What is Going On? Addressing Commercial Media in Portsmouth

On March 5th, S&C‘s What is Going On? event brought together a broad range of local people to discuss the state of media in our city. One of our panellists, the media scholar Dr Sophia Wood, explored the commercial ownership of Portsmouth’s news outlets and its relationship to interventions such as S&C‘s. The following is an edited transcript of her talk.

I spend a lot of my day job talking to students about journalism and why it’s important to local communities, to society and to democracy. I’ve done quite a lot of seminars and lectures looking at topics such as what is the purpose of journalism, what do we want from our journalists, what role do journalists play in society, how does this relate to democracy and, increasingly, does it matter who owns the press.

In my view, the independent, non-advertising-funded model of media ownership is the ideal, even if most people today access their information from mainstream media provision, which is invariably commercially owned. My students also tend to agree that good journalism should provide us with the information we need to be citizens and to make informed decisions about our lives. Good journalism is about scrutinising the powerful and should provide a voice for everybody in – and for all sectors of – society.

I’m currently doing research into the representation of the Grenfell Tower fire and I’m interested in activities that help to involve people from the local community who have been affected by issues around flammable casing in their housing. In the same way, sites like S&C can invite people into a conversation, marginalised people who are usually only the subject of a discourse.

The revelation of injustice is another news value. Many of us here tonight will be familiar with the idea of the ‘fourth estate’. Historically, this has been the idea of an independent press that provides checks against power whether it’s located in the monarchy, the government or the clergy. Nowadays, we could add to that list the threat of advertising and commercially owned media. Many of us here will lament the degree to which commercialisation has undermined the fourth estate function of the media. Even before Trump and recent news agendas around fake news, we were living with a growing sense that the news media had become a business and not one that’s run in the interests of society or the public good.

Because I’m a media studies lecturer who normally relies on PowerPoint and can never commit anything to memory – and am too vain to wear glasses – I’ll read this quote from the media theorist Daniel Berkowitz out loud: ‘Despite journalism’s stated goal of depicting reality, the news media – tightly interlocked at top levels with powerful institutions – have an interest in preserving the larger, liberal capitalist system by helping maintain the boundaries of acceptable political discourse.’ Berkowitz continues: ‘The media establish what’s normal and what’s deviant by the way they portray people and ideas.’ In my own teaching and research, I’ve looked at ‘poverty porn’, the demonisation of people on benefits and the representation of the European migrant crisis, which I think should be called the refugee crisis. So I’m interested in how journalists within commercial enterprises often collude with the powerful.

Last week, the government announced very quietly the decision not to extend the work of the Leveson Inquiry into press standards. There will be no Leveson II, which was set to examine the relationship between the media and the police. The announcement was made while our largely deregulated national press were fixating on Snowmageddon. This was literally an example of ‘a good day to bury bad news‘.

Let’s think about this in relation to Andrew Belsey‘s argument that ‘the proper practice of journalism must sometimes be subversive and anti-establishment, and expose what those in power would rather keep concealed from the public to whom they should be accountable.’ That’s what good journalism is supposed to be. In reality, as we know from investigations like Leveson, we tend to find instead pacts between powerful elites, politicians who are supposed to represent us and global billionaire newspaper owners. The politicians court favourable coverage from the major papers in return for further deregulation of the media. I’m of a certain age now where I like to tyrannise my young students with references to Margaret Thatcher and her favour exchanges with Rupert Murdoch that paved the way to the deregulated media landscape we ‘enjoy’ today.

The result of all this, I think, has been a deepening public mistrust in mainstream journalists. They are now regarded as being down there with employees of the BBC in the 1970s. There’s also a perception that journalism is dominated by mainly white, middle-class men. We’ve seen this recently in debates about the pay gap at the BBC. Carrie Gracie, the BBC’s China editor, stepped down because she found out she was being paid less than her male counterparts. Then John Humphrys and John Sopel were caught on mike having a good old laugh at Gracie’s failure to have attained the same pay scale as them. They also offered, in a joking way, to divert some of their inflated salaries towards her. These are the kinds of journalists who are out of touch with their audiences and the social challenges facing them: the housing crisis, uncertain employment in the ‘gig economy’, a feeling of powerlessness and dislocation, and a sense of being left behind by politics and the media.

To focus on the local context, David Harte has argued that ‘the last decade has seen increasing agreement amongst scholars that local news has become less plural; less local in its orientation; less embedded, in and less reflective of, local communities; as well as less critical and independent from its (overwhelmingly elite) sources.’

If we’re thinking about elite, non-inclusive or socially conservative views locally, I want to look at an opinion feature from 12th February in the News, our local print newspaper, by Clive Smith, who was making evident in this piece his aspiration to become the poor man’s Katie Hopkins. ‘Streets should be cleared of homeless for royal wedding,’ he writes, adding his voice to the recent media non-story of Windsor Tory councillor Simon Dudley, who willingly became tabloid fodder with his suggestion that the homeless should be purged from that town lest the sight of their poverty ruin the royal wedding.

Smith goes on to state, ‘Is it not like cleaning your house when you’ve got visitors coming? Look at Portsmouth, if you walk through town you can’t miss the piles of sleeping bags, duvets and people lying in doorways. There is no way this looks good, it looks bad!’ He goes on to compare the homeless to the ‘Calais Jungle.’

This is terrible. I’ve spent twenty years studying the Holocaust and the demonisation of Jews in Nazi Germany, and I’m disturbed by this kind of demonisation of the poor and the powerless in the mainstream media today by people like Smith.

So how can local independent journalism salve these sorts of wounds made by local commercial journalism? It can offer us a sense of society, of democracy, of inclusion. As news provision moves online and audiences are able to interact with it, it’s easier for public voices to be heard on these platforms.

As we’ve seen with S&C, investigative journalism is another key aspect here. Local officials and politicians must held to account and readers should be able to contribute to the debate in a communal process of enlightenment rather than one of demonisation and trivia, which has come to dominate the political sphere.

As Christopher Ali argues, ‘Local news is the lynchpin connecting community life to larger ideas like democracy in the public sphere. It’s essential to community solidarity, identity and every day life.’