Andrew Neil should be broken up by the competition commission

Another drive-by media studies thing. Efforts to regulate the media tend to focus on ownership (telco regulation people would say structural remedies) – should you be allowed to own a newspaper and a TV station? What about two TV stations? Can you vertically-integrate content production and distribution? Alternatively, they sometimes try functional things, like requiring equal time for political viewpoints, or imposing rules on the content of advertising, that generally bear on owners.

This is fair enough but I wonder whether we’re missing something. Since the early 20th century it’s been an absolutely standard observation that big firms are no longer usually controlled by individual entrepreneurs who meaningfully own them, but rather by managers, who exercise effective control supposedly on behalf of a diffuse mass of shareholders. There have been changes. In the 1960s, J.K. Galbraith observed that the technostructure of managers and (especially) engineers and scientists was largely pursuing its own goals, while from the 1980s onwards, shareholder value was the thing. The point about shareholder value, though, was that management was expected to work as if it was the shareholders and paid that way. The structural issue still persisted.

This “divorce of ownership and control” has been the subject of an absolutely huge literature among economists, lawyers, Marxists, and God knows what else. I am not sure it’s turned up in media studies, though.

What I’m driving at is that someone like Andrew Neil has become a problem in terms of cross-media ownership regulation all by himself, at the individual scale, by being a senior BBC executive, the chairman of the Spectator’s holding company, and an influential contributor in yet other publications. If he owned three major media outlets this would be considered controversial, but if he just exerts substantial influence over the content of three it’s only dangerous nuts with blogs who complain.

This is especially troubling because it’s generally accepted that journalists influence each other. Neil’s BBC slots are held to “set the agenda” for other outlets, and the newspapers that he interprets on camera are held to set the agenda for the TV stations, notably the BBC.

The ownership-focused model assumes that production and distribution are capital-intensive businesses that therefore tend to be owned by those who can mobilize a lot of capital. As a result, a few major outlets – national newspapers – come to exist and interact separately with their public. Individual journalists are just employees.

The declining importance of broadcast and print – the distribution channels typical of this model – and the growing relative importance of individual stars renders this increasingly misleading. The owners continue to exist, but so does an increasingly independent, synchronized, and indeed intermarried opinion elite who may represent a relatively autonomous media structure by analogy with Galbraith’s technostructure. When members of non-respectable political tendencies, or just baffled civilians, lash out against “the media” or “the press”, this rather than Barclay or Murdoch or Rothermere is the elephant they are palpating.

If this were so we would expect this elite increasingly to seek power and access in their own right, and you know, Boris Johnson.

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