Concentrating media influence in the hands of the few will lead to a narrowing of political discussion

by Andy Dodd

RECENTLY I heard Lord Tim Bell, ex-advisor to Margaret Thatcher, defend Rupert Murdoch’s bid to take full control of Sky on the BBC world at one.  While Tim Bell’s views on media ownership are predictable, what caught my attention was how he enthused about the plethora of platforms and channels that enable us to have choice over how we access news and information, and how this diversity would ensure plurality and choice in the media.

I was momentarily beguiled by this warm, PR-spun vision of the always connected, always informed society, but then sanity prevailed and I began to realise that this vague, utopian sound bite really doesn’t stand up to any kind of scrutiny.

It’s faintly ridiculous to see someone like Tim Bell using the very philosophy of free and open content provision that Rupert Murdoch hates so much, as a means to justify News Corp being allowed to further eradicate pluralism in the media.

The reality is that large media groups are doing everything they can to roll back openness and return us to the walled garden of the early days of the internet. For example; restricting access to content unless people are prepared to pay for it.  Just because there are dozens of different ways to access information, it doesn’t follow that the content is accessible.

Rupert Murdoch’s strategic objective is to remove content from the myriad of free channels Lord Bell eulogises about, unless those platforms are owned and managed for profit by his companies.  Whilst I don’t have a problem with businesses making money from their intellectual property, it’s clearly going to be a barrier to open and genuine debate if the dominant mainstream news provider plans to convert as much of its output as it can get away with into a subscription asset.

At a national press club event in New York in April 2010, Murdoch stated:

We are going to stop people like Google or Microsoft or whoever from taking stories for nothing […]I do think when readers have got nowhere else to go they’ll start paying, so long as it’s reasonable and not a lot of money.

I’ve learnt to live with Sky Sports having an exclusive lock on my favourite cricket and football moments but I don’t think News Corp should have a similar grip on current affairs and matters of national interest.

Concentrating media influence into the hands of a single organisation will undoubtedly lead to a narrowing of political discussion and a reduction of opportunity for those with different views to Rupert Murdoch to air their voice. Whilst Tim Bell rightly points to the laws on partiality that protect UK current affairs from outright bias (thank God; Fox News UK anyone?), he also knows that cross-media ownership allows a particular viewpoint to permeate channels indirectly in countless ways.

Slow seeping contamination over a long period of time can be more harmful than a concentrated dose since people pay attention to what they can see but often neglect the subtle changes they can’t.  So while it is illegal to misreport the news, it’s perfectly legal to be selective about what is published.  It seems hard to believe now, but back in April before the Lib Dems were subsumed by the Conservatives, Nick Clegg was complaining that the Sun buried a story about a YouGov poll that showed voters feared a Lib Dem government less than they did a Labour or Tory one.  If News Corp takes over Sky, we can expect more of the same.

Influential tycoons using their power to manipulate and secrete changes that further their political or business ambitions are what the historian, Kim Phillips-Fein, labeled “invisible hands” in her prescient 2009 book of that title.  It is widely accepted that different parts of News Corp will try to avoid presenting subjects in ways that might contradict the views and interests of their owner.

The fragmentation of communication channels, far from creating a holistic counterbalance to vested corporate interest is arguably having the opposite effect.  With so much content out there, much of it often extreme and ill-founded, users are driven back towards trusted providers like News Corp (or the BBC and other established outlets) because of familiarity and ease of access. In the event of a major national or international event, most people don’t turn to Twitter, they turn on the TV to find out what is going on. It is still the old media that filters out all the noise of user generated information and guides people to shape and form their opinion.

Clearly, Tim Bell and I have very different politics but this is not the basis of my opposition.  I’m not an extremist.  Rupert Murdoch is entitled to hold and to air his views like anyone else.  But what nobody, either on the left, right or centre of public opinion, should be allowed to do is to create a monopoly whereby their views are the dominant voice, to the detriment and exclusion of all else.  In this case, wealth gives Rupert Murdoch a platform that Lord Bell’s rainbow of bloggers, writers and small publications can only dream of.  The sheer volume and multiplicity of these tiny channels does not in itself counterbalance the power and influence of a multi-national, self serving media conglomerate.

So with 100% ownership of Sky, plus four national newspapers, it is incomprehensible that anyone could argue that a reduction in media plurality would not be a highly probable outcome.  Ivan Lewis and John Denham need to ensure that the defenders of Murdoch’s aspirations are not allowed to gloss over the harmful potential of a buy out with soundbites, spin and vague eulogies to the power of new media.

Andy Dodd is a Labour party member.

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3 Responses to “Concentrating media influence in the hands of the few will lead to a narrowing of political discussion”

  1. les says:

    Utter rubbish

    It is going to cost Murdoch billions to buy out the remaining shares – with that sort of money he could be doing what you are suggesting, already could he not?

    Far more worrying is the BBC

  2. Jacquie R says:

    The problem is that, despite the intervention of Vince Cable, existing regulations may not be sufficient to prevent the News Corporation takeover of the rest of BSkyB. Analysts expect that it will still go ahead next summer.

    For this and wider concerns about media plurality, we need a fundamental review on the rules governing its ownership, competition and regulation. As Will Hutton recently proposed, this can best be achieved through the appointment of a royal commission. At present, however, there is no political will to take this route.

    We have therefore established a grassroots internet campaign called DemocracyFail, which is gathering support for a media commission. We invite anyone concerned about the dangerous concentration of media ownership in Britain to follow us on Twitter and to visit us at

  3. Andy Dodd says:

    ‘Billions’ is a relative term. It will cost £7.8 billion based on the offer Murdoch made in June. But News Corp’s market cap is over $40 billion and they have cash liquidity so it’s not going to place stress on the group. Owning Sky gives Murdoch access to the enormous cash engine that is BSkyB, which would permit News Corp to adopt aggressive bundling and cross-marketing strategies across the portfolio of businesses, damaging competition and plurality. An empire of print, online and television, completely unrestrained by any notion of impartiality, propelled by a single-minded commercial vision, would have enormous implications for British democracy.

    Politicians on left and right have courted Rupert Murdoch for years whilst rarely missing the opportunity to take the BBC to task. I’m not sure, therefore, why we should worry about the BBC which, for all its faults, is still arguably one of the most trusted and independent sources of information on the planet.

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