Is media consolidation good or bad?: Inquirer contributor

MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER) – Almost instinctively, journalists and some politicians fear the idea of concentrated power in big media companies.

This is the subtext of the ongoing inquiry by Congress and the National Telecommunications Commission into ABS-CBN buying a significant number of shares from TV5, saying it could lead to a potential misuse of journalism when subsumed under corporate interest.

ABS-CBN was refused a franchise last year and has since resorted to block time sharing with two television entities: ZOE Broadcasting Network and TV5. It recently acquired equity interest in TV5, a business transaction paused due to the congressional inquiry into its alleged violation and circumvention of the law.

Media concentration is hardly new in the Philippines. Business moguls own interlocking interests in print, television, cable, and the web. ABS-CBN, TV5, GMA Network also converged image, sound, and digital media, resulting in their strong influence on public sphere discussions and political processes through the expansive reach of the internet.

Similarly, the owners of four broadsheets-The Philippine Daily Inquirer, Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin, and the Manila Times-have huge interests in other businesses, such as hotels, real estate, infrastructure, and utilities. Significant advertising revenues come from these interlocking interests.

Is consolidation boon or bane in the rational public discourse and power sphere? Media exists for public good. The democratic discourse in a pluralistic society requires the organisation of a more effective form to carry out the substance of media existence.

Consolidation is one form, which ensures that resources are maximised to effectively fulfil this task. The interdependence of government, civil society, politics, and business makes consolidation a more effective and stronger voice in the public sphere, which ironically also enables discordant voices.

Global and local competition creates opportunities for corporations to respond adaptively. Failure to adapt could weaken their survival. When ABS-CBN and TV5 agreed to “combine” resources, it is for the former’s survival, having lost its franchise, and for the latter to beef up its TV content and ratings. Fragmented media organisations, meanwhile, open the door for taking contradictory or partisan positions that, however, marginalises or trivialises public discourse.

In his book “The Media Monopoly,” Ben Bagdikian asserts that the new communications cartel has the power to surround almost everybody with controlled images and words. Such power exerts influence that in many ways is greater than that of schools, religion, parents, and government itself. No commercial power or media giant should dominate the news like a “private ministry of information,” just as no state power should.

Some also observed increasing evidence of direct and conscious manipulation of the news process by higher corporate powers and by advertisers. Worse is a system where ratings and declining incomes helps produce the kind of information that are rubbish and fake, but pander to what the readers or audience want.

The conglomeration/consolidation must also be scrutinised and watched. Customers are entitled to know what corporate entity is responsible for bringing them news because big companies not normally associated with journalism control media networks. For example, the online media company Rappler is accused of foreign ownership, an issue being litigated in court.

To aid in the discourse, let me suggest two fundamental elements. There should be a distinction between form (consolidation) and substance (media content), or between structure (consolidation) and character (media values).

Bigness carries with it more power as a gatekeeper of the public good. Bigness is not fundamentally flawed, so long as media values and ethics are not sacrificed for unbridled economic gains, and where pristine truth is effectively conveyed to the public.

More importantly, journalistic values must remain constant even under the most alluring or trying circumstances of form and substance because they represent the spirit that gives life to journalistic purpose. Whether in a world big or small, converged or diverged, in amalgamated or diffused structures, these values must remain permanent and transcend all barriers.

  • The writer is a columnist for the paper. The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 news media entities.