Britain Faces U.S. Media Invasion

There is a new threat confronting Britain but there have been no dossiers, dodgy or not, issued to warn us. It is not an armed threat. It is not about terrorists. It has nothing to do with the imminent launch of missiles by an "evil doer" in the Middle East.

To see this threat, we have to look in the other direction right across the Atlantic. No, not at Washington, but rather at the heart of New York's Times Square.

There, despite the bright lights, is an avaricious darkness we may soon come to experience. It calls itself Viacom, one of America's most powerful media mega-corporations, the people behind Paramount Pictures, MTV and CBS, among many other blue-chip properties. It is one of the most powerful enterprises of its kind, even wealthier than Rupert Murdoch News Corp.

During his recent tour of Britain, Mel Karmazin, the former radio ad salesman who runs Viacom, told the Royal Television Society that he and another U.S. media tycoon are interested in buying up ITN and ITV's controlling companies, Granada and Carlton. This opens the door to more U.S. corporate penetration of British broadcasting by a company that specializes in dumbing down TV programming. Karmazin is considered a businessman, not a Murdoch-like megalith, but his recent forays into the public limelight are hardly apolitical.

His news network, CBS, was rated the most pro-war network by a Washington-based conservative media watchdog group. They praised it for being even more conservative than Murdoch's Fox. His movie channel, Showtime, commissioned and aired a primetime pro-Bush docudrama called "DC 9-11" that fawns over the American president, portraying him as the hero of September 11. Critics have lambasted it as "over the top propaganda" and a "feature-length Bush re-election ad."

Karmazin is not exactly known to run a socially responsible business either. Last month, he was one of only two board votes to stop the ousting of the Chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, Richard Grasso. Grasso sparked an uproar when it was revealed that he had wrangled the very companies he was appointed to regulate to give him a pay package valued at nearly $140 million dollars. Mel's man Grasso was given a $5 million dollars bonus for rushing the exchange back on line after 9/11. Recall that it immediately went into a dive after he rang the morning bell.

Women in our country will want to know that Karmazin is considered the patron of radio "shock jock" Howard Stern, known for his conservative views and crude sexist behavior. Stern is an American icon of macho insensitivity. Karmazin has also led the U.S. media industry in forcing through new broadcast regulations that give big companies the right to get bigger. He personally lobbied the U.S. regulators at the Federal Communications Commission to assure more power to companies that are already too powerful.

After Mel succeeded in this backdoor maneuver -- winning FCC approval for his plea for deregulation -- the American people had a chance to speak. By the FCC's own count, it has received some two million calls, faxes, e-mails, and letters opposing the changes. Facing public pressure, the House of Representatives voted by a staggering 400 to 21 margin to reject the ruling. The Senate just voted in favor of a resolution to condemn it. The Bush administration has threatened its first veto on this issue. The popular outcry shows how Americans are disgusted with the media moguls who define their TV and radio choices. The Washington Post's media columnist called the response to big media "a rebellion."

It is moguls like Karmazin and companies like Viacom who want nothing more than to bite into the BBC's market share and drive the quality of our already at-risk quality TV offerings down to "all trivia all the time" American standards. Behind the government's war of words with the BBC are serious threats to its license, fees and independence. A new Blair-brokered regulatory commission is committed to the New Labour vision of more and more privatization in the media.

Murdoch and editors like Charles Moore of the Daily Telegraph are piling on. As U.S. media watcher Joe Conason put it last week, "This campaign aims to intimidate the BBC's management from broadcasting anything that might offend reactionary sensibilities; but its ultimate goal is the crippling, or even the abolition, of the BBC itself. And while British broadcasting is structurally (and qualitatively) very different from its U.S. counterpart, the conservative agenda in both countries is identical: to stigmatize dissent and to dominate discourse."

While Conason speaks of a conservative agenda, I see a corporate one. As someone who knows something about running a corporation, I know that each corporation weighs its commitment to socially-responsible business values against the bottom line. What many fail to factor in is the real bottom-line benefits of better (that is, more socially-responsible) business practices. There is no reason to think that the "Viacomese," as they are known to insiders, have any beneficent intentions in mind.

Accountability is as needed within corporate media as it is within the New York Stock Exchange's governing board. Beware of foxes guarding the chickens.

Dame Anita Roddick, the founder of the Body Shop, is a leading proponent of socially responsible business practices. This fall she joined the board of Mediachannel.org. You can also read her writings at AnitaRoddick.com.

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