Real press reform would look at who owns our media

Freedom of the press in Britain is the freedom to 'print such of the proprietor’s prejudices as the advertisers don’t object to'.

On Friday parliament agreed to introduce what is effectively state regulation of the press – albeit via royal charter. It’s also been reported today that two journalists from the Sun will be charged over the theft of an MP’s mobile phone in 2010.

This is the result of the long drawn-out Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press.

If you listen to Hacked off, we require greater regulation because the newspapers are out of control – bullying, harassing and toxifying British political life with their relentless smears and sensationalism.

For opponents of press regulation, however, the free press is a cornerstone of our democracy; and besides, wasn’t phone hacking already illegal? Why not just enforce existing legislation instead of bringing in more?

Disappointingly, both sides of the debate – and the Leveson report itself – completely ignored a bigger issue – who owns the press, and who, ultimately, decides what gets printed.

Despite all the talk of a ‘free’ press by both sides of the debate, newspaper ownership in Britain is largely feudal and undemocratic.

You may think that this is unimportant, but it has had an undeniable impact on our national conversation and, as a result, the democratic process. As Hannen Swaffer, one of the early 20th century pioneers of British tabloid journalism, phrased it, “freedom of the press in Britain is the freedom to print such of the proprietor’s prejudices as the advertisers don’t object to”.

Sometimes this is shockingly apparent. Tony Blair’s former special advisor Lance Price even wrote in his memoirs that Mr Murdoch was the “third person to be consulted on every major decision” during Blair’s time in office.

Who voted for this, exactly?

As it stands 52.2 per cent of our printed press is controlled by two billionaires and 77.8 per cent is controlled by six billionaires.

None of us voted for Rupert Murdoch, Paul Dacre or the Barclay brothers and yet we persist in allowing much of our national conversation to be defined by this small pool of people.

There is strong public support for a more democratic media which politicians have up to now shown no appetite to tap in to. Around three quarters of respondents quizzed in an IPPR poll last year supported limits on the overall proportion of the UK media a single person or company can own, with three quarters (76 per cent) wanting fixed limits on newspaper ownership.

62 per cent of people wanted the number of newspapers a single owner can own to be two or less.

A more democratic media would lead to a greater degree of plurality and eventually, one would hope, a lot less immigrant baiting and celebrity gossip. So why aren’t we talking about this, rather than attempting to bring in more regulation to control things which were illegal anyway?

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