A mutual media

The UK is currently in the grip of a media frenzy about, ironically enough, the media. The fall out from the illegal hacking of private mobile phones by Rupert Murdoch’s best selling Sunday newspaper, The News of the World, has resulted in a judicial enquiry raising more serious concerns about the power media moguls have over state politicians. The allegation being that owners of the mass media use their considerable influence to extract concessions from state decision makers that are in their own (commercial / ideological) interests regardless of the negative or positive impacts on wider society.

Whether you disagree with this suggestion (like Rupert Murdoch) or you do not (seemingly all Murdoch’s past editors!) it now seems largely irrelevant as most people in the UK seem to have lost trust in the institution of the media to promote and protect the interests of society. The lack of faith in media ethics in the UK is worrying for society (and dare I say it a little bit hypocritical of a nation that craves inside gossip about the private lives of celebrities, nobody is forced to buy the sunday paper or go online to the Daily Mail). The media can play a crucial role in both holding the state to account and reflecting society’s values and emotions if done effectively. If a perceived problem of rotten ownership of the media puts that at risk, then the state has a legitimacy to intervene and reform the system – but how could it do it?

This is exactly what Lord Justice Leveson, who is heading up the judicial enquiry, has been tasked with recommending at the end of his hearings. Perhaps though Lord Leveson could be advised to take a well-earned break one weekend from the trials and tribulations of the process and fly over to Barcelona. While there he should take a trip to the Noucamp, home to Barcelona FC one of the most famous and successful soccer clubs in the world. It is also one of the sporting world’s biggest mutual – it is owned by 150,000 members all of whom have an active (voting) stake in the running of the club.

In 2009 the Birbeck sports business centre gave an interesting presentation arguing that the mutual ownership and governance structure of FC Barcelona does not appear to hamper its ability to compete in financial (and sporting) terms. In recent times there have been other leading mutual brands that have outperformed shareholder owned companies not just in terms of profit and growth but more impressively consumer confidence in that brand. This cuts across all sectors in the UK including retail (John Lewis department stores) and finance (The Co-operative bank).

So if Lord Leveson is contemplating how to restore society’s confidence in the media, as well – one might argue – as attempting to get society to have a greater stake in and take more responsibility for the media it consumes, then potentially a new mutual model (or even just part mutual) of ownership should be considered. Many would argue the transition from media oligarchy to media co-operatives would be just too difficult. This is short-sighted though and lacks the sort of vision that helped the smooth transition of google from private company to public listing.

For example, a visionary like Rupert Murdoch might be tempted to sell membership of one his papers such as the highly popular daily The Sun to its readership by adding the one-off membership price to the cost of the paper. So, say on Monday next week instead of the Sun costing £0.50 it would cost a one off £5.00, but for that extra £4.50 the reader paid on that day they are given (via some txt message registration confirmation) a life time (voting) membership of the Sun – say each year they could vote in/out the editor and president of the newspaper.

In return the reader membership have the power to de-select the editor in the same way the proprietor now holds that power. Not only would this strengthen accountability of the paper to society, it may also improve the financial sustainability of newspapers by giving members an added incentive to support their paper – if the members don’t buy the paper (even if the price has to increase to remain viable) then they lose the asset which they now own: this creates an incentive for members to advocate readership to non-members.

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