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By Matt Gilley on 5.10.2023

Can a group or person ever control too much of the media?


The easy answer is ‘yes’. In the short history of newspaper proprietors there have been plenty of despots. Lord Beaverbrook, who owned the Daily Express in the first half of the twentieth century, has been inducted into The Beaver magazine’s (now Canada’s History) ‘hall of infamy’, and Lord Northcliffe believed he could run the Empire better than the government (Andrew Marr’s ‘My Trade’). However, the question is much more complicated.

Journalism needs proprietors, not least for their money. It is an expensive business. Their healthy competition and eccentricity also helped to make the British press one of the most vibrant in the world. The real problem is not with the existence of media barons but with their behaviour. Early examples like the two mentioned above were staunchly propagandist and often turned newspapers to their own personal, political gain. With such a proprietor and a sweeping media empire, the effect can be almost akin to censorship. Only one ideology is represented, only one voice is heard. Just as a news story should be verified by more than one source, we could never get an accurate picture of the world from only one voice.

And so we come to the focal point of the debate, Rupert Murdoch. It is tempting to fit him directly into this hypothetical mould of tyrannical overlord, and indeed he has directly influenced politics in the past, both here and elsewhere. He and his employees’ easy relationship with No. 10 is well documented, Fox News’ reactionary programming is highly influential in the States and he used the Australian to all but rig a number of elections in his home nation (also mentioned in Nick Davies’ ‘Flat Earth News’). News Corporation has grown so large though now that he cannot personally oversee his papers and it is highly unlikely that he himself authorised any phone-hacking. The ideology of News Group Newspapers is not specifically that of Rupert Murdoch but of business and right-wing capitalism. The defining pressure on journalists is commercial not proprietorial and it is this that drives them and their newspapers to the dark arts, the hunt for the best story in the shortest time at the lowest cost. The era of the proprietor is largely over in the British press; it is the corporation that reigns.

The use of private investigators and other underhand methods of news gathering is also not restricted to the News of the World, nor even to Murdoch papers. In his excellent book on the subject, Flat Earth News, Nick Davies, the journalist who first broke the hacking scandal, reports similar activity by the Sunday Telegraph, Daily Mail and the Mirror group papers. Suspicions about the latter have been briefly reported amid the recent furore though little serious investigation, either police or journalistic, has made it into the headlines. It is difficult to say, therefore, that the fault lies entirely with Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation’s media domination.

Neither does this vindicate them. The impunity that they and other media institutions have enjoyed must come to an end, and David Cameron may have taken a step in the right direction by calling for the woefully inadequate Press Complaints Commission to be replaced. The more important issue is not how much of the media a person or group owns, but how effectively they are regulated. Proper accountability and scrutiny is needed in the press, as well as a relaxing of the commercial constraints that overbear all media institutions, however much they own. If the recent scandal leads to this, then it might – just – have been worth it.


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