Michael Powell, chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has proposed changes in media ownership rules that signal a "new and dangerous shift of media power at the expense of pluralism and democracy" warned the IFJ. The IFJ says that there should be full public disclosure of the plans, which are being kept confidential in advance of an FCC vote on June 2.
Under the proposal, it is reported that two existing cross-ownership rules, one that prevents a company from owning a newspaper and a broadcast station in the same city and another involving radio and TV station ownership in a market, would be combined to create a single rule, but most existing restrictions would disappear.
Other changes will allow media companies the right to hold up to 45 per cent of the national television audience - an increase of 10 per cent over the existing limit - while the rule that limits TV station ownership will be altered so a company can own two TV stations in more markets and three in larger cities like New York and Los Angeles.
"This is giving control the news and flow of information to a handful of media giants," said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary, "It is a process that will diminish the diversity of ideas and opinions and will marginalize minority opinions and dissent."
The IFJ says media concentration rules need to be tightened, not relaxed and cites a worrying trend of conglomerates exercising editorial control over media services at the expense of journalistic independence:
- In Canada the IFJ and media unions have protested over a "one-size fits all" editorial policy imposed on editors by the company CanWest, which owns a network of newspapers and televisions outlets across the country;
- In Italy the conflict of interest of media magnate Silvio Berlusconi who combines his role as Prime Minister with control of most of the country's television networks has caused widespread consternation;
- And in a media network that stretches over five continents, News Corporation chief Rupert Murdoch (who owns Fox Network, one of the prime beneficiaries of FCC changes) has a notorious history of editorial interference, most recently in his support for the US and British line in the Iraq war, a line slavishly followed by his entire network of more than 150 media outlets.
"The FCC is supposed to regulate the airwaves in the public interest," said White, "But handing over the jewels of a nation's information and cultural heritage to huge corporations will not satisfy the public need for diverse media sources. This is simply politicians delivering glittering prizes to their friends in the media."
"Democracy depends upon the capacity of many voices to be heard," says the IFJ, "and the FCC will stifle the expression of different opinions by bowing to industry pressure for change which has its roots in commercial advantage not quality programming."
The IFJ says that the opposition to changes in ownership rules has been particularly strong among media and journalists' trade unions, including the IFJ's affiliates The Newspaper Guild-CWA, the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists (AFTRA), the National Writers' Union and The Writers Guild (East).
"The anger of media staff is well-founded," said White. "They see a massive lobby for change by many big media companies, without the public being properly engaged in the debate. At the same time, the unions are aware that easing media ownership rules often leads to a deplorable decline in professionalism, working conditions and media quality."
On June 2, the FCC's five commissioners will vote on the proposals. The Republican members say that existing rules are obsolete with the emergence of cable and satellite television and the Internet, but the Commission's two Democrats say Michael Powell is rushing through an important process that needs more public comment.
"This process is flawed and dangerous for democracy," said Aidan White. "The role of media as watchdogs is weakened when dominant newspapers merge with major TV stations, and the public need to be brought into the picture before the voting starts."
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The IFJ represents more than 500,000 journalists in more than 100 countries