Ownership transparency is not enough to solve media performance gaps

Media ownership transparency has become a goal of media reform advocates on both sides of the Atlantic, but is often simplistically presented as a solution to problems in media performance.

As I have shown in my research over time, it is not the form of ownership that matters, but the owners themselves. There are good and bad corporate owners, good and bad private owners, good and bad family owners, and good and bad foundation owners. And many owners whose media perform badly on issues of social service and public interest don’t care if the public knows who they are.
This is not to oppose making it easier for the public to know who the owners are—in some cases (especially in southeast Europe) owners sometimes hide behind shell companies, investment firms holding their shares, and even individuals fronting for them. Gaining transparency may help identify consolidation and concentration for antitrust and pluralism analyses, but lifting those veils alone is not going to solve the issue that some media owners operate media for political or personal financial gain in ways that harm the public.
The continued focus on ownership also masks the fact that many other factors create influences on media and their content. A company doesn’t have to be owned to be controlled.
Those who provide media revenue and lend media companies money matter.
The desires of advertisers skew content so that media serve more desirable demographic groups and produce a content environment that best suits their messages. It leads the media to exercise care, or ignore, news that will offend major advertisers. In some countries advertising from state enterprises and private firms is dependent upon a paper or broadcaster supporting or not challenging political figures or ruling parties. Unfortunately, in many cases, media companies and journalists comply.
Banks and other lenders that holds the debt of a media company are also in powerful positions to influence media managers, choices of the company, and content. The larger the debt, the greater the influence because it is harder to replace the firm lending the money.
Media firms owned by industrial conglomerates matter.
Government contracts given to firms that own media can influence the news content published or broadcast. In many countries defense contractors, construction companies, banks, and service firms own media. These firms receive large public contracts to supply equipment, construct buildings and roads, handle government finance, and support government operations. In these cases, the media keep the companies in the minds of politicians and the governments and the lucrative contracts keep the media from being too troublesome to the politicians and the government.
Creating media independent of economic influences is impossible. While ownership does matter, and transparency may have virtue, a host of control issues come into play that will never be addressed by merely being transparent about who owns a media firm.

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