Since Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter in October 2022, further fuel has been added to the debate over the influence of rich media owners on democracy. A self-described ‘free-speech absolutist’, Musk has promised to protect the ‘de facto public town square’ [Ref: Guardian] that Twitter has become. Some have argued this helps support democracy, as free speech is one of its foundational principles. But critics point to Musk’s subsequent acts of censorship [Ref: Guardian] on Twitter as evidence that billionaires can’t be trusted with absolute control of the means through which we receive or consume information about society.
Musk isn’t the only billionaire who has recently added a media company to his portfolio. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and another one of the richest people in the world, purchased the Washington Post in 2013 [Ref: Washington Post] and Marc Benioff bought Time in 2018 [Ref: New York Times]. Some commentators worry that this trend gives disproportionate political power to the super-rich elite, distorting democracy away from the interests of the people. But others dismiss this, pointing out that legacy media has historically been in the hands of the very wealthy. Moreover, they argue that a free media within a free market is essential to democracy and that without today’s billionaire interventions, the shrinking journalism industry would be on its way to oblivion [Ref: Time].
DEBATE IN CONTEXT
Who owns the people’s means of accessing information and news has always been a topic of controversy in democratic society [Ref: Psyche]. This is because a free press that can criticise the government and other powerful institutions is widely regarded as an important foundation of democracy. What this free press ought to look like, however, is where people tend to divide.
Today, 90 per cent of Britain’s newspaper market is owned by just three companies [Ref: Media Reform Coalition]. This concentration of media ownership is seen by many as a bad thing for press freedom, due to the potential convergence of editorial stances from having a smaller number of influential people at the top of the system. This not only distorts the media narrative, in the eyes of many, but also restricts people’s freedom to access a range of information sources from across the political spectrum.
So, we could say what we have is an application of Isaiah Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty [Ref: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy] competing with one another. Should we exist in society where the press has freedom from intervention, which likely results in the concentration and merging of media as market forces take effect? Or should we prefer a society where steps are taken to ensure the public has freedom to access a fair range of representations of the world, uninfluenced by powerful interests – which means state intervention in the industry that is supposed to scrutinise the state itself?
This dilemma has been further complicated by the advent of online social media and its dominance of information flows to the public today. Companies like Facebook, TikTok, Instagram and Twitter have arguably taken the place of traditional publishers. They are now the dominant force in the media industry because they are the platforms that traditional and new media alike are forced to use if they want any hope of grabbing attention and market share. So, some commentators observe, if the owners of these new media superpowers have their say on what content is allowed to be shared and by whom, this surely presents an even greater threat to democracy than the previous media climate.
FROM THE ‘GOLDEN AGES’ TO THE DIGITAL JUNGLE
One defence of billionaire ownership of the media is that wealthy interests have owned the media since modern democracy began and this has never derailed our ability to access news or making political judgements. Wealthy families and individuals have owned most of the great names in news through the two supposed ‘golden ages’ of media, when the high profitability of newspapers allowed the production of lots of high-standard journalism and relatively high levels of journalistic freedom. Zachary Karabell argues that, if anything, we have been hampered by the rich’s relative loss of interest in newspaper ownership since the early 2000s, when print media’s profitability started to collapse [Ref: Time]. Instead of a public being freed from the influence of the democracy-meddling rich, consumers have actually been left with less choice.
However, there are some who reject the idea that billionaire ownership of the media is a necessity. Publications like The Guardian have structures that don’t have a single influential owner at the top, opting instead for a board of trustees and an editor elected by the writers of the newspaper [Ref: The Guardian]. If more news sources were structured like this, some argue, we would live in a more democratic society, assured we are not being influenced by the wealthy for their own gain. This sentiment was shared by former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who in 2018 pledged to grant charitable status for local, investigative and public-interest journalism, among other reforms in an effort to build a ‘free and democratic media in the digital age’ [Ref:Press Gazette].
On the other hand, others might argue this does not stop people at the top of media organisations (like editors or trustees) influencing content to pursue their own interests and causes. All this would do is remove the super-rich from this position. In this view, a free society ought not to block individuals – billionaires or not – from taking part in public life and public debate. The Guardian is not exempt from editorial criticism, including the departure of high-profile writers Hadley Freeman and Suzanne Moore, who felt they couldn’t write according to their conscience, choosing to move to privately owned enterprises [Ref: UnHerd].
To add to this, despite billionaires dominating private media, the biggest market share in the UK is actually claimed by the publicly owned BBC, exceeding the rest of the top 10 combined in terms of minutes consumed [Ref: Press Gazette].
A BENEVOLENT DICTATOR?
Benevolent dictators do not exist, argue critics of billionaire ownership. As Lord Acton famously put it: ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ [Ref: Acton Institute] Billionaires who own media companies will therefore use their position for their own interests, it is argued, and this sort of disproportionate power to influence public debate and sculpt the world in their favour is therefore antithetical to democracy.
However, others argue that, yes, there is a bias to any media organisation, but as long as a plurality of media options is present, people are not forced to use one source or perspective if they want to access information. The Guardian and the Daily Mail are on the same shelf in the shop and people are free to choose between them.
In addition to this, there is the example of Jeff Bezos’s Washington Post. While Bezos used his skills as a businessman to make the company profitable again [Ref: The Guardian], he pledged not to change the editorial stance of the paper, saying: ‘The values of the Post do not need changing.’ [Ref: Columbia Journalism Review]
Furthermore, it can be argued it is condescending to assume people are bound to the will of the media they consume. Media owners are dictators of their companies, not of public opinion. An integral part of democracy is the model of the individual as an autonomous being who is able to process the world around them, come up with reasoned decisions, and then navigate the world for themself. If this is true, are people really so vulnerable to media bias?
However, those who fear billionaire ownership point to examples of where election results have followed the changing editorial stances of major publications. The Sun famously declared, ‘It’s the Sun wot won it’ [Ref: Channel 4], having supported John Major’s Conservatives in 1992 and, having then switched its allegiances to Labour, it was also on the winning side in 1997. There is, however, a debate as to who is following who. Many, Sun owner Rupert Murdoch included, argue ‘the media does not have this kind of power’ [Ref:ScienceDirect] to sway elections, but others are not so sure. So, in examples like these, are the people following the media or the media following the people?
THE FREEDOM TO INFLUENCE
At the root of liberal democracy is a commitment to freedom. Defenders of private ownership of the media interpret this to include the freedom for those with the financial means to purchase fairly any private company, media or otherwise. From this perspective, we live in the most meritocratic world there has ever been and if an individual chooses to use their wealth to purchase a media company, no one should have the right to stop them. Media companies tend to be very large, and it is just a fact of life that only rich people are likely to have the resources to buy them.
Opponents of this view, however, see this as a perspective trapped in a neoliberal view of the world, a fantasy where market forces are automatically the solution to our problems. Moreover, a free market being gradually monopolised by a few individuals may still threaten the plurality of media available to the consumer.
Defenders of billionaire ownership of media point out the rise of new alternative publications using social media. These enterprises owe their success to low start-up costs and wide exposure opportunities offered by the internet. Publications like Novara Media, Double Down News and the London Economic have grown large followings that can start to compete with traditional mainstream news sources. However, the extent to which new media holds power is contested. Despite the success of some newer start-ups, mainstream media with rich backers still undeniably dominate the market, even online.
Also, like the traditional press, newer start-ups are reliant on social media for circulation of their material. Billionaires in control of social media ultimately still get the final say on things. For example, Facebook refused an advert from the Spectator because the front cover mocked US President Joe Biden [Ref: The Spectator] and Novara Media had its YouTube channel temporarily removed with no explanation [Ref:Independent]. These examples both go to show that the real power now seems to lie with the social-media companies – the domain of billionaires. To make things potentially worse, while legacy media owners have usually claimed to be distant from editorial control of their companies, owners of social-media platforms have openly displayed the extent of their control [Ref: Business Insider].
WHAT’S THE MEDIA FOR?
This debate can come down to our conception of the media’s purpose. Should it be unleashed to the stormy but ultimately liberating waters of free pursuit? Or is it a public good in need of protection so that we can navigate our lives relatively free from the influence of the malevolent and powerful?
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Corbyn calls for journalists to be ‘set free’ from ‘billionaire’ press barons as he proposes ‘public interest media fund’ and editorial elections
Freddy Mayhew Press Gazette 23 August 2018
Positive and Negative Liberty
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FactCheck: does the Sun win elections?
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The Washington Post has a Bezos problem
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Inside the Twittering machine: Will Elon Musk turn Twitter from a dysfunctional social media platform into a new kind of digital dystopia?
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Why I had to leave The Guardian
Suzanne Moore UnHerd 25 November 2020
Zuckerberg’s Unilateral Control of Facebook Is ‘Bad Idea,’ Experts Say
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IN THE NEWS
Regulators Put Brakes on Media Megadeals
Cynthia Littleton Variety 7 December 2022
Novara Media YouTube channel briefly removed ‘without explanation’
Matt Mathers Independent 26 October 2021
Time Magazine Is Bought by Marc Benioff, Salesforce Billionaire
Amy Chozick The New York Times 16 September 2018
The Bezos backlash: Is ‘big philanthropy’ a charade?
Joe Miller BBC News 16 September 2018
Salesforce billionaire Marc Benioff to buy Time magazine
BBC News 17 September 2018