Everyone should know who owns the press – for the sake of our democracy

Everyone agrees that newspapers play a crucial role in British democracy, even if they disagree what that role is.

Tom London is a London-based writer and blogger

Everyone agrees that newspapers play a crucial role in British democracy, even if they disagree what that role is.

This week the Press Gazette published the results of the National Readership Survey. I have used these results – for both print and online – to draw up tables with readerships and information about owners and political orientation. Almost 78 per cent of our press is owned by a handful of mostly foreign-based billionaires.

Our newspapers like to paint their own role as heroic – they are the brave defenders of democracy who hold our elected representatives to account. Watergate is the archetype of this kind of journalism and it does occur now and again in the UK but it is rare.

Too often, far from protecting our democracy, our papers subvert it. In his Inquiry, Lord Leveson quoted some lines from Tom Stoppard’s Night and Day. Milne: “No matter how imperfect things are, if you’ve got a free press everything is correctable, and without it everything is concealable.” Ruth: “I’m with you on the free press. It’s the newspapers I can’t stand.”

In a free press, the nature of the newspapers matter very much.

The nature of a paper is set by its owner. Press barons wield far more power and influence than all but a very few MPs and have, unsurprisingly, used it to further their own interests.

Since 2010, the barons have pushed the highly contentious argument that there is no alternative to austerity (for other people, not for them or those close to them), and have largely ignored the stories which historians will doubtless note – the widening social divisions and the swelling numbers at food banks, the 21st century’s soup kitchens.

Newspapers exercise power and influence in a number of ways. It is not just that they have a megaphone which lets them dominate the public debate. They also have privileged access to politicians. And one of their most powerful forms of influence is the ability to effectively set the political agenda for the other media and more widely, in parliament, the workplace, the kitchen and the pub.

In the terms of political theory, the press barons impose the elite’s cultural hegemony. As Martin Kettle has argued, the answer to the old 1970’s question – ‘Who governs Britain?’ – is now, in important respects, the press barons. The most recent example of their power – and arrogance – is how they have contemptuously ignored the Leveson Inquiry findings and the subsequent decision of the elected House of Commons.

Newspapers put great store by the concept of editorial independence. Sometimes, it is a reality. The Lebedevs, for example, own papers – the Independent and the Evening Standard – which take markedly different political stances.

Too often, however, editorial independence is a sham. Proprietors choose editors who they know share their views. Editors know well what is expected of them without the need for a proprietor to actively interfere.

Rupert Murdoch’s candour at the Leveson Inquiry was revealing. He said that if someone wanted to know his opinion on a subject they should just read the leader in the Sun.

UK press weekly print and on-line readership (for papers over 1 million) in March 2013

Combined print and online readership
(In brackets print alone)
Effective owner/s
Information about effective owner/s
Political orientation of newspaper/s
% of  combined print and online (Print alone)
The Sun/The Sun on Sunday
Rupert Murdoch
Billionaire. Lives in US.
Supported Tories in 2010
The Mail/ Mail on Sunday
Lord Rothermere
Billionaire. Lives in France.
Non-domiciled for UK tax
Supported Tories in 2010
Lord Rothermere
Billionaire. Lives in France.
Non-domiciled for UK tax
Supported Tories in 2010
Mirror/Sunday Mirror/ People
Trinity Mirror plc
Public Limited Company
Supported Labour in 2010
The Guardian/The Observer
Scott Trust Ltd
Supported Lib Dems in 2010
Telegraph/ Sunday Telegraph
David and Frederick Barclay
Billionaires. Live on private island near Sark.
Supported Tories in 2010
The Times/ Sunday Times
Rupert Murdoch
Billionaire. Lives in US.
Alleged tax avoider.
Supported Tories in 2010
The Independent/ i/Independent on Sunday
Alexander (father)and Evgeny (son) Lebedev
Alexander is a billionaire, ex-KGB and lives in Russia. Evgeny lives in the UK
Supported anti-Tory tactical voting in 2010
London Evening Standard
Alexander and Evgeny Lebedev
Alexander is billionaire, ex-KGB and lives in Russia. Evgeny lives in UK
Supported Tories in 2010
Daily Express/Sunday Express
Richard Desmond
Billionaire pornographer.
Supported Tories in 2010
Daily Star/Daily Star Sunday
Richard Desmond
Billionaire pornographer.
Alleged tax avoider.
Supported Tories in 2010
Daily Record/ Sunday Mail
Trinity Mirror plc
Public limited company
Supported Labour in 2010
Financial Times
Pearson plc
Public limited company
Supported Tories in 2010
Readership of UK press (for papers over 1 million) in March 2013 by effective owners
Effective owner(s)
%  of combined print and online (print alone)
Lord Rothermere
27.3       (27.8)
Rupert Murdoch
24.9       (27.9)
Trinity Mirror plc
13.0       (13.9)
Alexander and Evgeny Lebedev
10.6       (10.1)
Richard Desmond
  8.2        (9.2)
Scott Trust
  7.3       (4.7)
David and Frederick Barclay
  6.8       (5.1)
Pearson plc
  1.8       (1.5)

Over a quarter (27.3 per cent) of the press is owned by Lord Rothermere and 24.9 per cent by Rupert Murdoch  – between them these two men have over 50 per cent of the printed press.

Over three quarters (77.8 per cent) of the press is owned by a handful of billionaires. There are only 88 billionaires among the 63 million people in the UK and most of the barons do not even live in the UK.

I am no fan of Michael Gove’s fact-based curriculum, but it is true that knowing certain facts is key to understanding. All students of British politics need to know who owns our press.

As you’re here, we have something to ask you. What we do here to deliver real news is more important than ever. But there’s a problem: we need readers like you to chip in to help us survive. We deliver progressive, independent media, that challenges the right’s hateful rhetoric. Together we can find the stories that get lost.

We’re not bankrolled by billionaire donors, but rely on readers chipping in whatever they can afford to protect our independence. What we do isn’t free, and we run on a shoestring. Can you help by chipping in as little as £1 a week to help us survive? Whatever you can donate, we’re so grateful - and we will ensure your money goes as far as possible to deliver hard-hitting news.

37 Responses to “Everyone should know who owns the press – for the sake of our democracy”

  1. janlog

    And yet some people still think the press is somewhat leftwing.

  2. carrotts

    tabloid newspapers are near all tory readership…designed with tory hereditoryship readers do not believe most of what is published or propaganda.

  3. LB

    And we should know what the state owes. That’s a far bigger problem than the press.

    On the press, we have the BBC with a self admitted left wing bias. That’s a far bigger problem.

  4. blarg1987

    Is it really left wing or is it that the vast majority of the press is to the right, making anything neutral classed as left wing?

  5. LB

    The BBC has admitted to a left wing bias.

  6. blarg1987

    And where and when was this? Not a right wing newspaper as aheadline then further reading of the article shows that the piece in question was very biased in one direction so editors were asked to counter balance it perhaps?

  7. LB

    The BBC admits to it. It’s the BBC.

    Comes from advertising so much in the tax avoiding Guardian.

  8. blarg1987

    But where did the BBC actually say yes we are bias on the left? It has not, just because you think it is does not mean it is.

  9. LB

    In 2011 Mark Thompson, the then BBC Director General, wrote, “In the BBC I joined 30 years ago there was, in much of current affairs, in terms of people’s personal politics, which were quite vocal, a massive bias to the left.”[13] In 2011, Peter Oborne wrote, “Rather than representing the nation as a whole, it [the BBC] has become a vital resource – and sometimes attack weapon – for a narrow, arrogant Left-Liberal elite”.

  10. blarg1987

    And also John Huphrieswho narrates the today programme on the BBC has been described as a preacher for the right. So the BBC has both people on the left and right promoting balance overall.

  11. LB

    Jeepers. Humphries is a left winger. Listen to the content of what he says.

    So far from being the rabid right wing press, its the BBC itself that says it is biased.

    So lets see, what evidence do you have from an appropriate source that Humphries is biased to the right? Sauce for the goose ,….

  12. blarg1987

    Have you actually ever read any of his articles? if you have then you know he is not on the left.
    You can’t really say he is bias to the left when he has heavily criticised all Labour leaders can you?

  13. LB

    Sorry. I asked you for some references on the matter. Just like you asked me for some references for the BBC and their bias.

    I’ve provided the link to the DG of the BBC saying they were biased.

    Could you do the same for Humphries?

  14. blarg1987

    Hmmm, interesting, report written on a sky article, however notice on reading it says personnal views not what was broadcast.

    Also notice you left the last piece out “Now it is a completely different generation. There is much less overt
    tribalism among the young journalists who work for the BBC.”

    Also If the BBC is so bias how do you explain the following link?


  15. David Moss

    The BBC has not admitted to a left wing bias. Some members of the BBC have said that members of the BBC tend to be more culturally liberal (note: liberal ¬= left wing) in their personal views. In terms of substantive content the BBC frequently veers to the right in order to give an appearance of being “balanced” and not left-wing: hence repeatedly giving climate change deniers a pulpit, despite the fact that the balance of scientific opinion is staunchly of the opposite view.

  16. Cllr Cadogan Enright

    Thankyou very much for that information – good job

  17. Jams O'Donnell

    If you think Humphries is a left winger, you must be Ghenghis Khan’s more extreme brother.

  18. Non jb

    JB below comes accross like a broken record with comments trying to take attention from the info this article is reporting. Reminds me of Murdoch camp tactics. All bbc supports are those who are in power…rich!

  19. Chris

    You’ve obviously been watching a different BBC to the none I watch since 2010

  20. Derek McCulloch

    With all of this, and yes all is true, there has been an almighty struggle for some of us in Scotland. The truth has been difficult to be made public because of the Press bias about SNP and it’s progressiveness. This because it threatens, not the good people of these islands, but the greed and arrogance of the media Mafia Barons.

  21. Trixie


  22. Trixie

    It seems to me that anyone who has an iota of compassion for human beings and points out the wrong in the world is considered ‘left’.

  23. Jim

    Did I read it correctly the D word used in the same sentence as newspapers. By D I mean DEMOCRACY, sadly if you believe that newspapers play a part in the UK “democracy” you are deluded. What you should be saying is that newspapers in the UK are opposed to DEMOCRACY they will willfully twist the TRUTH to manipulate and control the thought processes of the voters. With one or two exceptions journalism has paid the price of arse licking your favourites. Classic example is the Nicola Sturgeon article in the media. It was treated as a gift from heaven by the right wing press but in fact what they were trying to portray is that Sturgeon was made from the same twisted mould as other “politicians”. The whole story had been fabricated and the hungry media after some smearing dirt were rubbing their hands with glee. I hope the culprits are brought to book for what was a pathetic attempt by bias media to corrupt the processes of DEMOCRACY.

  24. ay-ay

    Not sure, as chief political commentator for the Telegraph, Peter Oborne’s view the bbc represents a Left-Liberal elite stands much scrutiny.

  25. DRbilderburg

    in your dreams The BBC is a Tory talking shop, it’s slanted news coverage a disgrace. A home for dried up Tory tossers and establishment losers and perverts. So LB back up your tuppeny halpenny comment by refusing to pay the licence. I don’t

  26. Eva


  27. GTE

    The BBC is “a publicly-funded urban organisation with an abnormally large proportion of younger people, of people in ethnic minorities and almost certainly of gay people, compared with the population at large”.

    All this, he said, “creates an innate liberal bias inside the BBC”.

    Andrew Marr

    “It’s a bit like walking into a Sunday meeting of the Flat Earth Society. As they discuss great issues of the day, they discuss them from the point of view that the earth is flat.

    “If someone says, ‘No, no, no, the earth is round!’, they think this person is an extremist. That’s what it’s like for someone with my right-of-centre views working inside the BBC.”

    Jeff Randall

    By far the most popular and widely read newspapers at the BBC are The Guardian and The Independent. ­Producers refer to them routinely for the line to take on ­running stories, and for inspiration on which items to cover. In the later stages of my career, I lost count of the number of times I asked a producer for a brief on a story, only to be handed a copy of The Guardian and told ‘it’s all in there’.

    Peter Sissons

    “In the BBC I joined 30 years ago [as a production trainee, in 1979], there was, in much of current affairs, in terms of people’s personal politics, which were quite vocal, a massive bias to the left. The organisation did struggle then with impartiality. And journalistically, staff were quite mystified by the early years of Thatcher.

    “Now it is a completely different generation. There is much less overt tribalism among the young journalists who work for the BBC. It is like the New Statesman, which used to be various shades of soft and hard left and is now more technocratic. We’re like that, too.”

    Mark Thompson [Let off for biting a colleague – another cover up]


    If you want the statistical analysis of the bias

  28. GTE

    This paper uses objective, quantitative
    methods, based on the existing academic
    literature on media bias, to look for evidence
    of slant in the BBC’s online reporting.
     These methods minimise the need for
    subjective judgements of the content of the
    BBC’s news output to be made. As such, they
    are less susceptible to accusations of
    partiality on the part of the author than many
    previous studies.
     The paper first examines 40 think-tanks
    which the BBC cited online between 1 June
    2010 and 31 May 2013 and compares the
    number of citations to those of The Guardian
    and The Daily Telegraph newspapers.
     In a statistical sense, the BBC cites these
    think-tanks “more similarly” to that of The
    Guardian than that of The Daily Telegraph.
     In particular, the number of articles on the
    BBC website mentioning a given think-tank is
    more highly correlated with its number of
    mentions in The Guardian than its number of
    mentions in The Daily Telegraph.
     Regression analysis shows that coverage in
    The Guardian is a much stronger predictor
    of coverage by the BBC than is coverage in
    The Daily Telegraph.
     Once we control for coverage of a think-tank
    in The Guardian, the number of hits a thinktank
    received in The Daily Telegraph has no
    statistically significant correlation with its
    coverage by the BBC.
     This paper then looks at the “health
    warnings” given to think-tanks of different
    ideological persuasions when they are
    mentioned on the BBC website.
     It finds that right-of-centre think-tanks are far
    more likely to receive health warnings than
    their left-of-centre counterparts (the former
    received health warnings between 23% and
    61% of the time while the latter received
    them between 0% and 12% of the time).
     It shows that a higher proportion of left-ofcentre
    think-tanks than right-of-centre thinktanks
    are referred to as “independent”.
     These statistics are consistent with previous
    studies which have suggested that the BBC
    has a left-of-centre slant in its reporting

  29. Eva

    “in the BBC I joined 30 yrs ago”, how is that relevant? As for Peter Osborne,he would say that wouldn’t he?

  30. GTE

    You’ve ignored the rest. From the anecdotal like Osborne and others, to the statistical.

    Funny that, when the evidence’s against you, you’ve a problem

  31. Di

    we could take their power away by simply not buying their papers

  32. James Waldie

    Only Read “The National” and “The Morning Star” why should we waste money on papers that tell nothing but lies would rather spend my money on a guid cup of tea and a blether at least you would get 95% truth than a 100% lies

  33. Adrian Wilkins

    Are these actually fair assessments of BBC bias, or just a couple of useful soundbites that support the point of view of right wingers though?

    If anything, the BBC have demonstrated a bias in favour of the Coalition and Conservative government recently – vast amounts of left-wing public protest has gone virtually unreported.

    This mornings BBC News front page was mostly occupied with a full-width banner of an RAF Tornado. Really unsupportive of the government agenda, no?

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  37. Mark Jones

    There used to be Labour and there used to be Conservative – oh, and let’s not forget the Liberals, but they have long gone. In their place are many closet globalists and cultural Marxists – and the same can be said about the press. These duplicitous mindsets are colluding (intentionally or otherwise) to create their vision of the future – a superstate of their own choosing, be it a European Union Superstate (a stepping stone – a microcosm of the larger, world-wide movement) or a World Wide Superstate straight off the bat. Are the press left or right these days? Neither, if you ask me, being one and the same – all forging a path to a one world order, be it globalist or socialist inspired.

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