Drizzle in medialand

Over at Standpoint Online, the political and cultural magazine of the centre-right Social Affairs Unit, Nick Cohen takes a look at Vince Cable’s new book on the current economic crisis. In The Storm, Cable, British MP and front-bench economics spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, predicts that the failure of free markets will lead not to a revival of socialism, but rather the growth of state capitalism.

One point made by Cable and reinforced by Observer columnist Cohen is that a weak independent media will lend legitimacy to the new order by “strengthening the relative importance of state broadcasters, including our own BBC”.

I have a lot of time for Vince Cable, considering him unusually sagacious for a party animal politician. But in his desire to add to the evidence for state capitalist power, Cable misinterprets the situation with respect to the independent media.

In my view the problem in medialand has to do with a complex dynamic that goes way beyond the decline in advertising revenue. Money is tight, but there is a managerial crisis in the private sector media, with an unwillingness to be creative and take risks. Despite its monolithic status, the BBC does pretty well on the creative front, and there are surely lessons to be learned here.

Independent media bosses are quick to damn the BBC for encroaching on their turf. Take, for example, the local video project that was shelved by the corporation’s Trust following complaints from local newspaper bosses whose new media efforts range from the laughable to the little more than reasonable. These private sector entrepreneurs failed to heed the market, and then had the temerity to complain when a competitor, albeit a state-funded competitor, stepped in to fill the creative void. The BBC is damned if it does, and damned if it doesn’t.

Cable and Cohen write about the economic crisis, but then overlook the fact that the crisis in independent media precedes our current financial woes. In many cases local newspaper owners are content to run a bare-bones editorial operation which serves as no more than a weak glue to hold the advertising pages together. It’s no wonder that consumers are abandoning the paid local press, and using the freesheets as local business directories come cat litter tray liners.

Regarding the point that a weak independent press will leave state broadcasters politically vulnerable, I agree with Cohen. I do not, however, concur that the BBC would never have broken the parliamentary expenses story. Certain politicians have attempted to blame the Fourth Estate as a whole for their discomfort, and this strategy has failed, along with the MPs’ careers. Given the BBC’s considerable authority and independence from government, the old adage “He who pays the piper…” does not hold true in this case.