Tuesday, April 5, 2016

BusinessWorld | Poe and the false promise of foreign media ownership

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Luis V. Teodoro 
Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro)
Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.

The influence of the media giants on the opinions, values, and ideas of their vast audiences makes these companies more powerful than governments. The concentration of media ownership in these companies severely limits the media publics’ right to access the plurality of information sources they need to make informed decisions on matters that affect their lives. The global media system has also been criticized for its emphasis on the mindless entertainment that diverts media audiences from meaningful social and political engagement.

It is the global media empires that have the means, and -- if they think it would be profitable -- the most likely to invest in Philippine media as full owners should the Constitutional prohibition on foreign media ownership be lifted.

The amendment in favor of foreign media ownership of Section 11 of the Constitution, which limits media ownership to citizens of the Philippines, has been proposed numerous times by, among others, members of Congress. In 2014, it was one of the Constitutional provisions Speaker Feliciano R. Belmonte, Jr. said would be amended once the House convenes as a constituent assembly to amend the 1987 Constitution. The argument then was that such an amendment would generate employment for Filipino journalists and media workers.

But one of the most common arguments for opening full media ownership to foreign interests is that it will also facilitate technology transfer. Presidential candidate and Senator Grace Poe alluded to this supposed advantage when she declared during a March 15 Makati Business Club forum that she favored amending the Constitution to allow, among others, foreign ownership of media in the Philippines.

The argument is based on the assumptions that Philippine media organizations are not technologically up to date, and that the foreign media companies would willingly share whatever advanced media technologies they possess.

The reality is that these current technologies are generally available. The major Philippine television networks, for example, have long entered the digital age in terms of editing, content generation, and presentation because they have the means to pay for them. They and print media are online as well, and make frequent use of the Internet and social media.

But even if we assume that foreign media groups once they buy into the Philippine media as full owners will transfer technology more advanced than what is currently available to Filipino-owned media, the technological gains would be offset by the loss to citizens of the relevant information they need to understand their society and the world.

Advocates of foreign media ownership have also argued that it will improve the quality of media performance in terms of greater adherence to ethical and professional standards, which among others, mandate accuracy, fairness, and relevance. But the accuracy, fairness, and relevance of the information provided by the huge media conglomerates that are the most likely to seek full media ownership in the Philippines have been seriously questioned.

Communication scholars and academics as well as practitioners committed to the central journalism task of providing the information and analysis needed by the informed public vital to democratization and meaningful political and social engagement point out that what they provide is biased and even inaccurate information and celebrity news and gossip. Because these conglomerates are driven by profit, relevance is not their main focus but the maximization of returns to their investments.

This has led to scant attention to serious social and political issues and to a focus on trivia.

In Australia, for example, where Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation controls 33% of the metropolitan newspapers (which account for 70% of total newspaper circulation in Australia), concerned journalists complain that not only is there a focus on trivia as the supposed audience preference. More and more is the uncritical use of press releases in behalf of public relations clients and advertisers also becoming the staple of what passes for news. Advertisers are also shaping media content, as the traditional “Great Wall” between editorial and marketing is breached for the sake of maximizing profit.

The common belief, also implicit in Poe’s statement, that opening the media to foreign ownership would generate more employment is similarly misinformed. Editorial staffs are being downsized in those media organizations controlled by conglomerates in pursuit of the bottom line of maximum profitability. The downsizing is possible because the media organizations controlled by the conglomerates can utilize material published or aired in one media organization in the other media groups they control.

The downsizing and shrinking of editorial staffs as well as the shutting down of newspapers is not only due to popular reliance on the Internet for news. Both in the US and Europe, the downsizing and dismissal of journalists is also among the consequences of media mergers and acquisitions. For example, America Online (AOL) merged with Time-Warner, itself a merger of Time, Inc. and Warner Brothers Pictures in the year 2000 to become the biggest media conglomerate on the planet. Although the process has been going on for decades -- some US cities have only two or even just a single newspaper -- the merging of hitherto separate media entities has been accelerating. Ironically, as the global media conglomerates become even bigger, to increase profitability they’re dismissing many media workers including even the most seasoned journalists.

Should Philippine media organizations be acquired by the huge media conglomerates like AOL Time-Warner, the likelihood is that a flood of ready-made material from its various media groups will lead to downsizing.

But the most devastating consequence of foreign ownership would not only be a focus on trivia and entertainment or staff downsizing; it would be the dominance of news reports and analysis told from the perspective of the mostly Western media oligopolies.

Trivialization and the use of entertainment to divert public attention from political and social engagement are already a problem in much of Philippine media, particularly broadcasting, on which narrow political and economic interests have control and in which relevance, fairness, and even accuracy are yielding to the demands of profitability.

The answer to this is not more of the same through foreign media ownership. What is needed is criticism and monitoring of media performance by a media-literate public. Such a public would be aware of the necessary role of the press and media in providing the information vital to the shaping of public opinion and the making of informed decision making in, among other citizen responsibilities, voting for competent leaders. Senator Poe would do well to reexamine her views on foreign media ownership and its false promise of technology transfer, more employment, and better media.

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