This piece, by Ricken Patel of Avaaz, originally appeared in the Guardian. Like Media Reform, Avaaz wants to see strong ownership controls to ensure a plural and free press working in the public interest. It is republished with permission and thanks.
It’s no fun when the doctor calls with the test results. That’s essentially what happened to the UK last month, and the diagnosis is not good. The results of the Leveson inquiry show the press has been infected by a noxious disease. The good news is, it’s treatable. But our politicians need to stop focusing on the symptoms and start focusing on the cause.
The true cancer at the heart of this matter is the elephantine size of the News Corp media empire. At its peak, News Corp owned more than a third of newspaper circulation in the UK. Had it taken over BSkyB, it would have owned more than 40% of TV.
And wield that power they did. The Leveson report is rife with stories of News Corp using the threat of its megaphone to intimidate those who dared to question or examine its shady practices. Lawyers bringing claims against News Corp were subjected to ongoing surveillance in an attempt to force them to abandon litigation against Rupert Murdoch. One witness to Leveson confirmed that he was instructed to place Tom Watson MP under watch to dig up dirt on an affair that was not in fact taking place in order to drive Watson off the phone-hacking issue. And Chris Bryant MP told Leveson that he received a call from a friend in early 2011 who said that two people close to Rupert Murdoch had warned him that it would be wise for the MP to drop the phone-hacking investigations, or Murdoch would “get him, in time”.
A statutory regulator may well be necessary to check individual cases of press misconduct, but it won’t be sufficient. It shouldn’t even be the primary focus of the reforms. Until we ensure that no one person or entity can control more than a fifth of our media, we’ll be facing the same problems over and over again. Phone hacking, bribery, obtaining private medical records – these things are all already illegal under British law. What allowed these transgressions to take place was not a lack of rules against them, but a media empire that had grown so large as to feel immune from them. Without a 20% ownership cap, any new regulator or regime will ultimately find itself as cowed by the new behemoths as the Metropolitan police were by News Corp.
Lord Justice Leveson embraced this goal, recommending that “the particular public policy goals of ensuring that citizens are informed and preventing too much influence in any one pair of hands over the political process, are most directly served by concentrating on plurality in news and current affairs”, and he dedicated more than 20 pages of his report to the need for stronger media diversity regulation. Yet it’s getting dangerously little attention in the ensuing debates. That needs to change.
Both Labour and the Lib Dems support ownership limits. Ed Miliband has come out strongly for limits, naming 20% as a key cutoff, and Nick Clegg told Leveson he’d also be open to a percentage cap. In a YouGov/IPPR poll earlier this year, 73% of the public supported ownership limits and more than 50,000 British members of my organisation, Avaaz, have also called for a 20% cap.
The prime minister has already spoken about the need for media plurality. Unlike the real threats posed by a statutory regulator in its most extreme form, ownership limits pose no threat of infringing on free speech. If anything, they foster it by ensuring a broad diversity of voices in which no one speaker can dominate the debate or control the flow of information. By endorsing ownership caps, David Cameron could show that he’s not afraid of Murdoch, and that his other concerns are driven by policy, not politics.
The only person for whom limits are anathema is Murdoch himself, as they’d limit his ability to ever again amass an empire big enough to bully police and prime ministers – and that’s precisely why they’re needed.
The Leveson report supports diversity as a goal, but urges time for consultation and study. That would be a mistake. Now is the time for action. Everyone knows that to pass legislation like this, against interests as strong as the press, one must strike while the iron is hot. Waiting would not make perfection the enemy of the good, it would make it its assassin. Leveson cites caps on market share as the most commonly referred to solution by experts, whose testimony to Leveson suggested anywhere from 15% to 30%. Twenty is in that range and has precedent in UK law, and once the principle is enshrined in legislation, the regulators can hold consultations and refine the details.
Media ownership policy may not be as sexy for our politicians to talk about as phone hacking, bribery and putting a new cop on the beat, but it’s the medicine our media need. If we don’t treat the true cause of what infected us, any remission achieved by reform will surely be followed by relapse.