By Matthew Adeiza
The greatest threat to British newspaper is not necessarily government control but the challenge of maintaining financial profitability. If newspapers are not financially sustainable their freedom will be seriously curtailed. Lord Guy Black took this position while giving a lecture on the invitation of Oxford Media Society at Queen’s College, November 17, 2011.
Lord Black, Executive Director of Telegraph Media Group, traced the origin of government efforts to control the press to the Licensing of the Press Act 1662 which sought to control the publication of seditious and libellous materials. The Act expired by the 1695 and was not renewed by the Commons.
He noted that a renewed effort to curtail media excesses towards the end of the last century due to the perceived role of the paparazzi in Princess Diana’s death has not been significantly successful because of changing media technologies that make statutes obsolete before they can be reviewed.
Drawing from his extensive experiences in media and politics, Lord Black submits that emphasis on self-regulation by media organizations and journalists rather than strict government regulation is the best solution to public concern about media excesses.
He reasons that if the media are constrained through laws not to freely perform their duties democracy will suffer with its attendant consequences. This is particularly important in the digital age where there is a crisis of trust of online information. The traditional media continue to provide a source of authoritative information people can rely on.
The Telegraph boss concludes that despite general concern, which he shares, about government initiatives, especially after the phone hacking scandal, media organizations must solve their financial problems by taking advantage of digital opportunities to expand their reach and flow of income. He acknowledges that it is a herculean task as some smaller newspapers have already closed down but insists that papers need to survive to ensure the plurality of voices that characterises democracy.
Lord Black also answered questions from the audience on a wide range of issues especially the values that have stood the Daily Telegraph out in a challenging media environment. In response, he explained that his paper’s success is due largely to “authoritative, vigorous and comprehensive journalism”.
The lecture was the last in the series organised by the Oxford Media Society for Michaelmas Term. It was also the last for Timothy Williams as the president of the society, after a successful tenure from March - December 2011.
On the whole, it was a wonderful way to end what proved an exciting term that brought us in intellectual contact with some of the best journalists and media executives in the UK. A peep into next term planned activities shows a more loaded time ahead.