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