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.

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

  1. 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 ,….

  2. 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?

  3. 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?

  4. 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?


  5. 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.

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