In the past few weeks, the debates about the Want Want China Times Group and its allegedly growing power in Taiwan have captured much attention.
Many words have been devoted to the stories of students mobilizing across the world over this issue and that it has taken on the hue of a pro-Taiwan, anti-China dispute. Now there is even controversy surrounding the famous linguist, Noam Chomsky, and whether or not he was misled when he claimed support for the anti-monopoly movement.
Amid such detail it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture and overlook the significance of this issue for the future of Taiwan’s media and democracy.
First, it is important to recognize that media across the world is experiencing crises. Newspapers and broadcasters are facing financial difficulty amid a global recession, especially if they depend on advertising for revenue. This is exacerbated by the changing nature of the media and communications technologies from print to the Internet and social media. The death of printed media has long been predicted and many major newspapers are facing difficult choices about their future as print editions.
Increasing competition between news organizations has also taken its toll.
Together with shifting patterns of news consumption and the advent of 24/7 rolling news channels, competition puts pressure on the newsroom to provide scoops and exclusives, to be the first on the scene and, in the Internet age, to update content frequently. This reduces the time for reflective journalism and for checking the credibility of facts and sources, meaning that the news could contain more inaccurate information than ever before.
There are also widespread concerns about the role of the press in society and its relationship with the state (including the police). Examples are the Leveson inquiry in the UK, the discussion about lese majeste in Thailand and the disputes between journalists at China’s Southern Weekend, also known as Southern Weekly, and the Chinese state.
The news media is facing a situation where its authority and legitimacy is suspect, and public trust in it is on the decline.
The argument about media monopolies in Taiwan and elsewhere plays out against this background.
The issue of media monopolies is important in democratic societies because the concentration of the power of information in fewer hands undermines the commitment to diversity, pluralism and audiences’ access to multiple perspectives which define the media landscape.
Monopolies restrict peoples ability to find alternative opinions which allow them to make informed decisions about the world around them. They challenge the idea that the press can hold centers of power accountable for their actions and decisions.
The news media has been instrumental in changing the way politics are practiced over the past 40 years: The publication of the ‘Pentagon Papers’ by the New York Times, which revealed the scale of US involvement in Vietnam; the Washington Post’s investigation of the Watergate scandal, which brought down former US president Richard Nixon and brought to the surface the US’ unease with the ‘Imperial Presidency’; the publication by newspapers of the WikiLeaks cables in 2010; the Daily Telegraph’s investigation of British members of parliament’s expenses which changed the parliamentary system.
In democracies, the news media has the privileged position of being able to hold those in power accountable. Its freedom to do so must be protected at all costs.
George Orwell, wrote: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
With such power comes responsibility: The media must be accountable and also has responsibilities –– to uphold the law, respect the truth and protect the liberties of individuals. This is why the Leveson Inquiry into press practices was so significant, as it revealed the way some journalists from certain news organizations believed that they were above the law or that their disregard for it would not be discovered.
Holding the press accountable for their actions is absolutely essential because knowledge and information is power. This is why it is right to be suspicious of media monopolies.
It would take up too much space to list the resources media tycoon Rupert Murdoch owns or controls. Among his assets are 20th Century Fox, Fox Television, Fox News, Fox International, Star TV, majority shares in the National Geographic Channel, Fox Interactive Media (including 5 percent of Myspace), 29 magazines around the world, including Gentleman’s Quaterly Australia and Modern Boating, News International, a huge newspaper empire that covers almost every newspaper in each Australian suburb, the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones, HarperCollins –– the list could go on.
This means that when you see a movie, watch a television program, pick up a magazine, newspaper or book anywhere in the world, there is a good chance that you are consuming something owned or controlled by Murdoch.
This convergence of ownership across media and communication platforms is reason for concern, and the scale of ownership across national boundaries surpasses the resources and power of the so-called British press barons of the 19th and early 20th century.
When reading about the protests in Taiwan against media monopolies, I have been struck by the ease with which defenders of the Want Want group resort to the same old argument that many in their position use when challenged about ownership: “If you do not like what we say, change the channel, buy another newspaper, turn off your television.”
However, if we take the Murdoch empire as an example, it becomes increasingly difficult to find another channel or buy another newspaper that is not owned by the same organization and does not reflect its political or commercial agenda or those of the man who owns it.
Media monopolies in democratic societies undermine the idea of a free media market, free entry to that marked, equal competition and, above all, access to a diversity of views, information and opinion.
Gary Rawnsley is professor of international communications at the University of Leeds in the UK.