Convoluted Views about Media Ownership Inhibit Effective Policy

I was recently reviewing the effectiveness of media ownership policies and regulations and was struck by the limited success they have achieved during the past 50 years in Western nations.

There seem to be two central problems with ownership regulation efforts: ownership really is not the issue that we are trying to address through policy and we have convoluted views of ownership.
Media ownership is not really what concerns us, but is a proxy of other concerns. What we are really worried about is interference with democratic processes, manipulation of the flow of news and information, powerful interests controlling public conversation, exclusion of voices from public debate, and the use of market power to mistreat consumers. It is thus the behavior of some of those who own media rather than the ownership form or extent of ownership that really concerns us.

This is compounded because media practitioners, scholars, and social critics have highly convoluted views about ownership and most have complaints about all forms of ownership. It is thus nearly impossible to identify a preferential a form or extent of ownership.
We don’t like private ownership of media because proprietors can use them pursue their private interests; we don’t like corporate ownership because companies can put profit goals ahead of social goals; and we don’t like having just public service media because they doesn’t provide enough choice and are often limited in their ability to pursue political agendas--a function important in democracy.

We don’t like big companies because they can be arrogant and unapproachable and because they can control content as well as markets; we don’t like small companies because they can’t provide the range and quality of content we desire and because they sometimes can’t withstand pressures from powerful interests.
We don’t like foreign owners because they don’t share our identity, don’t represent who we are very well, and can bring foreign influences that affect national sovereignty; we don’t like domestic owners because they can be too close to those with domestic social and political power.

The list of ownership we do not like—and the fact that most regulation is promoted because of particular proprietors we disliked—makes it difficult to fashion effective policies. We are stymied because no ownership form itself is good or bad and they all have advantages and disadvantages. And there are examples of good and bad owners under all the forms of ownership.
Using ownership regulation to control the behavior of bad owners can only somewhat limit the scope and scale of their activities, not address their poor behavior. It is like permitting higher levels of crime in one area of town as long as it does expand into other areas.

If we are to effectively address our real concerns, we need to develop better mechanisms for influencing behaviour and we need to stop ineffectively regulating ownership just because it makes us feel like we are doing something.


Marc Edge said...

Can we use ownership regulation to control the behavior of bad owners? No. We can only use ownership regulation to control the structure of the market. It’s the old S-C-P or IO model. Regulate the structure of the market and you influence the conduct of its participants and thus the performance of the market. We limit foreign ownership because we wish to restrict media ownership to our own nationals. We restrict concentration of ownership because seek a diversity of viewpoints. We balance public and private ownership because we seek the best of both. Can we prevent bad owners? No, but we can prevent them from dominating. Then the market should deal with them.

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