By Callum MacRae
Like in most post-industrial societies, Britain’s media is in a radical state of flux. With the demise of the daily newspaper and news dissemination increasingly moving online, alternative, independent media sources have flourished. But the absence of a viable, generally successful revenue model is an increasingly prohibitive obstacle for this bourgeoning new media. The Media Fund, a new UK cooperative organisation, seeks to change that.
It has long been apparent to all those paying even the most cursory attention to the British media, that something drastic is afoot. The disappearance of the seemingly well-established Independent from newsagents’ shelves earlier this year was just the tangible tip of a largely digital iceberg – an iceberg that threatens to scupper any number of the UK’s mainstream media outlets. Monumental drops in circulation and nosediving advertising revenues are now very much old news (so much so in fact that the ‘Decline of newspapers’ now has its own Wikipedia page). And as news dissemination has increasingly spread to online platforms, the capital-intensive overheads associated with print media have disappeared as an obstacle to entering the news market. With entry costs slashed, independent, alternative, low-cost organisations such as Now Then, Open Democracy, and Consented have flooded onto the scene – often with the explicit intention of remedying perceived inadequacies in the traditional, mainstream media.
So far, so neo-liberal-utopian. However, despite the newly defrayed costs of entry, the going has been far from good for new media in the UK. The absence of a widely applicable revenue model is just as much of a problem for alternative media as it is for the mainstream – even well established and respected outlets like Novara Media are often staffed almost entirely by unwaged volunteers. And although these publications are often able to maintain a laudably high quality in their output, the constraints of a shoestring budget are nevertheless significant – for editors, contributors, readers, and ultimately society at large.
One of the main impacts of insufficient funding for alternative media is that their role is limited to commentary and analysis, rather than original, independent investigation and data collection. Whether this comes in the form of opinion pieces, close dissection of mainstream news output (see, for example, Spin Watch), or even just straight reposting of already-existing articles – the diversity and high quality of this sort of alternative media often masks a disturbing gulf: the absence of original reportage and investigation of events themselves.
The dangers of not expanding the remit of alternative media through surmounting the perennial problem of funding are extensive. In the UK, Rupert Murdoch and Lord Rothermere share almost 60% of the national newspaper market[i], and where private corporations’ domination ends, the state’s begins – with the BBC, 73% of whose statistics come directly from the government[ii], commanding considerable swathes of the news market (especially television and radio[iii]).
Consequently the terms of debate are set by the powerful. Although alternative media might provide us with excellent commentary and analysis explaining the various artifices and omissions exhibited by the mainstream media, without the necessary resources to undertake their own original investigations, they have little say in what it is that is being analysed and commented on. The result is a media systematically skewed towards the interests of capital and state, and away from the interests of the people.
The tangible effects of this mechanism can be all too keenly felt in recent political history. One of the major phenomena of British politics over the last five years has been the meteoric rise of UKIP – from an often electorally harried peripheral force in British politics, ridiculed by David Cameron in 2006 as ‘fruitcakes, loonies’ and ‘closet racists’, to a major player, receiving the third largest number of votes in the 2015 General Election and exerting a considerable rightward pull on the British mainstream media. Throughout this rise, media attention was constant, disproportionate, and often preceded (rather than responded to) increases in public support.
Though the question of how to effect real change in our media is a complex and thorny one, a clear and simple way to help carve out a space for an alternative media that can change the parameters of debate is to create organisations with the means to finance their own independent reporting. With alternative media ‘boots on the ground’ the stranglehold of news agencies like Reuters can be broken from the bottom up. And in the UK, a new co-operative promises to do just that.
The Media Fund, which is currently raising funds in order to launch on December 10th at the Media Democracy Festival at Birkbeck College, University of London, is hoping to revolutionise the funding process for independent, alternative media organisations. Spearheaded by Real Media, alongside a number of other independent UK media organisations, the fund will have two types of membership packages – partner media organisations and recipients of funds, and public users who contribute by monthly subscription.
If deemed of a sufficiently high quality (in adherence to the National Union of Journalists’ code of conduct), media organisations can become members of the fund by helping cover the fund’s overheads in return for featuring on the list of potential recipients of donations on the Media Fund website and app. Public contributors will log in, choose the organisation(s) that they want to support from a list of quality-assured news sources and pledge a regular amount of at least £1 per organisation per month.
There is no absorption of any portion of contributors’ donations into the running costs of the site – every £1 donated to a particular organisation goes directly to that organisation at the end of every month. Moreover, once established, the Media Fund hopes to expand its operations, allowing for people to contribute to campaign funds and pots for individual investigative projects.
The Media Fund thereby hopes to increase publicity for independent media, increase donations by simplifying the process of financially supporting such organisations, and take the administrative burdens of fundraising off of the shoulders of alternative news platforms to better allow them to do what they do best.
Recent events such as the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump are perfect examples of just how much work needs to be done to repair our broken media. Time and time again, the mainstream media has shown itself to be out of touch, inaccurate, and downright harmful in affording the far right the publicity that it feeds and thrives on. In the face of a market dominated by the state, vastly powerful oligarchs and monolithic multinational corporations, it is all too easy to fall into despair. But by co-operative action, by allowing us to become more than the sum of our parts – Britain’s new media revolution might just be about to change that.
The Media Fund is currently running a £10 000 fundraising campaign to cover the costs of start-up and development. To find out more and donate, visit www.crowdfunder.co.uk/mediafund
[i] Media Reform Coalition, Who Owns The Media?, http://www.mediareform.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Who_owns_the_UK_media-report_plus_appendix1.pdf, p7.
[iii] Ibid, pp11-15.