Below is the text of the speech delivered by Justin Schlosberg on 17 June 2013 at the University of Westminster, London. The speech was part of the final session (Our Media, Not Theirs: Rally for Media Reform) of the preconference “Strategies for Media Reform: An International Workshop”.
Justin Schlosberg is a media activist, researcher and lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London. He is the author of Power Beyond Scrutiny: Media, Justice and Accountability. He has recently co-authored Mapping Digital Media: United Kingdom, a report for The Open Society Foundation.
If there is one lesson about British politics we learned from the Leveson Inquiry, it is that if you want to be a big player in government, you have to know how to flirt with Rupert Murdoch’s hench men and women. And I don’t mean flirt in a metaphorical sense, I mean literally flirt. Nor am I just referring to the match made in heaven that was David Cameron and Rebecca Brookes. No, I’m referring to the warm and loving relationship between former Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, and Newscorp lobbyist Fred Michel. Consider this rather touching exchange following television appearances in which Jeremy attempted to smooth the path for Newscorp’s take-over of BskyB.
Fred: You were great on the BBC this weekend!
Jeremy: U too daddy
Fred: Great speech. Watched it with cycling team. And I can’t believe you managed to do Newsnight as well! You have stamina daddy!
Jeremy: We all find it somewhere!
No wonder Mr Hunt felt it necessary to tell Parliament, prior to the disclosure of this exchange, that “Throughout the bid process, the contact that I had with Fred Michel was only at official meetings that were minuted with other people present”. I mean you’ve got a feel sorry for the guy. As if having his surname so fantastically mis-pronounced on BBC Radio 4 wasn’t enough humiliation, he had to have his most intimate personal text messages exposed to the British public.
But what’s all this got to do with ownership? Well it’s pretty simple. What Leveson exposed is the reality that when you become Prime Minister or Culture Secretary in this country, you become part of a special club. The likes of Brookes and Michel are not just your professional partners who ‘love working together’ with you to coin one of Rebecca’s favourite phrases, but become some of your closest and dearest friends, people you socialise with, get to know their families and go on holidays together. Of course like any relationship, things can always turn sour as we saw with John Major and Gordon Brown. But such episodes have merely provided pointers in the unofficial guide to winning power in British politics, the golden rule being make friends with the biggest most influential media figures or condemn yourself to the back benches or political exile.
This is Britain – not Italy, not Nigeria, not Russia – nor any of the places in the world where corruption in politics is a way of life. So how did it come to this?
The institutional love affair between big politics and big media
It all began at a secret lunch at Chequers in January 1981 between Rupert Murdoch and then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Following that meeting, Margaret Thatcher overrode the Monopolies Commission and waived through Mr Murdoch’s purchase of the Times and Sunday Times, doubling is ownership of British newspapers overnight. She was to reap the rewards of her loyalty for the next 9-10 years in office and so began decades of media ownership de-regulation and the institutional love affair between big politics and big media.
Coincidentally or not, so also began the complete erosion of the left in mainstream British politics. The Labour Party soon realised that there were certain criteria for admission into the club, not least support for de-regulation of all industries, including the media. Even when this enabled the greatest economic collapse in modern history, few in the Labour Party dared to cross the rubicon and start uttering the old dirty words like regulation, nationalisation or mention the word ‘welfare’ without adding ‘reform’. Today, six out of the seven biggest national newspapers by circulation peddle a conservative, neoliberal right-wing agenda. For two decades, progressive politics in this country has had no choice and no voice.
A Tweet of a Russian media mogul
But it’s not just about Murdoch, and it’s not just about the tabloids. The Russian billionaire owner of the Independent and Evening Standard wrote the following tweet after giving testimony to Leveson: “forgot to tell Leveson that it’s unreasonable to expect individuals to spend millions of pounds on newspapers and not have access to politicians”. Interesting use of the word ‘unreasonable’ here. Mr Lebedev evidently hasn’t quite mastered the British way of not being completely up front about corruption in politics. In particular though, this tweet reveals two key things.
- First, the financial struggles in which all newspapers are embroiled is no reason not to regulate ownership. If anything, they have opened the door to a new class of media moguls who are willing to use newspapers not for their commercial value, but political clout. And make no mistake, despite dwindling profits, newspapers are more relevant today than ever. Most of the biggest titles are reaching far greater audiences than they did ten years ago, courtesy of their online editions. And they still play a leading role in the news agenda. Walk into any television newsroom and the first thing you are likely to see is a large table covered in the morning papers.
- The second insight revealed by this tweet is that newspaper owners have simply come to expect that their investments in news ought to pay off in political influence. It’s a type of sleaze culture more insidious and far-reaching than cash-for-questions or any of the networks of corruption that have undermined British democracy and faith in the 3 P’s: politicians, police and press.
The Guardian as the guardian of the public interest ?
And it’s not just about the right wing press. The Guardian likes to extoll its role as guardian of the public interest but for every expose that emerges from the liberal media, there are countless others where we might justifiably ask, where were they?
- For nearly two decades when bankers were playing roulette with the livelihoods of families crippled in debt?
- During the forty years it took for the victims of Bloody Sunday to finally get some semblance of justice?
- In the twenty five years of corrupt and failed investigations into the murder of private investigator Daniel Morgan, whose partner went on to cement links between the police and News of the World?
- In the ten years since the death of intelligence expert and outed BBC source David Kelly during which successive governments have denied him a proper inquest, despite copious evidence that the official explanation of death is unsafe?
Of course the serious news media do some good journalism, but the trappings of sensationalism, institutional conformity and herd behaviour are all too apparent here as they are among the tabloids.
Ownership regulation will make a start
Ownership regulation will not solve all these problems but it will make a start. If you change the dynamics of ownership, you may begin to change the culture that draws red lines for journalists as much as it does for politicians.
An artwork of the rally on “Our Media, Not Theirs” held on 17 June 2013
In particular, as well as capping the volume of media controlled by individual entities, ownership reform could ensure that the most powerful owners who fall below the cap are nevertheless kept at arms-length from the content of their media outlets. A journalism that is less directed is surely one that is more searching, more questioning, more scrutinising. And if accompanied by new mechanisms of funding, it could provide meaningful support for real journalism protected from the trappings and pressures of the corporate media.
Some will say it’s not the right time. That the issue is too hot, too complex and we haven’t yet finished dealing with the whole problem of statutory versus self-regulation.
On the contrary, ownership reform is more urgent and far more fundamental to the public interest than any of the issues which made up the bulk of Leveson’s lengthy report. We need ownership reform now
- Because trust in the integrity of our most sacred public institutions is at an all-time low.
- Because the existing plurality regime has proved entirely unfit for purpose, poised as it was to wave through once again Murdoch’s latest bid for empire expansion (until the phone hacking scandal unfolded).
- Because following that scandal, never has there been such a consensus that something needs to be done about media plurality – a consensus that stretches across borders and across the political divide.
- Because make no mistake – Murdoch has not and will not bow out gracefully and his latest moves to siphon off his press interests from his entertainment assets may yet pave the way for a renewed bid to buy-out BskyB.
- Because in our increasingly mobile, technology-dependent, twitterized and work-centred lifestyles, the mainstream media have become the only means by which we convene and converse as citizens in a democracy. And for too long we have allowed that space to be annexed by narrow corporate interests serving shareholders and press barons over citizens and publics.
We ought to reclaim that space. We can reclaim it. And we need to do it now.