Media Monopolies, Everywhere

I ran across a month-old op-ed by Mijael Garrido-Lecca of Altavoz (Peru) today, discussing the purchase of newspaper publishing company Epensa by El Comercio, the country’s dominant broadsheet: the latter now controls 80% of Peru’s print media market.

It caught my attention because this is the same situation we have in Australia, where Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd controls some 75% of our print media market.

Garrido-Lecca writes (translations are my own, quick-and-dirty):

Defender una posición monopólica en un mercado como el periodístico es un camino que no puedo tomar. Por más que creo en la libertad como en pocos ideales, en la prensa el pluralismo nutre el debate … Mientras más diarios con más posturas políticas existan, mejor.

As a journalist, I cannot defend a monopolistic market. No matter how much I believe in freedom as in few other ideals, in the press pluralism feeds the debate … The more newspapers with more political postures that exist, the better.

Nevertheless, he declines to support any kind of government intervention:

Hoy el contexto democrático es, en buena cuenta, favorable y nuestra libertad (política y de prensa) va, mal que bien, avanzando; sin embargo, ¿qué nos asegura que esto seguirá siendo así? ¿Le vamos a entregar al Estado la llave de la libertad de expresión? El Estado ha sido, probablemente, el más feroz enemigo de la libertad de prensa en la historia de nuestro país. ¿Le vamos a dar al poder político la capacidad de silenciar al único contrapeso que tiene?

Today the democratic context is, essentially, favourable and our freedom (political and of the press) is, for better or worse, advancing; nevertheless, what guarantees us that it will continue to be like this? Are we going to hand over to the State the key to freedom of expression? The State has been, probably, the most ferocious enemy of press freedom in the history of our country. Are we going to give the political power the capacity to silence the only counterweight it has?

This is a familiar argument and one that is both obviously valid and occasionally misused. Garrido-Lecca’s argument is moderate and reasoned and he’s very ideologically consistent throughout, which I admire, but I do always object to the idea that supporters of some form of media market regulation are enemies of freedom. He makes the point, as always, that people are free to buy any paper they want, and that’s true. Certainly as Internet access expands throughout the country there are many more sources of information, and this is all to the good.

Furthermore, he contends, there are no barriers to entry in the print media market, so the formation of a monopoly is simply the outcome of a free competition that has been won by one of the participants. I’m not sure this is necessarily the case: I’m not sure what El Comercio‘s financial situation is, but the publication of “serious” news broadsheets these days isn’t exactly a profitable pursuit for the small-time entrepreneur. Family dynasties and Amazon millionaires with money to burn dominate the market internationally; this isn’t a competitive market like the one for, say, wheat.

Garrido-Lecc concludes that the only option left for independent journalists is to work harder, sleep less, and do their best to compete with El Comercio, reader by reader. I want to agree with him; I fret about potential curbs on free speech. But I’m not sure online sources yet possess the opinion-forming clout of print, and I’m not sure some form of meaningful regulation – internal, external or a hybrid – isn’t necessary to prevent abuse of monopoly power.

At any rate I think this is a debate every country needs to have, and to continue having on an ongoing basis. The solution in Peru probably won’t look like the one in Australia (I read El Comercio regularly when I lived in Peru and I’d reckon their editorial standards to be somewhat higher than News Ltd’s, so there’s that). But it may be an interesting case to investigate.

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