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. Eva


  2. 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

  3. 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

  4. Eva

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

  5. 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

Comments are closed.