July 26, 2011

"How Campaign Finance Laws Made the British Press So Powerful"

A lesson in unintended consequences from across the pond.
"As a result, whoever controls the newspapers has a much greater capacity to steer the course of an election debate. Given the relatively small number of titles with a national audience and levels of concentration, this influence lies in the hands of a small number of companies. News Corporation alone has over a third of the market share for national newspapers. This explains why so many politicians went out of their way to win the favour of Rupert Murdoch and his lieutenants. While elections are not won or lost as a result of a newspaper endorsement, most politicians do not want to take the risk of receiving unfavourable coverage.

To some, this situation may reveal the problem of campaign finance laws: By trying to prevent parties from spending large sums of money and stopping wealthy independent organizations from dominating the campaign, the relative voice of the newspapers is enhanced. But rather than admit that campaign finance laws are futile, one might also conclude that controls on campaign spending should be complemented by attempts to address media power.

The most obvious strategy in this regard is to limit the concentration of the media. Given the unrivalled capacity to engage in unrestrained electoral advocacy that comes with owning a newspaper, it is important that no single person or company be able to dominate the market. Others, by contrast, have called for the regulation of media content. Most of the content regulations being discussed at present are aimed at stopping invasions of privacy and preventing the acquisition of information through hacking and blagging. There have, however, been some calls that newspapers be required to cover political matters with due impartiality, as is required on UK television and radio. But even at the height of anti-Murdoch feeling, such a far-reaching measure seems very unlikely to be pursued.

Such measures would be unthinkable under the First Amendment—but much of the UK campaign finance laws would not survive that standard either."