Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Green Party. She was the editor of The Guardian Weekly between 2007 and 2012 and has previously worked for the Telegraph, the Times and the Independent.
We’ve known for some time that October 9 would be D Day for press regulation, when the Privy Council would decide whether to sign off on the press industry’s preferred system of self-regulation. If they reject it, there’s hope, but no certainty, that they’ll rubber stamp the all-party charter supported by parliament instead.
What we didn’t know was that the issue of the nature of our press would be front and centre of national debate as a result of the Mail group’s treatment of a tiny fragment of British history – a few words written by the father of the current leader of the Opposition more than six decades ago.
There was a protest against the Mail’s “hatred” of large sections of British society outside its offices yesterday and the Master of Wellington college, coming from a rather different political place, expressed his belief that it was setting a poor example for children.
Although this controversy has produced rather more heat than light (and is particularly surprising from a paper that you really would think wouldn’t want its Nazi-loving past dug up) – this was a typically nasty and unpleasant effort, but more than matched by their consistently awful, dangerous editorial approach to asylum-seekers, immigrants, benefit recipients, women who don’t live their lives the way it thinks they should and many other groups of Britons. There’s even a website set up to help you determine how much you’re hated by the Daily Mail – and lots of us get top marks.
The bulk of the (entirely understandable bile) about the impact of the Mail group’s publications on British public life has been directed at their editor-in-chief, Paul Dacre, but while that might be well-deserved, it’s far from enough, which reflects the level of our current debate about the press. We’re still dealing with the surface problems, not the deeper issues.
The independent oversight proposed by the all-party-backed charter, while far from perfect, would be a step forward, and Lord Leveson would be able to say that after seven failed press inquiries, he’d finally been the man who was able to deliver some action (the risk of stasis being something he notes at the start of the report).
But while we have a press (and media) ownership dominated by a tiny number of very rich individuals, any action is likely to have only a limited impact. The power of these individuals – arising from their oligarchical position in controlling national debate – is simply too great for them to be reined in.
Leveson – perhaps understandably in his desire to get some action – dropped this issue into the too hard basket, but we must not leave it there.
Before the News of the World closed, Rupert Murdoch controlled 37% of national print circulation – and had the huge power of Sky TV on top of that. The Mail controls 20% of circulation. Add in the Telegraph with more than 7%, and there’s an healthy control of our public life from three groups controlled by immensely wealthy individuals.
Mr Dacre is only in his position because Lord Rothermere wants him there. Even dealing with Dacre, if that were possible, would be no solution. Only by ensuring a diverse, pluralistic, healthily varied press – by forcing a split up of the current oligopoly, would help to create a healthier public sphere, and a healthier democracy. This is a problem that extends beyond the UK – the European Initiative for Media Pluralism is making that clear.
For Britain, various levels of maximum circulation without extra controls have been proposed – 15%, which should give us up to six major owners seems right, but also important is a new mechanism (such as a small tax on online advertising – tax-dodging Google can certainly afford it) to support the still fledgling independent internet media – the Dorset Eyes, the Hackney Citizens, the many other local and specialist online sites that could provide true diversity, and genuinely diverse democratic debate.