Media ownership, politics and why less might change than it ought

I was doing the funeral of a lovely man, Ron Nicholls yesterday. Ron, who’s son David is part of Springfield, used to work for the Times in the ’80’s when Murdoch took it over. He was one of the thousands sacked by Murdoch and he and David were on the picket lines most weeks for a year before it all came to an end.

All of the current focus is on News International and understandably so from some points of view given what they have done. But one of the little remarked things about the entire News International farrago is the ownership of much of the British media. When you look at who owns what it is hardly surprising that we have the problems that we do in this country.

Many of our newspapers are owned and therefore influenced by people that you wouldn’t necessarily want as next door neighbours. So lets go through who owns which of our mainstream titles:

Sun, Sunday Times, Times – News International.Rupert Murdoch, you will all have your views of him and his proprietorship.

Daily Express, Sunday Express, Daily Star and Daily Star Sunday. These are all owned by Richard Desmond. He made his money with pornographic mags and TV. The Express newspapers have not paid their dues to the Press Complaints Commission which is supposed to regulate the press and has been excluded from it. Desmond has been described as a “rogue publisher”.

The Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph are owned by the Barclay brothers. These are a secretive pair who live on the small island of breqhou off of Sark in the Channel Islands. Not only does this enable them to avoid tax but they have attempted to bully and manipulate the people of Sark.

The Independent has on its front page the line “free from party political bias, free from proprietorial influence”. However, it and the Evening Standard are owned by Alexander Lebedev an ex-KGB agent and Russian billionaire. According to a Guardian article he remains close to the KGB.

The Daily Mail and the Sunday Mail are owned by Viscount Rothermere. He is a non-domicile meaning that his main home is outside of the UK (in this case France) for tax purposes.

In terms of ownership the least problematic are The Mirror papers (owned by a listed company Trinity Mirror) and the Guardian and Observer (owned by a charitable trust The Scott Trust). Interestingly both left of centre publications.

There is much interest in replacing the PCC with external regulation. I suspect that this may well come into being but I am not certain. The reason for this is that although Ed Milliband is laying into News International there are reasons why politicians (and especially senior ones) will be careful. When the next election comes about papers will still be there. They will still influence hundreds of thousands of readers and therefore will be key for politicians getting their message over to the electorate (you and I).

There was a fascinating interview by Jack Straw on the Today programme this morning saying much the same thing. He said,

any political leader, especially Labour leader, had to make their peace with the right-wing press in the UK, otherwise, they “ensured that we have got stuffed in elections”.

“It is through the press that the electorate perceive politicians,” says Jack Straw. “If you are a political leader, you have to take account of that.”

Already the Guardian is coming out, albeit cautiously, against external regulation and this will only increase in the coming months by most of the newspapers. The blame will be put on rogue elements (as News International appear to be saying at the moment).

But it isn’t just News International. In the Spectator Coffee House blog this week was an article showing the linking of reporting invasion of privacy and the paper’s own invasions of privacy. The accompanying graphic (shown below) shows how many staff were caught paying for private information.

Newspapers invading privacy vs reporting invasions

What is surprising is that both the Mirror (the worst offender) and the Guardian had staff caught in such a way even though they could be argued to have the better ownership structures.

So where do we go from here?

Well a number of things really. Firstly, we are culpable as users of the media. None of us are innocent. We get the media we deserve. Why do the papers print such rubbish? Well one of the reasons is that we lap up the gossip and the intrique.

News of the World sold over 2 million copies each week. Millions read it for the gossip and tittle-tattle. We love to know what is going on. We love to know the behind-the-scenes whether in celebrity culture or in the political sphere.

What is different this time is that they picked on an abducted girl and deleted phone messages on her mobile phone and they hacked into the phones of relatives of the war dead.

We must have an external independent ombudsman for the media whatever the media throw at the politicians (and be prepared for some very nasty stories about politicians with innuendo and smears in the early autumn).

We need to look at the ownership rules of the media for our country. They are not like other goods and services. They can strike at the root of our democracy. If someone like Rupert Murdoch can summon senior politicians at short notice to the other side of the world because of his power then that is bad for democracy.

The media should only be allowed to be owned by UK citizens resident in this country. Political parties are no longer allowed to receive gifts from overseas residents and the same should apply to the media ownership.

We also have a choice. We can choose to be careful what we read. It is now easier than ever to choose the decent journalists to read online and not just take a paper that feeds us its line. I tend now to read individual journalists on a number of papers (and avoid others!).

So, how would you solve this democratic crisis?

Update 17.45 Saturday

I mentioned the Guardian coming out against external regulation. I missed two others. The Daily Mail and the Telegraph have come out against outside regulation. The Daily Mail compares Cameron to Mugabe of Zimbabwe:

top of the class for hypocrisy is Mr Cameron who, in a desperate and cynical bid to deflect attention from his own terrible lack of judgment in becoming so close to the Murdoch empire, delivered a body blow to Britain’s free Press by announcing that some kind of statutory control would now be necessary.

Truly, it is a dark day for the Conservative Party when its leader, in a bid to save his own skin, advocates the muzzling of the free Press. Mr Mugabe would be proud of him.

This is where we start to see the self-serving elements of the press coming to the fore. They have shown themselves incapable of policing themselves.

Josie Filmer of the Telegraph complains

He even, disingenuously, compared the scandal to that of MPs’ expenses.

Of course, she is wrong about that. It is FAR worse than the expenses scandal.

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10 comments on “Media ownership, politics and why less might change than it ought

  1. Steve
    July 9, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

    Nice article. The alternative, of course, is to choose small private publishers like you.

  2. Jean
    July 9, 2011 at 5:19 pm #

    Very fair points about press ownership but less of the ‘We’ please. I haven’t bought a newspaper in years and although I occasionally look at the papers at work, they are for specific articles when the news is ‘big’, and I look at the broadsheets not tabloids. I don’t read Hello or OK or similar and when it comes to quizzes, I never know who is cheating on who – and don’t care. When the footballer had a super injunction and everyone knew who it was because of Twitter – I still didn’t know until a friend mentioned him by name of facebook.
    Just saying…..

  3. Will Cookson
    July 9, 2011 at 9:50 pm #

    Steve,

    Thanks for the compliment. The problem is that for national news we all have to gather the news from somewhere!

    Jean,

    Sorry don’t buy that. I think that we are all culpable. We are interconnected and don’t always challenge one another. Did you challenge your friend on Facebook?

  4. Rosie Edser
    July 9, 2011 at 10:42 pm #

    “Mr Mugabe would be proud of him.” ??????????????????????
    ????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. Rosie Edser
    July 10, 2011 at 7:57 am #

    I just heard on the Sundy Programme that the Church of England is considering selling its stake/shares in News Iternational. The church of England *has* shares in News Int? In The News of the World and the Daily Mail?

  6. Will Cookson
    July 10, 2011 at 8:04 am #

    I agree Rosie about the Mugabe comment – shows you how the papers will play the self-regulation card in the coming months.

    In terms of the CofE investments. These are run by the Church commissioners on behalf of the CofE. The investments primarily pay for clergy pensions. The CofE hierarchy doesn’t have a direct role in choosing the investments other than by setting guidelines. Indeed it has an ethics group that looks at Church of England investment policies and publishes it. You can see its latest report here: http://www.churchofengland.org/media/1284817/eiag%20annual%20review%202011.pdf

  7. Rosie Edser
    July 10, 2011 at 8:24 am #

    Thanks for the link, Will.

    To summarise, they say:

    “the Church as an investor can achieve a much greater impact on corporate practice through engagement than avoidance”

    and they have had ‘engagement’ meetings with these companies:

    Anglo American, Associated British Foods – Primark (twice), BP (four times), BT, Barclays Bank, Caterpillar, First Group, GlaxoSmithKline, Lloyds Banking Group, Morrisons, Nestle, Royal Bank of Scotland, Royal Dutch Shell (twice), Tesco (twice), Veolia Environnement and Walmart

    over the issues of

    “ethical trading with suppliers; access to medicines in developing countries; financial inclusion; reduction of carbon emissions; avoidance of complicity in alcohol misuse; avoidance of complicity in the violation of human rights or international law; and the importance of reining in excessive executive remuneration.”

    all fair enough, but even before the phone-hacking scandal I’d have hoped for some ethically constructive engagment with News Int…PResumably there will be in their next report.

    to give feeback contact eiag@churchofengland.org.

  8. johnm55
    July 10, 2011 at 10:14 am #

    The idea of a state appointed press regulator worries me.
    I’m not sure that a state regulator would have allowed the Daily Telegraph to break the MP’s expenses scandal the way it did. Their information was bought and the source may not have been obtained legally.
    How would it react if say the Sunday Mirror broke a sex scandal involving a senior establishment figure?
    State regulation is a dangerous route, the Daily Mail is being it’s normal paranoid and hyperbolic self, but in this case I think it has a point.

  9. Will Cookson
    July 11, 2011 at 7:56 am #

    John,
    If you had a state-run regulator then I agree that they might interfere in a way that would severely limit press freedom. I’m certainly not suggesting such a body. I am suggesting that we ought to have an independent outside body that will ensure proper regulation. There would have to be a public interest clause that would ensure things such as Southern Cross care homes was not covered up. But I don’t think that is beyond the wit of people to legislate for.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Rupert Murdoch, Phone Hacking and Press Regulation | johnm55 - July 10, 2011

    […] Cookson has an interesting post on media regulation, where he argues against our current media ownership rules. He says;. We need […]

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