Is Labour Fighting Yesterday's Media Battles?

Labour has outlined its plans for the media, and they make for a mix of pretty predictable and puzzling decisions. The party has long been an advocate of tighter rules on marketing "junk" food to children, and so it was not a surprise to see the topic featured in its manifesto. However, what was surprising was no mention of its much-publicised ambition to introduce a 9 p.m. watershed for marketing junk food. Instead, there is a commitment to act against high levels of sugar, fat and salt in food and to encourage physical activity. 

It's not a bad ambition, of course. But then, with food labelling as prevalent as it is today and with junk food makers queuing up to sponsor public health initiatives, isn't this fight already underway -- and being won by public consciousness? Isn't the fact that the coalition government has led a concerted effort for people to swap unhealthy fizzy drinks for more informed choices, leading to water overtaking Cola (in volume) sales for the first time, proof of this? I just have a feeling it's a noble aim, but the food and drinks companies are likely to be picking up on this already -- led by public demand, which has been shaped by some excellent campaign work from Change4Life and Sport England.

On media regulation, it also wasn't too surprising to see the opposition party renew its vow to introduce the principles of the Leveson Inquiry and have a press complaint's body that is truly independent and backed by Royal Charter in the hope that it becomes seen as less of an old boys' club. The new regulator, IPSO, is struggling to throw off the charge that it is merely a continuation of the days of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), which was funded and run by the industry it was set up to regulate. Though widely acknowledged as an improvement on the PCC and run by an independent judge, IPSO has not managed to get the support of The Guardian, Evening Standard and Financial Times, although the vast majority of newspapers are signed up to the new regulator. 

In a way, the argument has moved on from the early days of whether the press would stomach a Royal Charter that would effectively mean it was regulated, for the first time, by the Houses Of Parliament. No paper was going to sign up to that -- and so we have IPSO, a defiant gesture from the industry that was basically saying that a move from the press regulating itself to being regulated by Parliament is a step too far and threatens free speech. It wasn't a great choice. Either the industry ran itself or was overseen by the people who it seeks to embarrass for bad behaviour, such as MPs expenses. IPSO was about as good a compromise as you were ever going to get and even its staunchest, most vocal critic, The Guardian, has revealed that it could join if the body proves to be truly independent. 

So, again, I can't quite see where Labour is going with this. It just simply won't get the majority of the press to accept a Royal Charter, and even those who would have supported it a year or two ago are wavering on joining IPSO if it proves it can do a good job. There may be campaigners who will pat it on the back, but the public has seen that malpractice at the nationals has put transgressors in the dock for paying officials or hacking phones, and this was done without Parliament having to oversee the industry. Would the public really back parliament to rule the press? Does Labour truly think the public trusts politicians more than they do the press, overseen by an independent judge? 

The same goes for media plurality. The manifesto is very vague, citing that it will basically cut down to size any companies that own too much of the media and think themselves above the law. The real irony here is that if anyone with an ear to the ground on media companies that sail closest to the wind when it comes to breaking the law would probably point to Facebook and Google with their highly dubious opinion on their UK tax liabilities and privacy records -- as well as, for Google, huge question marks over copyright law and anti-competition rules. 

The way we consume our media has changed. Print is slowly dying, and a hugely fragmented digital media landscape is replacing it. In this new era, news brands do not count for much. People are being recommended news through social media contacts and natural search results. They go to the story rather than the brand. Sure, News UK and Trinity Mirror acted terribly -- and a series of court cases, jail sentences and compensation payments ensued. And when it comes to owning too much media, is the country safer now that Richard Desmond doesn't own both the Express and Channel 5? Is the tv station safer or more democratic now that it is owned by Americans? If not, what would Labour do about an American company owning a national tv station in the UK? What could it do?

So I'm left pretty puzzled by the ambitions Labour sets out. Regulating food content is a noble aim, but I suspect ever-better informed consumers are a step ahead of politicians. At the same time, why go on about an advertising watershed for junk food for years and then drop it in the manifesto? When the press is settling around a new regulation regime, it seems an odd battle to reignite -- and when it comes to media plurality, it just seems, once again, that this is yesterday's fight. 

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