Lords support limits on ownership

By Media Reform Coalition / Friday January 11, 2013 Read More
First, Lord Donoughue gave a historical account of the relationship between Murdoch and Thatcher which enabled him to establish his dominant position in the newspaper market the early 1980s. He concluded: “That excessive concentration of power given to Murdoch by dubious methods was, and still is, inimical to the workings of a healthy democracy. It is indicative of the bad effects of such a concentration of media power that the later alleged criminal activities of journalists were concentrated in, though not exclusive to, Murdoch’s empire. … Concentration of media power enables a proprietor to intimidate or reward politicians, as Murdoch rewarded Mrs Thatcher with future electoral support in his papers. Politicians naturally need media support, hence they are tempted to return favours to supporting media. … It is a potentially corrupting game. All power corrupts and excessive media power corrupts excessively. The Leveson inquiry was an impressive enterprise but it will fail if it does not ensure that such a concentration of media power, and the corruption which follows it, never happens again.” Then Baroness Jay asked why plurality has yet to be included in the draft bills produced so far by Labour, Hacked Off and Lord Lester of Herne Hill: “I would like legislation to limit the size of individual media ownerships… to try to achieve greater plurality in the industry. I am disappointed that none of the draft Bills published so far advocates this. The National Union of Journalists and several campaign groups have argued that reducing the concentration of ownership in the UK would in itself improve the press, and I have to say that I agree. Perhaps any further proposals, or the final proposals if they come, will revive the public interest test, which this House has discussed on many occasions, to limit the market share of media companies.” Lord Sharkey went on to argue that media ethics and media ownership could not be separated: “The lack of plurality in our current media landscape is a clear driver of misbehaviour in parts of the media. Regulations without structural reform will not solve all the problems Leveson was asked to address. … For example, the corrupting cosiness between politicians, the press and the police will not be stopped just by enforcing behavioural regulations. Politicians and the police have been too close to the media because of their perception of the media’s influence, and the size of this perceived influence is very often related very directly to the size of the media organisation. Regulation may stop criminal or shameful behaviour for a while, but it certainly will not stop undue influence. If undue influence does not stop, nor, in any enduring sense, will unacceptable media behaviour. Parts of the media in this country have felt themselves above the law. This is a cultural problem and is rooted in the establishment’s perception of the media’s power to damage, and that is related to size.” Lord Stoneham then raised the issue of the BSkyB merger: “[B]ut for Milly Dowler, the Culture Secretary was within days, if not hours, of agreeing that the same international company that had nearly 40% of our national newspaper market could also control the monopoly supplier of satellite broadcasting in the UK. Plurality is important because it has never been properly regulated. It has enabled an overpowerful, overdominant media owner to become too influential in all walks of our national life. Dominance breeds arrogance, as has been said, and arrogance has perverted the culture and the risk-taking, and indeed has probably encouraged criminal behaviour, in this powerful enterprise. They thought that they were untouchable. They had the politicians and the police in their pocket. It took the David of the Guardian and Milly Dowler to bring them down.” Finally, Lord Whitty highlighted the dangers of oligopolies and monopologies in the media for democracy, and indicated that it might be easier to pass legislation on this than on regulation: “A truly free press requires diversity of opinion; diversity of opinion means real diversity and plurality of ownership; and plurality of ownership, in a world of ruthless capitalism that the press occasionally advocates, requires effective regulation of competition and merger policy… [T]his goes beyond Murdoch. If you look at the totality of the media—electronic as well as print, regional as well as national—they are subject to a high degree of oligopoly and are close, in some cases, to monopoly. They are under the control of relatively few proprietors, service providers and editors. Whether those individuals are malign or benign, it is a dangerous situation for a democracy that does not provide a truly free media. [T]he issue of plurality in news media is an important one for the Government to grasp. It does not have the same level of controversy that we have seen in terms of the regulation of media behaviour and it could be worked on now and brought before this Parliament within a relatively few months. … [T]he one message I would leave with the House, with the Government and with the political leadership who are looking for some consensus on this issue is: deal with plurality as soon as you can, otherwise all this will be for nought.”   The full Hansard transcript of the debate can be found here.