The Overwhelming Case for Plurality -Alan Rusbridger guardian.co.uk, Sunday 24 June 2012 18.00 BST
This is not just about Rupert Murdoch â€“ allowing media power to be concentrated in the hands of a few multibillionaires will impoverish society. BSkyB once the furore over phone-hacking has died down.
Less than a year ago, the country came within days, possibly hours, of allowing the largest and most dominant news company the UK has ever seen to in effect double in size. There was apparently nothing in law that enabled anyone to stop the News Corporation bid for the full ownership of BSkyB on grounds of plurality.
At the eleventh hour, parliament, stirred by revulsion about the News of the World hacking the phones of a dead teenager, 7/7 victims, and the relatives of murdered children, eventually decided unanimously to call on News Corp to abandon the bid. The company did so. But the legal position remains the same today. In theory, there would be nothing to prevent Rupert Murdoch from launching a future bid for
The Leveson inquiry has, understandably, focused on how to regulate press content, complaints and standards. All important stuff. But part of Lord Justice Levesonâ€™s brief is also to think about plurality â€“ how you stop media power being concentrated in a few hands.
It’s a complex subject, as Ofcom’s latest review makes plain. But it is every bit as important as the remodelling of selfregulation, if not more so, and now the judge has barely six weeks left in which to consider the issue. To state the obvious: plurality is not just about Murdoch, nor is it simply about size. A vivid lesson in why choice matters is playing out in Australia, with a threat
to the independence of the country’s main alternative to the huge Murdoch domination of the press. Fairfax Media, which includes the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age newspapers, is under siege from the multibillionaire mining magnate Gina Rinehart, who has extremely pronounced views on climate change and politics in general, and is insistent on her right to interfere with editorial policies. If she were to
flex her editorial muscles on the Fairfax board, or to acquire the group, Australia’s once-vibrant journalistic culture would be dramatically different. The choice for the reader would be between Murdoch and Murdoch on steroids.
In the UK, there is currently more choice, but the economics of news are undergoing a fundamental r e v o l u t i o n, so nothing should be taken for granted. There are other powerful media organisations in the UK, including the BBC. In order to gauge the potential threat, try asking seven critical questions:.....
a) Does it have strong internal governance? b) Is it effectively externally regulated? c) Is it subject to, and does it comply with, the law? d) Is it subjected to normal scrutiny by press and parliament? e) Does it overtly try to exert public political influence? f) Does it privately lobby over regulation or competition issues? g) Does it actively work to expose the private lives of politicians or other public figures? On such a scorecard, the BBC would score one out of seven... â€“ in the sense that only one of the issues, f), is engaged. News Corp would score seven.
What have we learned from Leveson and other inquiries this year? On a) News Corp’s internal governance of its British tabloids has been shown as extremely feeble, at best. At worst, there is evidence of a cover-up involving senior executives. On b) the regulator utterly failed in its attempts to investigate or adjudicate on the company, finally withdrawing its discredited November 2009 report, which uncovered nothing and blamed the wrong people. On c) employees, or agents, of the company actively and
regularly broke the law. The police failed to adequately investigate the company, its employees or agents; or to notify the victims of the company’s criminal behaviour. There is abundant evidence of close social relationships and professional overlap overlap between senior News International (NI) executives and the police. On d) the majority of the press and MPs did not – initially, and for some time – hold the company to account in the way that would normally be expected with a business of this size and importance. There is evidence both that individual MPs were targeted and that there was a fear of retribution or exposure. The culture select committee’s investigation was met by “collective amnesia”, dishonesty and obstruction from NI’s executives.
On e) numerous politicians and commentators have testified as to the influence the company and its journalists sought to exert on British politics over several decades – particularly, but not only, in the runup to elections. Several former Murdoch editors have written or testified about proprietorial interference and/or influence. On f) a huge amount of evidence has been laid before the Leveson inquiry of the private lobbying and social/political contacts aimed, partly or wholly, at securing a favourable regulatory framework for News Corp. In the period before and during the BSkyB bid there were, it now emerges, thousands of contacts – drinks, meals, phone calls, text messages, emails and personal meetings – between senior News Corp executives and senior politicians. Opponents of the bid, who included the Guardian, were granted one meeting. Their letters were fobbed off with stiff answers from the Treasury solicitor.
On g) there is now a very great deal of evidence about the methods used by NI’s journalists and agents, and the extent to which they targeted, spied on and intruded on people in public life. The methods included hacking private messages, blagging personal and confidential databases and commissioning surveillance. They may have included tracking people’s phones as well as hacking them. Much of the surveillance was out-sourced - some of it to criminals. Much of it involved rim l be h av io u r.
Some of these seven factors are likely to be related. The perceived need to keep close to senior NI executives and journalists may have influenced the behaviour of public figures – though this is, of course, likely to be denied. Similarly, the fear of counterattack or exposure may have affected the way people behaved towards the company. This, too, would be difficult to prove. But human nature suggests both would be understandable responses. Politicians, in other words, sought Rupert Murdoch’s approval just as they feared the consequences of being singled out for attack. The combination – of market dominance, POWER, fear, political influence, inadequate policing and feeble regulation – became self-reinforcing. The more people believed these things of News Corp, the more they became real.
This created an apparent reciprocity of interests. News Corp had its own ambitions and regulatory needs that politicians and public officials were in a position to assist or satisfy. The reciprocity could be implicit or explicit; spoken or unspoken. But it undeniably existed and was well-understood on both sides. News Corp is also the dominant player in sports and film rights in the UK, and owns the satellite platform on which other channels must sit. Its influence thus reaches way beyond news into British commercial, cultural, entertainment, communications and sporting circles. There is still a striking reluctance among professionals in these worlds to say anything publicly about News Corp or BSkyB. No one will talk on the record, though many will talk on condition of anonymity.
News Corp has claimed it had no interest in bundling together its newspaper and TV assets. The BSkyB bid, it was argued, therefore presented no great threat to plurality. But in a private November 2010 memo to the prime minister after receiving an unminuted private briefing from James Murdoch, Jeremy Hunt disclosed the company’s true intentions: “to create the world’s first multi-platform media operator available from paper to web to TV to iPhone to iPad”. Or, to put it another way, Murdoch wanted to bundle together Sky with the Sun and the Times – from Sky football matches to Sun match reports, or rolling TV news integrated with Times journalism – all wrapped together for a single price.
In addition to this proposed bundling, News Corp has consistently used cross-subsidies to keep down the price of the Times. For 12 years the Times fought a price war that enabled it to leapfrog in circulation over the Guardian and Independent – much smaller news organisations that simply could not possibly match its pricing policies. In 1999, the OFT found that NI was guilty of deliberately selling the Times at a loss after cutting its price as low as 10p (its circulation, which started below the Guardian at 350,000, rose at one point to 850,000. The Independent lost nearly 200,000 in sales and has, arguably, never recovered).
Thirteen years later, the Times is still selling at below the cost of production and is 20p cheaper than any of its direct competitors â€“ a fact prominently advertised on its masthead every day.
It is understandable that the Leveson inquiry â€“ which must cover an enormous amount of territory â€“ should not feel able to do a root and branch review of the complex areas of competition and plurality jurisprudence. But the inquiry would not have happened without plurality.
The Guardian, an independently owned newspaper, supported by a trust whose only purpose is the sustenance of the paper, held another media company to account at a time when the police, the regulator and parliament were all reluctant to do so.
It is dangerous in any sector to allow a single player to become dominant. It is doubly dangerous with the media sector because of the combination of factors described above. The press, rightly, argues that it exists to be a check on power.
But when society’s watchdog shies away from holding itself to account it thereby creates a very potent form of unaccountable power. Anything that concentrates power in the hands of fewer and fewer multibillionaire proprietors – whether corporations or individuals –
will impoverish our society. That much has always been understood by anyone who has ever looked at the behaviour, standards, control and ethics of the press and it’s why Leveson must say something strong on the issue, even if he cannot get into the detail.
The current plurality framework – which apparently granted no one the power to intervene over the BSkyB deal – is plainly insufficient to ensure the kind of plurality that is necessary for a healthy democracy. Just look at Australia.
Designed By S.L Higgins