TWO years ago James Murdoch gave a speech at the Edinburgh Television Festival entitled "The Absence of Trust", in which he described the power of the BBC as "chilling" and claimed that "the only reliable, durable and perpetual guarantor of [media] independence is profit".
Now we know just how wrong he was.
Until the hacking scandal exploded like a bomb under News International two weeks ago, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt was busy waving through the bid from its parent company News Corporation to purchase the remaining 61% of BSkyB. Once through, assurances about the continued independence of Sky News would have been worth as much as similar pledges made when the Murdoch empire snapped up the Times and Sunday Times three decades ago. That is to say, very little. And while Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers once subsidised his satellite broadcasting business, the reverse would soon apply. BSkyB’s huge share of that market, with ten million subscribers and almost twice as much revenue as the BBC, would soon be used to bundle online subscriptions to its newspapers, with television, telephone and broadband deals, undermining its rivals. Remember how News International used predatory pricing to attack competing national and regional newspapers in the 1990s? The company’s unelected opinion-formers already claim that their weight can swing General Elections. Remember “It’s The Sun wot won it” in 1992, after the Conservatives were re-elected?
That is why Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband are right to insist that the Government must use the new climate of public opinion, generated by disgust over the hacking scandal, to tighten restrictions on media ownership. Specifically, they must recognise the threat to media plurality from the concentration of press and TV interests in too few hands, combined with advances in technology. The fact that until this month, with the single exception of Vince Cable, no leading politician was prepared to make an enemy of Rupert Murdoch, perfectly illustrates why News Corp’s power threatened democracy. Now its spell is broken and this opportunity for real reform must not be squandered.
What some have long warned of and belatedly the British public has come to recognise, is what happens when one company becomes so powerful that it sees itself as untouchable. Misconduct and law-breaking became endemic, while senior staff at best looked the other way and at worst actively colluded. While James Murdoch was talking about trust in Edinburgh in 2009, he was busy signing off cheques to silence the News of the World’s victims.
A Conservative Party report in 1995 identified the importance of a free and diverse media in providing “the multiplicity of voices and opinions that informs the public, influences opinion and engenders political debate”.
Now the Government must use the judicial inquiry to specify exactly what is meant by vague terms like “excessive media concentration” and “media plurality”.
The plurality test applied by the Competition Commission must take in the likely future consequences of media mergers and acquisitions. There is an argument for a change in the regulatory framework, so that News Corp can be obliged to reduce its stake in BSkyB to a non-controlling 29.9%.
The riotous diversity of the British press is one feature that makes life in this country better than Italy or Russia. Regardless of what James Murdoch says, the state does have a role in protecting that diversity. Of course, so does the public, by continuing to buy good newspapers.
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