Granville Williams of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, is one of Britain’s leading experts on media ownership, and distinguished author of several books on the subject. Last week he addressed a European audience on the importance of media pluralism, underlining the need for the mobilisation of national and continental public concern.
Since this issue goes to the very heart of our campaign, we respectfully reproduce the text below. (The event was ‘Liberta d’informazione in Europa’, organised by European Alternatives in Rome on 5 February.)
I want to start with a quote from a UK government media policy document written in 1995.
“A free and diverse media are an indispensable part of the democratic process. They provide the multiplicity of voices and opinions that informs the public, influences opinion, and engenders political debate. They promote the culture of dissent which any healthy democracy must have…If one voice becomes too powerful, this process is placed in jeopardy and democracy is damaged.” (1)
The quote captures the essence of media pluralism.
I now want to tell you about an important campaign underway in the United Kingdom to defend media pluralism.
News Corporation, one of the top five global media groups, announced in June 2010 that it wanted to purchase the remaining 60.9% shares of BSkyB and acquire total control of the company.
But the proposed takeover of BSkyB raises vital public interest issues. If successful it would fundamentally change media pluralism in the UK.
News Corporation already controls over 37% of national newspaper circulation in the UK. There is intense competition for both advertisers and readers in the national newspaper market, but the financial strength of the company means that it is able to absorb losses to gain market share.
On present trends this is likely to increase to over 40.5% in three years time.
The company also has three state of the art printing facilities built at a cost of £650 million in 2008. The plant in North London is the biggest printing centre in the world. Its twelve full-colour presses can each print 86,000 copies an hour. Together the three plants have the capacity to print the whole of the UK press. Currently, apart from printing The Times, Sunday Times, News of the World and The Sun they also print the Daily and Sunday Telegraph.
BSkyB, one of only two commercial TV news companies in the UK, supplies Sky News, Channel 5 News and virtually all commercial radio news. The other commercial supplier of news, Independent Television News or ITN, provides the news for ITV and Channel 4. There is a real danger that BSkyB will use its market power to diminish ITN news provision in the future in the way it has in the past.
In 2001 Sky News led a consortium which bid against ITN to provide ITV’s news. ITN was only able to secure the contract by reducing its bid by 25% from £46 million to £35 million. ITV is cutting its costs and the scenario could easily be repeated. It would leave ITN fatally weakened and threaten the existence of the highly regarded hour-long nightly Channel 4 News.
It would be a direct threat to the plurality of news providers essential in a democratic society
BSkyB dominates subscription satellite broadcasting and it has just announced its six-monthly results. Revenue rose 15% to £3.19 billion and profits 26% to £467million. It has also just launched a heavily-advertised new channel Sky Atlantic which provides exclusive viewing of all HBO programmes (The Wire, Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire) and the popular Mad Men, previously on the BBC. The BBC said they could not compete with BSkyB’s bid for the series.
BSkyB’s revenues are the same now as the combined revenues of the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5.
A merged company would completely dominate UK media. It would create the media equivalent of a black hole whose sheer power can distort, damage or destroy other media. The size and scale of the resources (financial, programming and news/information) which News Corporation would deploy against its UK competitors in broadcasting and publishing would put them at a massive competitive disadvantage.
There is a wider democratic issue. With Murdoch economic control of media brings editorial control through the careful selection of editors and heads who are expected to toe the company line or pay the price.
It is no accident that every single one of 175 Murdoch-owned newspapers over the world had the same pro-war line on Iraq in 2003. Sky News risks going the same way, a UK-version of Fox News, which could have a profoundly distorting impact on the British news agenda.
Rupert Murdoch’s media power has also played a corrosive role in UK politics with governments, fearful of antagonising him, shaping policy to win his support. The BBC for example has been relentlessly attacked by Murdoch. Now the UK Conservative-led coalition government has imposed a six-year freeze on the licence fee up to the renewal of the BBC charter in 2016.
Cuts have also been made on the BBC World Services and BBC Online, and more is to come.
There is one other aspect of Murdoch’s media power which I need to mention. The phone-hacking scandal. A journalist on The News of the World and a private investigator were jailed and the line from News Corporation was he was a ‘rogue reporter’. The editor, Andy Coulson, resigned subsequently to be employed by prime minister David Cameron as his Communications Director. He has now resigned from that post as the phone hacking is now being investigated again.
The phone-hacking scandal reveals the dark side to Rupert Murdoch’s media power, and how it penetrates into politics, the Metropolitan Police and pretty much every nook and cranny of public life. The chilling effect of a media company which is too large and powerful to upset was vividly demonstrated by the House of Commons Culture Committee probing the Coulson affair. The committee deferred when Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of News International, refused a formal request to appear before it. MPs on the same committee confessed they pulled their punches in the investigation out of fear that News Corporation journalists would begin to trawl through their personal lives.
My organisation, the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, has been very active in opposing Murdoch’s bid for BSkyB. When we started out in June 2010 it seemed like the deal would be quickly agreed but we argued that there should be a public interest test and that the media regulator Ofcom should investigate the threat to media plurality.
We were involved in work with an online activist site 38 degrees and the National Union of Journalists in developing opposition to the takeover and twice tens of thousands of signatures opposing the deal have gone to the government.
Separately a number of UK media groups also woke up to the threat such an enormous media group would pose and opposed the takeover.
Ofcom’s report was sent to the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt. It recommended that the Competition Commission should fully investigate the takeover. Hunt received that report on 31 December 2010 and has held secret talks with Murdoch to see if there any remedies which would allow the takeover to proceed.
The CPBF thinks any remedies will be worthless. He should bear in mind the words of one of Murdoch’s former editors, Bruce Guthrie, who was editor of his biggest-selling daily newspaper in Australia, Melbourne’s Herald Sun. He was dismissed in October 2008, days after Murdoch had told him with great conviction what a first rate job he was doing editing the paper. Guthrie writes:
‘Not for the first time I found myself reflecting that what Murdoch says and what he does are two different things.
‘I’m not the first person to be lulled into a false sense of security by Murdoch and his assurances, and I won’t be the last…It seems likely Murdoch will offer up some sort of editorial guarantee or independent board in order to be allowed to complete his bid for 100% of BSkyB. Such assurances should be taken with a pinch of salt. Actually a whole shaker of the stuff.’
However we would be foolish to see this as just an issue affecting the United Kingdom. The growth of powerful global media groups has been analysed by Manuel Castells in his book Communication Power. He identifies the emergence of ‘infocapitalists’ who build networks of business and political power by owning the production of information and knowledge. It is done through the expansion of powerful cross-media empires which develop to a new level through technological convergence. (2) The process is epitomised by the BSkyB takeover in the UK and the huge Comcast/NBC merger in the USA.
As citizens we should be seriously concerned about such developments. Anyone who cares about the future of democracy should strive to protect and defend a diverse media and prevent domination by one individual or company.
The media do not just provide information; they mould opinion and shape public debate. As Timothy Wu argues in The Master Switch, ‘The flow of information defines the basic tenor of our times, the ambience in which things happen and ultimately the character of our society.’ (3)
That is why we need to mobilise and channel public concern into a determined campaign to raise the issues of media concentration and media pluralism at a national and European level.
It won’t be easy.
Attempts to raise issues of media ownership at a European level have been fiercely resisted over the years by the big media groups like Bertelsmann and News Corporation. Indeed the Brussels-based trade groups the European Publishers Council and the Association of Commercial Television were created to pursue deregulatory policies and block any attempts to lay down limits on media ownership. Both actively monitor media policy issues in Brussels to ensure their views prevail.
That is why I strongly support this important initiative by European Alternatives to highlight the issues of media pluralism and freedom. I will do all I can, along with the organisation I represent, to realise its objectives.
(1)Department of National Heritage, Media Ownership: The Government’s Proposals, Cm2872, HMSO, 1995, p.2.
(2)Manuel Castells, Communication Power, Oxford University Press: New York, 2009.
(3)Tim Wu, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2010, p.12.