Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

Media power is better held by many hands

Politicians in the past realised it was safer to have diverse ownership of the media, but then let Rupert Murdoch get an unhealthy grip on newspapers and TV, argues Don Anderson

As one media professional said to me after watching the Murdochs at the Select Committee, "It was like asking a couple of generals why some troopers' rifles were dirty. They didn't know. Of course they didn't know."

The same was true for Rebekah Brooks. We did not get all that much new information from the hearings. Their performance made it even more clear that the scandal, which had spent some time gathering momentum, has yet to run its course.

Too many questions have not been answered and too many questions are yet to be asked. It is intriguing for those of us on the periphery to watch high-profile people on the national stage being either toppled or having their perches rattled.

I should say at the outset that illicit accessing of voicemail on phones is not just illegal; it is every bit as bad as opening private letters and publishing material based upon the contents.

Nor is it good that politicians and the police in the capital have had a clandestine relationship with a powerful media group. That is unhealthy for those outside the circle, which is most of us.

What is more disturbing is that this scandal might have been less intense if hackers had not entered the voicemail of a teenage murder victim, of some of those massacred in the 7/7 London bombings, of the families of soldiers killed in action.

An avalanche of public disgust suddenly made its impact upon the body politic, because the targets were ordinary decent defenceless people, not vain celebs. I venture that it will be a long time before anybody tries acting like this again. That is already an effect of what has happened, but something else is developing as events unfold.

Rupert Murdoch probably saw it as a badge of his long exalted status that he was asked to tiptoe through the back door of Number 10 to drink tea and be thanked by prime ministers, Labour and Conservative. There was a chuckle as he described to the Select Committee that detail of how he got into the building at the heart of government. Those listening thought it was amusing, but it is not. It has frightened many.

How did the Murdochs and their organisation become so politically powerful? The answer is that politicians over a long period allowed an unhealthy concentration of media ownership in their hands. Only Italy in the free world has done worse in this respect.

It was not always thus in Britain. In times past Westminster was only too aware of the dangers of media concentration and this can be seen most clearly in the history of broadcasting.

As Britain emerged into a new world after the Second World War, politicians were worried about broadcasting, particularly television, being the territory of the BBC alone. So in the early 1950s they invented the Independent Television Authority (ITA), ancestor of Ofcom, to set up a commercial TV network - and very successful it was too.

Government was careful to mandate individual TV stations for every region, so there were 15 individual licences to broadcast issued to 15 companies up and down the country, including two for London. That process saw the birth of UTV. But the individual companies are now mostly gone. Bowing to commercial pressures, in 1990 politicians passed a Broadcasting Act which allowed bigger TV companies to gobble up the smaller until today we have ITV Plc. Only Ulster Television, Scottish Television and the small Channel Island TV station remain outside the ITV conglomerate, because in February 2004, ITV Plc became the owner of 11 of the 15 regional licences and now additionally has ITV2, ITV3 and ITV4 in its stable.

For years the officially designated television regulators, from the ITA on, repeatedly begged politicians not to go down that route, but the politicians of the 80s and 90s had forgotten why their predecessors had opted for multiplicity of ownership and the avoidance of concentration. They had done so because it was good for democracy. Will politicians ever learn? I think some may be doing so now.

With closure of the News of the World, now the Sun, the Times, the Sunday Times and 39% of digital broadcaster BSkyB still remain with News Corporation.

The House of Commons united against News Corporation's plan to own BSkyB completely.

The Labour leader, Ed Milliband, probably has some cross-party support in his belated call for new ownership rules. He said: "I think that we've got to look at the situation whereby one person can own more than 20% of the newspaper market, the Sky platform and Sky News. I think it's unhealthy because that amount of power in one person's hands has clearly led to abuses of power within his organisation."

We are allowed a mirthless smile as the truth of times past emerges as if a new insight. If there is comfort to take from this sorry mess, the prospect of new media ownership rules may be it. We can take comfort that Northern Ireland is not directly involved. Indeed, bolstered by excellent golf and Apprentice publicity, we can stand aside with a tiny measure of smugness.

We have excellent diverse media ownership, with the main outlets of the Belfast Telegraph, Irish News, News Letter, BBC NI and UTV all owned differently. Our police do not have an over-cosy relationship with any of that lot.

Nor do I believe that the First Minister is bringing owners or managements in through his back door to thank them. More likely he would have a good kicking in mind. True, hacking investigators are working in the Province, but only because we have been hacked against rather than hacking.

One thing Rupert Murdoch did say struck a chord. He declared that press freedom was necessary for democracy, or words to that effect. I was mentally applauding, until I ruminated that he may have meant his own freedom to do what he liked. Those days are over, Rupert. Possibly.

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