Opinion: It should be about more than Murdoch

The left of centre in Britain had better figure out what it stands for when it comes to free speech and the monopolisation of power in the media.

There is apparently a flash mob, due to take place in front of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, this afternoon. Well, at least if it isn’t still raining. Then the various protestors will probably head to the pub instead, if I know my protestors.

It’s been organised by several left leaning think tanks and pressure groups to try and achieve two things: 1. To put pressure on the government to delay the decision on BSkyB and 2. To argue that in light of the recent phone hacking scandal revelations the DCMS should be given more powers to monitor the media, the country’s newspapers in particular.

My biggest concern surrounding these two demands is that in the minds of plenty of thinkers on the left these two ideas are becoming intertwined, as if they were one and the same. In actual fact I see them as diametrically opposed.

If you feel strongly that the BSkyB decision should not only be delayed but also eventually go against Rupert Murdoch’s ambitions, I want you to ask yourself why. Presumably it’s because you think having one individual or one organisation with that much say in what is disseminated to people as news is a bad thing. Fine. But then let me ask you this: why is the DCMS having more power over the media better somehow than News International doing so? I’m not trying to say that greater government control over media and Rupert Murdoch having greater control of the media is exactly the same thing. I’m simply saying that saying one is good and one is bad is overly simplistic.

It appears that several liberal organisations, ones that in the past have fought for reforming libel laws, for greater freedom of information and transparency from Whitehall, are now turning tails and saying the government department they usually spend the most time kicking should suddenly be given more powers. Am I the only one to find this slightly alarming? And particularly because it feels like it’s only because it will supposedly make life more difficult for Rupert Murdoch. This is “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” thinking at its laziest.

The issues surrounding BSkyB, the phone hacking crisis and how much power the government should have over media and how and when that should be used are all serious ones. And all much more important than how it affects one Australian media magnate. Rupert Murdoch won’t be around forever; some bad ideas that come out of this scandal may stick around long after he’s no longer around to be everyone’s bogey man.

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14 Comments

  • Martyn Williams 7th Jul '11 - 4:07pm

    You ask “why is the DCMS having more power over the media better somehow than News International doing so?”

    Possibly because we can hold one to account in elections, but not the other?

  • @Martyn – you are right, and that makes you a democratic socialist, not a left-leaning or social liberal. The tyranny of the majority is still a tyranny. I on the other hand am a liberal and wish to see the power of Murdoch and DCMS safely bounded.

  • Nick Tyrone 7th Jul '11 - 5:02pm

    Picking up on Adam’s point above, I think this is something I feel the need to clarify. When I wrote about the DCMS “having more powers”, I was referring specifically to what I thought was the illiberal idea of giving the DCMS some sort of new ability to “govern newspapers” whatever that might mean. I am quite happy with the idea of an independent body like the one Adam suggests, which would be separate from government control, adjudicating on these matters.

    Which means in the end, I think the job of policing the newspapers is the job of, well, the police and then the judiciary applying the rule of law, not some sort of Orwellian construct within the DCMS.

  • Martyn Williams & Daniel Furr – Why would a democratically elected minister feel the need to reign in something that had massive circulation? They would mostly likely only act if there was a public outcry, which in any case might mean the news organisation being held accountable by the public voting with their feet.

    I don’t think there is a need for more regulation neccessarily. The hacking and bribing of police officers are criminal acts. The reason they were allowed to happen is because politicians and the police didn’t take it seriously.
    There is a strong case that Murdoch is not a fit and proper person. At the very least he can’t be trust to run his organisation competently, but at worst it might be proven that he actively uses his power to manipulate politicians and police and in that case he shouldn’t be allowed to buy BskyB, and it should also be seriously considered whether or not he should be allowed to own any part of the British media.

  • Geoffrey Payne – Why does there need to be more regulation? What The News of the World done was already illegal and the police had been sitting on the evidence for years, and politicians had turned a blind eye. Why not enforce current law before we look into whether we need more law?

  • I can sum up my thoughts on this article in one word: no.

  • A rather silly article. If the author cant see the difference between power being vested in a democratic institution vs a known unaccountable megalomaniac then I think there is a deeper issue to solve.

  • Nick, I agree that it should be more about Murdoch but we’d also be mad not to use the Murdoch scandal as an example to broaden the argument.

    Also just to correct you – the call we were making was not specifically for the DCMS to have more powers to monitor the media. The first call was for a robust wide ranging independent inquiry on media regulation, not just a narrow one on phone hacking (although by the time the flashmob was held this objective appears to have been met). The other call as you say was to block the BskyB bid.

    The issue on the BskyB bid isn’t so much a matter of the DCMS monitoring for me personally (although seperately I do think the PCC is useless as an effective body for upholding complaints currently), its more that I believe that Cameron, Jeremy Hunt and other members of the Conservative party are far too close to the Murdoch Press. A free marketing idealogue like Jeremy Hunt holding the decision without scruntiny is hardly a healthy thing. To address the balance (since the Lib Dems can’t after the Vince cock up) pressure groups absolutely need to make sure the public spotlight is on them and hats off to Avvaaz and 38 Degrees who have done far more than Take Back Parliament has on this.

    News Corp already owns 1/3 of the newspaper market in Britain. Owning the biggest digital provider in addition – whether or not sky news is ringfenced for a limited time – has a dangerous effect on competitors as cross advertising becomes easier. Combine this with Murdoch’s renowned fiddling in the editorial lines and one of the worst journalistic scandals in living memory I can’t see how anyone could judge him a suitable candidate to purchase BskyB

  • Nick Tyrone 8th Jul '11 - 10:30am

    Andy, just to be clear: I think the BSkyB bid should be delayed. I also think that News International should not be able to own such a huge chunk of our media – it’s not good for our democracy, and as case studies we have things like the ludicrous Berlusconi situation in Italy.

    However, the thrust of my article was that I am wary of people on the left instantly saying there should be some sort of DCMS inquiry into all of this. I think, for now, the police and the judiciary, under rule of law, should handle the investigation alone. A point that has been made a few times in the comments on my piece is that somehow because the DCMS contains democratically elected people and News International doesn’t means that DCMS having overarching powers over what is said and what is not said in the media would be good, while News International as a private enterprise doing so is bad. I feel strongly that both are undesirable.

    Having discussed this with several people over this week, it seems that an issue for everyone is that News International has too much power over the Conservative Party and thus the government. Accepting this thesis to be true for the moment, why would giving Jeremy Hunt power over an investigation into this scandal a good idea exactly?

  • Hi Nick, thanks for clarifying. I do take your point that the judiciary perhaps is a better candidate for the investigation itself. My main concern was initially the powers and remit that investigation would have as if it is narrowly focused on phone hacking it may not achieve much particularly now that Newscorp has shut down the NotW and that most of these phone hacking practices date back a number of years. The inquiry should focus on how such a situation was allowed to develop in the first place and become common practice across the industry and why it took so long for either the police or PCC to do anything. It will be interesting to hear what comes out of the cross party talks on this.

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