Leveson Doesn’t Go Far Enough. Press Ownership is the Issue

Lord Justice Leveson’s report into the culture, practices and ethics of the press doesn’t go far enough. The central issue that needs to be addressed when it comes to the press in Britain in 2012 is not how the press currently operates and regulates itself. The central issue is the concentration of press ownership and the corruption to the democratic process that has resulted from the status quo and will inevitably continue unless the current rules governing ownership are reformed.

Despite the exertions of the assorted Cassandras – made up of the various newspaper editors, journalists, and politicians who’ve filled the TV news studios and newspapers columns in the wake of the eagerly awaited 1,987-page Leveson Report – warning us of the dangers to press freedom if the statutory independent regulatory body recommended in the report is introduced, we should not allow ourselves to be fooled. We don’t have a free press in this country. What we have is a press controlled by a tiny clutch of plutocrats, whose political influence lay at the root of the culture of criminality and impunity that had pervaded a large section of the industry prior to the phone hacking scandal breaking at the beginning of 2011.

The sense of entitlement and overweening power revealed in the culture of corruption, bribery, intimidation, and flagrant disrespect for the law that had permeated the newsrooms of the nation’s tabloids in particular was consequent on the overweening power enjoyed by its owners. Prime among those is Rupert Murdoch, a man whose respect for democratic accountability is about the same as his respect for the politicians and prime ministers he became accustomed to carrying around in his pocket like spare change.

In light of the crimes that were rampant among his staff it is unconscionable that this man is still allowed to retain ownership of as much as a village newspaper in this country, never mind the 40 percent of the industry he does. It should not be forgotten that Murdoch came within a hairsbreadth of securing ownership of BSkyB with the collusion and support of the government. The result would have been the hegemony of right wing propaganda masquerading as news coverage in the mainstream discourse. For anyone who wonders what this would have looked like just cast your eyes across the ocean to the United States, where Murdoch-owned Fox News makes a mockery of the very concept of a free press.

Breaking the power of Murdoch in Britain is absolutely necessary in the interests of democracy. The revelations surrounding David Cameron’s cosy relationship with Rebecca Brooks, the former chief executive of News International currently facing prosecution for her alleged involvement in phone hacking and related criminal activity, could not have been more damaging. When added to the fact that the prime minister had hired former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, who is also currently facing prosecution, as his press advisor and continued to defend him when allegations of his knowledge of phone hacking during his tenure at the News of the World were at their height, the office of prime minister has suffered irreparable discredit. Indeed, the prime minister’s blanket rejection of Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations and with it the exhaustive process that went into devising them, consisting of £6 million of taxpayers money, months of testimony from victims of press intrusion, journalists, politicians, and others connected to the issue, should be considered in this light.

But Cameron is not the only one with dirty hands when it comes to Murdoch. Before him Gordon Brown and Tony Blair had likewise extended themselves in winning his favour, while Alex Salmond is revealed to have been courting Murdoch at a time when every other politician in the land was doing their utmost to distance themselves. It confirms that the fallout from this scandal has engulfed the entire political establishment, not to mention Scotland Yard, where corruption had become the norm with regard to the relationship between various high level police officers and tabloid journalists.

This why the efforts of the press to lobby against even the relatively tame recommendations contained in the Leveson Report must be seen for what they are: the shameless efforts of a discredited industry to defend its freedom to destroy the lives of innocent people with the objective of selling newspapers. The sight of these individuals portraying themselves as champions of a free press is truly cringeworthy. They are anything but.

Instead of listening to those siren voices, we should never forget the cruel treatment meted out to the family of Milly Dowler, the murdered schoolgirl whose mobile phone was hacked, leading her distraught parents to believe she might still be alive when she was dead. Nor should we ever forget that the phones of the families and loved ones of soldiers killed in Afghanistan were hacked with the intention of listening in on their grieving. These were the completely innocent and powerless victims of a culture of criminality that was and is inextricably linked to the current rules surrounding press ownership. It is why the most significant aspect of Lord Leveson’s mammoth report on the culture and ethics of the press in Britain is the part that is missing.

Press ownership in Britain is the very antithesis of press freedom.



11 comments on “Leveson Doesn’t Go Far Enough. Press Ownership is the Issue

  1. Lawrence Shaw on said:

    Some points I have kept making continually about the obsession with Leveson and will keep making:

    Newspapers no longer call the political shots in the way they once did and their influence is declining every single day.

    Last election, Cameron had virtually blanket press support. Where he didn’t get outright support, there was at least almost wholesale mass-media acquiescence that Labour had, singlehandedly and without any reference to global capital, bankrupted the country by spending on schools and hospitals.

    Cameron still lost the election and the coalition only came to power narrowly, against nearly all the odds, as the Labour vote held up.

    Since 2010, national newspaper sales continue to plummet at an alarming rate and the day to day grip that newspapers exert on the political information being fed to the country has weakened beyond the point of no return.

    Leveson was never, ever, going to look at the deeper issue of press ownership. Neither was it going to offer up concessions for trade unions or for the left to seriously have a right of reply “political balance” (Whatever the hell that means – all journalism and editorial judgments are always going to be subjective)

    Sure the newspapers have (largely) been enemies of the labour movement in recent history. But they are dying regardless of Leveson. If the proposals get enacted in full, nothing will change for the labour movement. Even if ownership regulations are played with, I doubt much will change either. Where are the Marxist philanthropists ready to take over the huge cost of running The Sun?

    Obsessing about this whole saga, which I think means very little to anyone outside the political/media circus, is one that leads down a political dead end.

    Better to use our energies at utilising and creating new ways to reach out to the vast majority of people who are isolated by this failing system than moaning that the newspapers are stopping us from doing so.

  2. #1 Because, as we all remember, a lot of similar things had happened in 1985- a major Murdoch paper shut down, senior executives and other key staff looking at jail,

    bent coppers under scrutiny.

    Nothing new at all.

  3. Well I still see masses of people reading newspapers.

    And I suspect that a high percentage of the news that originates from the internet still reaches the majority of people by being quoted in the papers or on tv news.

    The problem for most people with getting news from the net is that is’s so huge and varied. Unless you have the time and know what you’re doing it’s still quicker to read the paper.

  4. Ken Keable on said:

    I agree with Vanya. I also think it is an excellent article, highlighting the main issue that the mainstream discussions are carefully avoiding – the concentration of press ownership in the hands of a few tax-dodging multi-millionaires and big corporations, with advertisers also having a damaging influence. The Morning Star is a serious attempt to challenge this situation. It is the only socialist daily newspaper in English in the world, and it is owned by a readers’ co-operative, the People’s Press Printing Society. Trade unions comprising nearly three quarters of Britain’s trade union members are now represented on the management committee of the PPPS. In addition, Unison has 10,000 shares in the PPPS although it is not on the management committee. The production of the Star is a daily miracle and everyone on the left should, in my view, be supporting it. That does not preclude criticising it – the letters page is very lively and includes many critical letters, whilst feature articles come from a variety of political directions. Saturday’s paper was its first Scottish edition and it is hoped to make this regular in the near future. The boycott of the Morning Star by business advertisers and government, and the BBC’s ommission of the paper from its press reviews, are a tribute to Britain’s only socialist daily newspaper.

  5. The Morning Star, by the criteria insisted upon here, is not a newspaper, because it doesn’t have a print edition nor is it read by millions (by a long chalk). Unless you want to claim that it is, in which case, so are any number of other online publications, and hence “press ownership” is less concentrated than ever and Jon Wight looks a bit of a twit?

  6. Dave: The Morning Star, by the criteria insisted upon here, is not a newspaper, because it doesn’t have a print edition

    Are you seriously arguing theat the MOrning Star doesn’t have a print edition??? Have you never been to a newsagents?

    BTW, congratulations to the Morning Star for publishing their first Scottish

  7. Ken Keable,

    Ken, one look at the circulation figures of the Morning Star compared to the ABC figures for the capitalist press shows that there is actually a business case for not advertising in the Star nowadays, though I agree historically there may have been an orchestrated boycott.

    Dailies http://www.mediaweek.co.uk/news/1150104/
    Sundays http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/table/2012/nov/09/abcs-national-newspapers1

    The Star has not reached the circulation figures of a specialist trade press for button collectors for a number of years.

    However there is a good case for Central Office of Information advertising, that is Govt advertising- but the CPM rate- cost per thousand of readers which is the basis for most ad space bookings nowadays, may not make it cost effective for the Star to run.

    Which means that apart from Trade Union solidarity advertising, and recruitment, there is only the legal notice income.

    Which is why subscriptions remain the only viable sustainable revenue income for the printed media.

    It does make sense however to boost the web publishing aspect, the Star’s site at the moment is very basic, say as opposed to L’Huma’s over here in France http://www.humanite.fr/ (which does get both corporate and got advertising, and a wide range of other hidden subsidies like below cost distribution).Automated ad networks such as Ad words, Rubicon Project, Green Ads, Affiliate schemes from book sellers et al would provide some revenue should the site start generating serious traffic, a million page impressions is a were the networks and affiliate schemes start making money. (Mind you you might get some very did results from the ad system like ads from companies that the article mentions as a bad employer)

    The Star has a huge database of published articles and intelligent use of an open source content management system combined with a good search engine optimiser could quickly build up quite a vast site, which would be a great resource to the labour movement in the UK and beyond.

  8. On John’s article the UK printed media is in long term decline, circulation has been falling for the last 15 years, and the latest economic crisis has hit advertising revenue hard. Many of the press barons are running for cover as there is little logical reason to be in the print business anymore, its more vanity than sanity- Murdoch is cutting his press division off from his larger and much more profitable TV, Cable and Movie interests- this has been hastened by the threat of more legal action in the UK and the States but it was on the cards anyway.

    All of which means that now is the ideal time to break up the press groups, as financially stressed groups come under pressure to disinvest, like the Indies owners is now talking about, or change the corporate structure like Murdoch is doing what better moment to introduce maximum voice/reach rules for any one owner? Changing owners will not of course necessarily change the editorial pack mentality of the printed word but it would diminish some of the power of individual press barons.

  9. Broken it up into three separate comments- but if anyone is having trouble sleeping feel free to read in one go and see if you can make it towards the end before falling head first into the keyboard.

    Part three…I think that the problem also extends into the digital space, there are in effect four big giants in the digital space- Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon,These huge gate keepers while they themselves do not generate much in the way of content act as huge proprietorial platforms that far from being the innovative enablers for new media behave just as badly as any old multi-national- from Apples appalling subcontractors behaviour in China, and for that Do No Evil’s Google complicity with the Chinese state in applying censorship and giving names of dissents to the authorities.

    There needs to be a clear set of rules on the neutrality of search engines, so they do not place there own services above natural search results, easily transferability between platforms, strict rules controlling distribution access and no exclusivity agreements by one or other platform, strict and transparent rules on user privacy. The list goes on and on.

  10. Ken Keable on said:

    Replying to Pete Shield in item 8: “Ken, one look at the circulation figures of the Morning Star compared to the ABC figures for the capitalist press shows that there is actually a business case for not advertising in the Star nowadays, though I agree historically there may have been an orchestrated oycott.” Pete has made an assertion here without providing any evidence.