It’s now over three years since the phone hacking scandal erupted, a newspaper has been shut down, people have gone to jail and a new regulator has been set up. However throughout this the problem at the heart of the matter has been ignored: five families control 80% of the national newspapers we read, this is not a free press and it undermines our democracy. For what is the value in our vote if a few people control the information we receive? If we only receive half the story or some stories are not reported at all?
If a few individuals hold too much power then they and the organisations they control can begin to act with impunity. This in time leads to unethical and unaccountable behaviour; phone hacking being one of the results. For democracy and capitalism to function we need to challenge concentrations of power wherever they exist. If we don’t then one day we may look back and wonder where our democracy went.
Our press has been controlled by a few individuals right from when printing press prices fell in the nineteenth century opening up a market to combine advertising with news. At the same time our political system was similarly controlled by elites, in 1832 only 8% of adults could vote. Since then our political system has opened up so that all adults gained equal rights to vote in 1928 and subsequently the backgrounds of politicians have become increasingly diverse to more closely reflect the electorate. However through this period the press has remained dominated by a few individuals. The concentration of power in our press looks increasingly at odds with our democracy.
But despite the mandate provided by recent scandals, our politicians remain too scared to act. But with crowdfunding and the rise of collective action on the internet - we can. The campaign Let’s Own the News (www.letsownthenews.org) is a crowdfunded bid to acquire The Times and The Sunday Times from Rupert Murdoch. This would reduce media concentration without the need for regulations or politicians involvement. It would not solve the problem completely, but it would be an important first step, showing there is an alternative to a press dominated by press barons.
We target raising £100m, which would be £120 per reader or £2 per UK adult. We outline on the website why it is an attractive investment and why Rupert Murdoch would consider selling. If successful the editor would be answerable to a board of directors elected by those who choose to invest through the crowdfunding process. Ownership would be capped at 1% per person so that no one individual could exert control.
Some people argue that the internet is already providing this diversity of opinion and news, breaking the monopoly on news that the press barons previously held. The internet and rise of citizen journalism does help in this regard, but it is not enough. Large news organisations, mainly TV channels and newspapers continue to dominate news online. Only these organisations have the scale to invest in a strong online platform, employ hundreds of professional journalists and effectively monetise content.
As newspapers transition online they will need to change how they create and distribute content, more than likely moving to a more decentralised model of content creation and editorial. But they will remain an important part of our press and therefore the current concentration of ownership is an issue that needs to be addressed.
In addition a newspaper with fragmented ownership is also more likely to make this transition to decentralised content creation as there would be no owner wanting the newspaper to express a certain view. Therefore a crowd acquisition could help a newspaper transition successfully online, in addition to providing the opportunity to make a brand around independence.
So overall, we don’t have a free press and our politicians are too scared to do anything about it. But now with crowdfunding we can act collectively, we can each make an investment and at the same time help defend our democracy. We are currently only asking for non-binding pledges, we’ll then ask for binding pledges if we receive sufficient support and News Corp agree to negotiate. In under two weeks we have received pledges from nearly 1000 people totalling over £300k. Please visit www.letsownthenews.org to pledge your support for a press free of press barons.
This article is part of the Modernise: de-privatise series.