It is the details that make the Leveson inquiry so fascinating – among them the publication of emails revealing that the Conservatives and News Corporation used the code name ‘Project Rubicon’ to refer to the BSkyB bid. The point of no return was never reached, thanks to the efforts of those who exposed the phone hacking scandal, but market influence over media content continues regardless.
While the Murdochs have been declared unfit to own a media empire, what the scandal really shows is how unfit our media system is for a functioning democracy. The press is often cited as a crucial component in the ‘public sphere’: a space where people can freely discuss societal problems and influence political action. This has only ever been an ideal – the mainstream media always operated on an exclusionary basis – but commercialisation has greatly increased this trait.
Market values dictate that if you want people to hear your views you have to promote them. This is precisely the reason why the PR industry exists. Consumer capitalism dominates both economic and cultural space; its logic restricts alternative viewpoints. While our media are held captive by neoliberalism they can never serve democracy.
The Murdochs are finally being held to account, and that is worth celebrating, but we should not indulge ourselves by thinking that our media system has fundamentally changed. As James Curran and Donnacha DeLong argue, if we want a free press, we’re going to have to fight for it. The Leveson inquiry is the start of that struggle, not the end.
There seems to be general agreement that the reign of the Murdochs is over. Peter Oborne, the Telegraph’s consistently insightful commentator, exults that the air of public life is now cleaner. Those close to Ed Miliband crow with seeming justification that the Labour leader changed the political weather by taking on the Murdoch empire. The malignant influence of Rupert Murdoch in coarsening public life, presiding over a network of backdoor political influence and pushing his Tea Party views wherever possible through his media empire, has seemingly been exorcised.
This view may be right if the Murdoch dynasty sells up its UK press group, if Ofcom recommends a reduction of its BSkyB holdings and, above all, if Murdoch runs into legal difficulties in the US. But this is a lot of ‘ifs’. Meanwhile, the Murdochs have a plurality of voting shares in News Corp, and a lot of influence still to dispose – something not lost on the wily Scottish nationalist leader, Alex Salmond, who has continued his courtship with them even as Leveson unfolds.
It is also argued that the rise of the internet and social media have eroded the Murdochs’ power based on press and television. This is a view that Rupert Murdoch has publicly endorsed. It makes his power more acceptable by portraying it as a thing of the past.
This is enormously misleading. Leading newspapers and TV organisations have established very successful news websites, supported by cross-subsidies, large news-gathering resources and prominent brand names. In 2011, these ‘legacy’ media and content aggregators accounted for all 10 of the most visited news websites in the UK, and nine out of 10 in the US. Content aggregators like Google tend to give prominence to mainstream rather than alternative news sources. Appearing on the first page of search results, these mainstream sources are the ones that tend to be consumed.
Even if the Murdoch family is vanquished, the conditions that gave rise to its influence have not fundamentally changed. Ownership of the press is highly concentrated. Politicians, with party machines hobbled by loss of membership, and now arousing distrust rather than stable party loyalties, will continue to need favourable press coverage.
The mere changing of the media guard will not eliminate the underlying structures that give rise to the disproportionate influence exerted by media magnates. If the Murdochs sell up their UK press group, they will find a buyer – because News International not only still makes money as a single entity, it also, as the largest British national press group, offers a platform for political influence. Its sale will merely introduce a new entrant in a long line of press oligarchs, to join Rothermere (Mail), the Barclay brothers (Telegraph), and Richard Desmond (Express).
That is why we need to shrink media moguls’ power through effective anti-monopoly controls. There should be a limit of 15 per cent on control of the total revenue of the core media industry. In the case of designated sub-markets, market share of more than 15 per cent (up to a ceiling of 30 per cent) should incur public service obligations. These should be content-neutral and concerned with process. Their aim should be to promote internal pluralism, and limit the centralisation of power within media organisations (by, for example, introducing a conscience clause in journalists’ contract of employment, and securing staff representation on the board of directors).
Hoping that the Murdoch phenomenon will go away with the personal humbling of Rupert Murdoch is wishful thinking. We need to tackle the conditions that give rise to the Murdochs of this world in the first place. And that means the centralisation and concentration of press and media power in Britain – far greater than in Germany or the US – needs to be curbed.
James Curran is chair of the Coordinating Committee for Media Reform
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the end of the Wapping dispute. After 13 months of strike action, the dispute by the print unions ended in defeat in February 1987. Murdoch had won; the unions were gone from News International.
However, 2012 is also the year when the unions returned to Wapping. The first NUJ chapel since the dispute began in 1986 has been formed in the Times. And, more surprisingly, in his evidence to the Leveson inquiry on 26 April, Rupert Murdoch himself said that journalists were free to join the NUJ and if a majority of journalists wanted to do so, he’d accept their democratic decision and recognise the union.
What a distance we’ve come in a year in which Murdoch’s bid for full control of BSkyB collapsed, the phone hacking scandal led to the closure of the News of the World and the establishment of the Leveson inquiry, and the Press Complaints Commission abolished itself. And it’s not over yet. Major politicians including Cameron, Blair, Brown and Jeremy Hunt are still to appear before the inquiry as I write. Who knows what further skeletons will fall out of the closet when they do?
But Murdoch isn’t the only problem in the media. While Ofcom looks at whether the Murdochs are fit and proper persons to own broadcast media in the UK, another proprietor was given a green light to do so only two years ago. Richard Desmond, whose journalists twice complained to the PCC about the paper they write for, in 2001 and 2004, owns the Daily Express and Daily Star. In 2006, the NUJ chapel rose up and prevented publication of a page mocking Islam. Yet Desmond, despite this, was regarded as ‘fit and proper’ to buy Channel 5 in 2010.
Elsewhere major newspaper groups – Johnston Press, Trinity Mirror and Newsquest – have been sucking the lifeblood out of the local newspaper sector and, in Trinity Mirror’s case, the Mirror newspapers. Staffing cuts year on year for nigh on a decade have decimated the ability of these papers to cover the news and have eaten into their circulations. Many are still profitable, but not profitable enough to pay off the insane debts these companies have built up with years of bad investments.
Enough is enough. It’s time for people to come together and rebuild the media on our terms. No more monopolies, no more huge multinational corporations – proper media for the people and owned by the people.
Donnacha DeLong is president of the NUJ and an online journalist
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.