For years, politicians assumed that Rupert Murdoch’s media empire was simply too powerful to take on. As his empire grew, so did the risk of opposing it. Politicians uncomfortable with this concentration of media ownership feared it being unleashed against them. On the left, where a right-leaning press have long been seen as creating a lop-sided public debate, defiance gave way to deference. Even the BBC – which has suffered many a mauling from the Murdoch press – turned a blind eye to the many criticisms of Murdoch’s operation.
So when, after a week of scrutiny, the three main parties in the House of Commons backed a Labour motion asking Murdoch to withdraw his plans for a full takeover of BSkyB, it represented a significant mood swing. Murdoch’s withdrawal has since been hailed by those campaigning for media plurality as a landmark victory. But, as Des Freedman and Natalie Fenton have both argued, there is a great deal more still at stake.
The two big issues raised by the Murdoch furore are the plurality of our media and the quality of our journalism. Both these issues must be seen in their social, economic and cultural context. To understand plurality, we would do well to learn the lessons from history.
In the first half of the 19th century, the British government’s attitude to a free press was to regard it as a threat. Titles like the Black Dwarf, the Poor Man’s Guardian and the Penny Politician campaigned against the establishment and for greater democracy. The Government’s reaction, initially, was to use sedition and tax laws to put these radical newspapers out of business. But newspapers like the Poor Man’s Guardian simply ignored stamp duties – printing the slogan ‘Knowledge is Power’ in place of the official stamp. When editors were jailed others popped up to take their place. The radical press of the day were too popular and too resilient to be easily quashed.
Faced with this failure – and increasingly attuned to the voice of the business interests - government changed tack. As Lord Castlereagh told the British Parliament, the establishment needed to ensure ‘persons exercising the power of the press’ should be “men of respectability and prosperity”. Rather than suppress the press, they should allow it to develop as a profitable enterprise.
As technology advanced, the increasing capital costs and the flow of advertising revenue inevitably favoured – as Lord Castlereagh hoped – ‘men of respectability and prosperity’. By the early years of the 20th century newspapers became sizable businesses owned by a small group of wealthy press barons. In their seminal history of the British media – Power Without Responsibility - James Curran and Jean Seaton make the point that, from the establishment’s point of view, market forces succeeded where legal repression had failed, creating a press largely sympathetic to powerful interests.
Media plurality, in other words, is not guaranteed merely by putting limits on how much one company can own. The threshold of ‘fit and proper’ is not enough. If Murdoch sold the Times or the Sun, who would buy them? The costs of doing so are prohibitive to most people, leaving the press – especially in an era of decreasing profitability - as the playthings of the wealthy.
If we genuinely believe in media plurality, in other words, we must do more than tighten the rules on monopoly. We need to create regulatory and tax incentives to encourage different, less self-interested forms of media ownership. These might be small scale or non-profit enterprises capable of expressing a diversity of viewpoints. It might involve public investment – raised from a tax on the media and telecommunications industries but divested without interference from government. It might involve universities promoting public interest reporting, as the Columbia School of Journalism is now doing.
Which brings us to the second issue – the regulation of journalists and their publishers. There is widespread agreement on two things. First, self-regulation has not worked (indeed, only the naïve or the disingenuous ever supposed that it would). Second, direct government involvement is unhealthy. There is, however, a wide range of possibilities between these positions. We already have a number of independent quasi-legal bodies that are generally seen as impartial.
The BBC Trust, for all its flaws, represents no vested interests and has the clout to challenge the BBC. The improvement in the BBC’s coverage of post-devolution politics, for example, came as a direct result of a well-informed intervention by the Trust. This is, of course, a trickier business when media is in private ownership, but the regulation of private companies in key areas of society – from education to water – is not only desirable but a necessary part of public life.
What press regulation needs to embrace, above all, is a spirit of equity. Led only by evidence, it should also disregard the loudness of complaints – and the legal or PR resources of the complainers – and be proactive on behalf of the less powerful. Academic institutions could also be of service here in gathering and evaluating evidence. Redress, when issued, needs to be equal to the damage done.
So, for example, when the Sun carried a spurious story splashed across the front page – under the banner headline ‘Swan Bake’ - accusing asylum seekers of eating the queen’s swans, they were maligning a fairly powerless social group who found themselves on the receiving end of years of remorselessly negative coverage.
When the story turned out to be entirely speculative, the Sun was obliged to print a half-hearted retraction on page 41 of the paper. This did little to press to prevent the story entering popular mythology. It reflected the power of those involved rather than principles of truth or justice. Compare this to the consequences faced by the BBC when one of their reporters suggested the government had ‘sexed up’ the case for the Iraq War.
Equity, in this instance, would have obliged the Sun to have granted a front page right of reply to a group representing asylum seekers. Such a proportionate right of reply would undoubtedly extend media plurality, as well as discouraging newspapers from indulging in shoddy journalism,
While everyone claims to be for plurality, good journalism and equal treatment, without serious regulatory reform and inventive incentives for promoting diversity, this is so much hot air. There is an opportunity here to improve the quality and range of stories in our culture and ideas in public life. We should seize it.