Vince Cable warned of Murdoch’s unregulated media power

Vince Cable has been warned that a combined News International and Sky would lead to "a reduction in media plurality to an unacceptably low level."

Our guest writer is Sylvia Clifford

Will Hutton recently wrote a powerful article in the Observer, warning of the dangers of increasing concentration of media ownership in Britain. “Ownership,” he said, “is not just a source of private profit; it is a source of public power; a means to shape the world to suit one’s interests. Politicians court editors and proprietors for the very good reason that they can deliver votes and move opinion.”

Paradoxically, “mother of democracy”, Britain, is relatively lax about media ownership. “We impose no nationality requirement,” Hutton points out. “We do not tightly police the share of any media market held by one proprietor, nor make demands about limiting owners’ power to take ownership chunks across the media domains, we do not even care much about preventing market dominance.”

That dominance is set to grow. Murdoch, whose News International controls 37 percent of our national newspapers, is bidding to control the remaining 61 per cent of BSkyB that he does not already own. There is also the prospect of relaxation of cross media ownership regulation, which would allow a single proprietor to control all the newspapers and broadcast media in a town or city.

With these prospects in mind, there is little surprise that the respected media analyst, Claire Enders, predicts that within five to ten years, News International and Sky will control over 50 per cent of the newspaper and television markets respectively. In a memo to Business Secretary, Vince Cable, she has warned that a combined News International and Sky would lead to “a reduction in media plurality to an unacceptably low level.” Disturbingly, she points out that “we are already way past any Berlusconi moment in Britain, where the concentration of ownership exceeds even that allowed under Italian law.”

What then is to be done?  Hutton has called for the establishment of a media commission to review ownership and competition.  This would be the route to achieving the necessary reform and regulation and its importance has long been advocated by the independent, authoritative, (but unsung) Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom.

The prospects for a commission are bleak. Who will propose it? A challenge to the status quo is unlikely to come from Murdoch’s chosen beneficiary, the Conservatives and their coalition partners. Simon Hughes has talked of it, but little more has come forth. Unsurprisingly, Labour politicians themselves can be pretty reticent when it comes to upsetting the Murdoch empire.  There is genuine fear of reprisals against those who take up the gauntlet. Not many individuals, however law-abiding and pious, would like Mr Murdoch’s hacks scrutinising every aspect of their lives and the lives of their loved ones in order to tarnish their reputations.

Under these conditions, it seemed particularly important for ordinary people to come together to speak out and demand action. And so a group of concerned individuals have formed a campaign for a media commission. It is called DemocracyFail and, making the best use of scant resources, has made its debut on Twitter. Following DemocracyFail on Twitter, may sound trivial, but it is a small step in the direction of a much needed overhaul of media ownership.

It has the initial aim of spreading the word, sharing information and mobilising opinion and has now received official support from the national council of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, an important endorsement from the experts. The success of the campaign will depend upon its ability to grow in size and influence but it has already attracted widespread interest.

A plural, diverse and free media are the cornerstones of democracy and should be valued and defended by people of all political persuasions. As always, however, it is the left and centre left that has most to fear from the concentration of media ownership. This has been made particularly apparent in recent days by the distorted coverage and demonization of “Red Ed”. He and Labour will have little chance of a fair hearing while so much of the media is hostile, an unavoidable injustice while so much is owned by so few.

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