Can Murdoch be stopped? Britain examines its stable door

As with Italy, it is not just the failure to maintain public standards that damages the nation. A foreign media tycoon wields staggering power and control over British politics and yet, so shabby has public life become, that even the pretence of integrity seems too much effort for the political class to muster.

Oliver Huitson
18 November 2010

The UK media regulator OFCOM has been asked to rule on whether Rupert Murdoch's company can acquire all of BSkyB. It will accept public submissions through to Friday 18 November and Avaaz have called for those who oppose it to send in their views.

“In the 1930s, we were afraid that the fascists would take over the government and then control the press; in the 21st century, there may be a danger that the fascists will take control of the press and then control the government.” (Lord McNally, 2010)

Vince Cable has now announced his decision to refer News International’s purchase of BSkyB to OFCOM, an acquisition widely perceived to damage the plurality of British media. This is a welcome decision, one of the few patches of light for a party so drained of dignity. But in describing this as the ‘Berlusconi moment’, there is a danger that the existing stranglehold of the Murdoch empire will escape the scrutiny it deserves. In truth, the ‘moment’ has long since passed. This was damage limitation. A wider debate is needed on how to restore some semblance of an open and effective media.

Even without the proposed acquisition, Rupert Murdoch’s grip on British media is substantial: The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun and The News of the World make up his portfolio of papers, in addition to a 17.5% holding in ITV and 39.1% of BSkyB. This is the meagre level of plurality currently being defended; a market so distorted that the blessing of one man is now deemed essential to holding political office in Britain.

The ‘light touch’ regulation of media has been almost as costly as it has proved with finance. Though the former may be harder to quantify, its corrosive effects are all too apparent. Not only does Murdoch wield great power through the fear he strikes into Parliament, but in the debasement of popular sentiment he has few peers. His introduction of Page 3 in 1970 set the tone for his approach to ‘news’ – it is simply what sells, however grubby or inflammatory.

But the media is not finance; the damage caused by its structural failings is of a very different nature. The media is a crucial component of the democratic state and a serious power bloc in its own right. In its decisions over what to report, and equally what not to report, it both dictates what is news and manufactures the boundaries and centre ground of the ideological spectrum. The absurd ‘Red Ed’ treatment meted out to Miliband in the Labour leadership race was a prime example of the media’s power to distort the political landscape, constantly pushing the ‘centre’ rightwards.

To see Murdoch’s power at work, the events of the past few years paint a vivid picture. In September 2009, timed to coincide with the Labour party conference for maximum damage, Murdoch effectively announced his switch of allegiance to the Conservatives via The Sun. What was the price of this support?

In April 2008, James Murdoch delivered a major speech in which he attacked OFCOM, one of the few remaining obstructions to his expansion in Britain. In July the following year, David Cameron announced that under a Conservative government OFCOM would “cease to exist”. A month later, Murdoch Jnr was outlining further demands in his MacTaggart lecture. This time, it was his main competitor who needed cutting down to size: the BBC. Not only was the scope of the BBC “chilling”, but he also criticised the “abysmal record” of the BBC Trust. The Conservatives dutifully responded just two months later when Jeremy Hunt announced that under a Tory government the BBC Trust would be abolished. As for the scope of the BBC, the Conservative-led Coalition has just announced a 16% cut to BBC budgets. The obedient Cameron couldn’t hide his delight, describing the cuts as “delicious”.

After such brazen displays, Cameron is understandably keen to keep private the details of his meetings with the Murdochs. That he has been ‘stalling’ over publishing the dates of these visits is unsurprising, they show Rupert Murdoch was the first senior figure to visit him as Prime Minister; they shared a ‘general meeting’ within twenty four hours of Cameron taking office.

The impartiality requirement on British news broadcasters is another area Murdoch is pushing to have repealed. Anyone familiar with the activities of Fox News in the US should well understand the dangers such a move would represent. Murdoch further cemented his allegiance in American politics with a million dollar donation to the Republican party. But our current impartiality laws still appear to have some room for manoeuvre, allowing us at least a glimpse of what a biased media may look like.

In the 2010 election, the surprise story of the campaign was the surge in popularity achieved by Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats following the first televised debate. A Lib-Lab coalition, or even a Liberal victory at times, began to look plausible. For the right-wing press this was unacceptable; after meeting with Cameron’s team , the “forces of hell” were unleashed. That was the press. Broadcasters, we are told, must remain impartial.

Moving onto the third election debate, hosted by Sky (naturally), once again it was Clegg singled out for treatment from the host, Adam Boulton. Breaking explicit rules on impartiality for the debate, Boulton at one point heckled Clegg over recent newspaper reports. In a separate incident, Boulton almost came to blows with Alistair Campbell in an interview for Sky News after being accused by Campbell of bias. The preceding discussion and Boulton’s extreme reaction to the charge make for interesting viewing.

As the haggling over the formation of a coalition continued, it was Sky’s Kay Burley who gave the next example of ‘impartial’ coverage. Interviewing David Babbs, an organiser behind the protest for electoral reform, Burley carried out one of the most aggressive and extreme interviews of recent times. At one point, Burley asked, “why don’t you just go home?”. If Murdoch’s views can be gauged by his newspapers, he is, unsurprisingly, a strong supporter of the current first-past-the-post electoral system. This, then, is Murdoch’s media operating under a requirement of “impartiality”.

More alarming still are the recent events concerning the News of the World and the phone hacking allegations. It has now been suggested that the original police report in 2006 “pulled its punches” in the interests of maintaining its relationship with Murdoch’s media empire.

[The police]  sought to limit the allegations to tapping the phones of some members of the royal family, and failed to follow leads implicating Andy Coulson, then the NoW editor, currently David Cameron's director of communications… The alarming picture that is emerging suggests a burgeoning media-political-policing complex.” (Guardian, Sep 2010)

Coulson has recently been interviewed by police over the allegations. It is hard to overstate the dangers such a relationship would pose to any state with democratic pretensions. The relationship between media and government is already worryingly close, as the former Sun editor, David Yelland, argues:

“Over the years the relationships between the media elite and the two main political parties have become closer and closer to the point where, now, one is indistinguishable from the other.” (Guardian, 2010,)

What would the police stand to gain from a close relationship with Murdoch’s media? Considering some of the antics of the police in recent years, a friendly media voice would be highly prized. As pure speculation goes, a guest post at Liberal Conspiracy puts forward a compelling case. In a number of botched operations, it has been News International finding angles that could be said to spare police blushes, even if they turn out to be completely baseless - which they often do.

The broader picture is that of an American citizen with substantial influence on British policy, who has the leverage to mould our domestic media market to his commercial advantage: and now allegations have emerged that even the police are not immune to his power. Lance Price, a press adviser in Downing St under New Labour, described Murdoch as,

“the twenty-fourth member of the Cabinet… No big decision could ever be made inside No 10 without taking account of the likely reaction of three men - Gordon Brown, John Prescott and Rupert Murdoch.” (Guardian, 2006,)

As with Italy, it is not just the failure to maintain public standards that damages the nation. More damaging still is the impression that we don’t even have standards; a foreign media tycoon wields staggering power and control over British politics and yet, bar the occasional scandal, this barely raises an eyebrow. So shabby has public life become that even the pretence of integrity seems too much effort for the political class to muster.

Nor is the situation beyond the power of Parliament to resolve. Britain has some of the most liberal laws on media ownership in the world; most developed nations simply don’t tolerate such naked concentrations of power. In his recent Margaret Thatcher lecture , Murdoch claimed, “it would certainly serve the interests of the powerful if professional journalists were muted”. In reality, media is ‘the powerful’, and nowhere is it more clearly personified than in Murdoch himself. The lecture’s call for a small state, low tax, business friendly environment highlights precisely the real interests served by too much of the modern media.

A requirement on media ownership to be restricted to British citizens would be a welcome first step to reversing this decay. It was similar laws in the US which caused the Australian-born Murdoch to take American citizenship. Secondly, much tighter restrictions must be placed on the upper limits of market share afforded to any one owner. More so than any other industry, media plurality is fundamental to the democratic state; political liberty, in the positive sense, is incompatible with this level of unchecked media power. It is debatable how much genuine change the complete takeover of BSkyB would represent, but as Anthony Barnett recently argued - there is an important symbolic element to the refusal: if the tide is to be turned, the expansion must first be halted somewhere. Cable’s referral is to be cheered, but the more important debate must focus on how to repair the damage already done. 

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