wu
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 389 )

Looking back on the media industry in 2007, the event that stands out is media mogul Rupert Murdoch's stunning US$5.6 billion purchase of Dow Jones & Co., the publisher of America's leading financial publication, the Wall Street Journal. Murdoch ran big ads trumpeting the new addition to his media empire in the many markets he has already conquered, including in the United States, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and of course Australia. But the London-based Financial Times refused to run his ad.

'Like in any business, if a few individuals control a monopoly position, they can push their own views through the media. They control at the expense of alternative views,' observes sociologist Anthony Giddens, a former adviser of British prime minister Tony Blair and advocate of a third way in politics. 'Democracy is about a clash of opinions. That's not a democratic situation to me,' he contends. The situation is exacerbated by international media groups that only pay attention to their own commercial interests and show little interest in local markets.

In an environment of intense competition and muddled values, however, there remain some high-quality media organizations that have resisted the trend toward consolidation and insist on having an independent voice.

Conglomerates Devour Society's Diverse Voices

Able to provide news free of charge as it happens around the clock, the Internet has taken readers and viewers ?V and consequently advertising ?V away from traditional media outlets, dealing a severe blow to the business model on which these media companies have long relied. In this challenging environment, powerful conglomerates have swooped in to acquire leading media companies, concentrating the power of expression in a few hands behind the scenes, despite the outward appearance of diverse media markets. Media independence has been compromised.

Mike Jempson, director of Bristol, England-based media watchdog The MediaWise Trust, acknowledges that the media are facing a massive challenge.

The intense competition in the industry has led to an emphasis on sensationalism, with television following the lead of newspapers. Jempson laments that the only thing that interests media companies is how to sell newspapers or grab ratings, resulting in everybody being dragged down into a vicious spiral. Holding a copy of British tabloid The Sun featuring a suggestive picture of a female celebrity on its front page, Jempson questions why such a topic is worthy of such prominent play. To him, the consolidation of the industry and the sensationalism represent a media winter that is as cold as the frigid, snow-covered campus in Bristol where he is discussing the media's tribulations.

British Media Buck the Negative Growth Trend

In Britain, as in other parts of the world, there are sensationalistic publications, but there are also media outlets that have followed their own independent course for over a century and by refusing to compromise on quality have actually seen their influence increase rather than decline.

According to figures from the nonprofit ABC (the Audit Bureau of Circulations Ltd.), which serves as an independent verifier of circulation figures, serious, high-quality media organizations based in London have bucked the trend of declining readership and registered impressive growth.

The circulation of the Financial Times grew by 2.62 percent year-on-year in December 2007, while the center-left Guardian not only increased its sales price, but also saw Internet readership grow 44 percent, solidifying its status as the most read British newspaper website, with 18.4 million unique users. The Economist, in publication for 165 years, has doubled its worldwide circulation over the past decade as other print media have suffered declines.

Why is the British media able to succeed in such difficult times?

'European media tend to be more questioning, tend to be more skeptical,' argues British economist Noreena Hertz, who earned an MBA from Wharton. American journalists, meanwhile, often accept press releases at face value. 'And part of this obviously has to do with ownership of media groups.'

Unlike the American media that exists in an environment of unbridled capitalism and where power is concentrated in the hands of conglomerates, the British media has always maintained a tradition of independence. Aside from the independently-run BBC, The Economist also has an independent foundation that appoints the editor-in-chief, and the Guardian is also seen as a classic model of editorial freedom.

Even Americans Love British Newspapers

Founded in 1821, the Guardian is a center-left media organization that sees itself as an advocate for the disadvantaged. To preserve the paper's editorial independence, the Scott Trust was established in 1936 to take over ownership of the company. Its most important task is to appoint an editor-in-chief who will preserve the Guardian's spirit of safeguarding the public interest. This system has kept the company's finances independent from the rest of the operation, isolating the editorial side from economic ups and downs and commercial enticements, and enabling the Guardian to freely monitor the government and uncover wrongdoing on behalf of society.

The newspaper, for example, was able to sidestep pressure from the British government in exposing a slush fund that British Aerospace used to win orders for Tornado jetfighters from the Saudi royal family. Even the U.S. Justice Department launched an investigation into this scandal.

'This fearless and in-depth reporting exemplifies the best tradition of Guardian journalism,' contends Guardian Newspapers Limited managing director Tim Brooks with pride and respect. He says the paper has not only been affirmed in London but also Los Angeles, where the Guardian's website has more readers than that of Los Angeles' most popular paper, the Los Angeles Times.

The Guardian is just one example of a high-quality media outlet based in London. By insisting on a global perspective, The Economist influences the world's elite, while the BBC's unstinting concern for society is growing deeper around the world. All of these examples highlight Britain's growing influence on world opinion.

'There is a market in providing serious, balanced news. There is a desire for impartiality,' said former British prime minister Tony Blair at a Reuters Newsmaker Event on June 12, 2007. His words were not only an appeal to the media, but also a reminder to the public.

The media is a reflection of society, and to have a society that can progress starts with the establishment of high-quality media.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier


Chinese Version: 獨立之喉,引領世界:倫敦

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