November 20, 2012, by ICCSR

Shadows of Liberty: The Media, Business and Political Power

Jean-Philippe Tremblay’s documentary Shadows of Liberty was the third film in our annual series Doing the Business.

The film was introduced as follows by Professor Jeremy Moon, Director of the International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility at Nottingham University Business school.


Tonight’s film, Shadows of liberty, is about news, business and power.

The title comes from a quote of English radical and hero of the American revolution, Thomas  Paine: “When men yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon.”

By no means not the first film on the theme of the media, business and political power.

Citizen Kane, oft regarded as the greatest film ever, made by and starring Orson Welles, is about just this.

It tells of heroism in journalism and newspapers turning to power craziness.

Shadows of liberty‘s place in our series about ethical issues in film is pretty obvious. 

A free media is assumed to be essential to a functioning liberal democratic polity. 

It informs public as to what his happening & activities of government; opportunity for critical perspectives; public make electoral decisions about government based, in part on that information, knowledge and opinion…. And more generally, government is more accountable

Alternative is gossip, whispers as Lord McAlpine will tell you and the government public information machine … or straight censorship… Google.

So, what relationship do we expect the media to have with the government? 

It needs to be free to investigate government and we need regulations to secure its freedom….

In the UK we have relied on self-regulation, to some power without responsibility, but in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry, the Press Complaints Commission appears to have lost public confidence.

Whilst there is still great anxiety about the government making the regulations about the media, there are reasons why we might expect this in several respects:

  • operation of the judicial system and national security are fairly obvious but there are issues of interpretation here
  • invasions of privacy – theme of recent UK debates (phone tapping and sex lives various) – incidentally this was broadly settled in the USA over 100 years ago in the Warren and Brandeis paper, ‘The Right to Privacy’, in the Harvard Law Journal
  • to limits to ownership (perhaps a rather neglected issue on both sides of the Atlantic as the film reveals)

If media are successful, they attract business ownership.

Indeed, as we shall see below, mass media struggle without a song financial underpinning.

This raises extra spice to the regulatory challenge:

  • Big business – media or otherwise – is always keen to please govt vis a vis future regulatory issues and for access to inside stories.
  • If media are effective communicators with the public, then govt has an interest in pleasing the media owners given the power of the media over the electorate…. So Tony Blair met with Rupert Murdoch, owner of News International, prior to the Iraq invasion; David Cameron, when leader of the opposition, appoints a former Murdoch  newspaper editor, Andy Coulson, as his senior media advisor…  despite being privately warned against.

If there was ever a case of business and politics being inextricably connected this is it.

Journalism may have a constitutionally and ethically honourable pedigree but the power that goes with it has remained problematic, especially as journalism is subsumed into a mega corporate industry.

UK 17thc broadsheets of opinion and critique contributed to the advent of parliamentary government.

In the USA, the press was regarded as the 4th estate of the constitution in the USA i.e. vital to functioning of the liberal democratic polity. 

Incidentally, the terms was coined by Edmund Burke adding news journalism to the clergy, the nobility and the commoners, the three estates of the late medieval / early modern realm. 

The of the late eighteenth century combined the right to free expression and the mission to reveal information about issues of importance – even to define these. 

Many liberation movements supported by media – sometimes underground, famously the Samizdat press in the former USSR. 

In the UK in the 19th and 20th century major newspapers (not media groups) were owned by rich people who, for the most part had a sense of self-restraint – main aim to support general causes – be they liberal, labour or conservative; to maintain the institution of the newspaper .. but hardly to support govt come what may.  They accepted and absorbed financial losses… noblesse oblige? BBC occupies a special position which I won’t go into now.

Ok probably a slightly rose-tinted view of the media, business and political power historically but the contrast with recent decades in palpable. 

But the overall picture has changed quite dramatically in recent years as the film reveals in the US case.

In the UK a key point was the rise of commercial electronic media in the 1960s and then with the media mogul from down-under, Rupert Murdoch, who appeared pre-occupied with media as a business, ownership spread and political influence. 

A man not known for humility described his appearance before the Leveson Inquiry as ‘the most humble day of my life’ … but what does that mean? can a day be humble? do I detect humbug?

One feature of the last thirty years is that the practice of journalism has become bundled up in the business of media, which is as much about entertainment, ratings and advertising.

For example, Mr Murdoch’s Sun newspaper brought the topless page 3 girls to the UK breakfast table.

As the film reveals, newspapers are increasingly merging with the entertainment industry.

Once it is about media business, then, maintaining a newspaper as an institution and part of the constitution gets subordinated to the business of business. 

In this context very small, very independent ownership models often struggle:

  • My father’s first paper, Reynolds News, was owned by the Cooperative Movement – long gone;
  •  In the 1960s my mother worked for ‘The Villager’ … but there was not enough advertising … ah the business  model – today’s local papers are all too formulaic;
  • The Independent was formed by journalists in 1986 amid anxiety about the implications of business ownership of the UK media … now owned by Alexander Lebedev … say no more.
  • The film tells of corporatisation / sanitisation of local media in the USA.

Turning back to the film, it is of course a very US story, in various respects:

  • Explicit constitutional expectations of the media
  • The role of business in electoral politics
  • Media deregulation enabling monopolies
  • The extent to which entertainment and news are becoming conflated
  • The inappropriate entailment of the government and the media with one another … leading to conspiracies of silence as much as conspiracies of bias

These insights are both interesting for all that as well as suggestive of agendas on this side of the pond.

Is there salvation?

In US, courts remain active players in media politics and politics – their role may be increasing here too, not least under EU convention on human rights and potentially post Leveson.

Internet is currently a great enabler of information e.g. Wikileaks – if sometimes scurrilous and irresponsible – though new financial models may be imposed here   

If all else gets you down, at least this film was made and distributed… as a result, to refer back to Tom Paine, the last shadow of liberty has not yet quit the horizon


We looking forward to hearing your comments. 

This blog was updated on 26 November to include the transcript of Jeremy’s introduction.

Posted in EVENTS at the ICCSR