Monday, April 23News For London

We need to talk about media democracy

UK’s media landscape is inching deeper into the hands hands and pockets of large corporate giants. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch is currently revisiting his bid to buyout UK’s largest broadcaster, Sky.

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Chairman of Twenty-First Century Fox and News Corp, Rupert Murdoch relaunches his bid to acquire Sky. | Photo: CC WikiCommons / DS

Media activists and politicians are calling foul, flagging the £11 billion takeover as a threat to media plurality, and are asking for the Leveson Inquiry Part Two to take place.  ‘News of the World’, owned by Murdoch, was critically discussed at the first inquiry for the newspaper’s controversial practices in relation to the phone hacking scandal of murdered teen Milly Dowler.

“When you’ve got a news editor telling you that you will print something even you know that is wrong, you get a situation where journalism is compliant — that is basically another form of corporate bullying. We don’t have freedom of the press in those situations,” said Professor Natalie Fenton, Co-Director of Goldsmiths’ Centre for the Study of Global Media and Democracy, at the Media Democracy Festival in London last the weekend. The festival in itself highlights the urgency of the lack of media plurality in the UK today, with Murdoch’s Sky takeover the key focus in discussions.

Murdoch currently owns 39.1 per cent of Sky’s company’s shares. However, with misconceptions that Murdoch already owns the network, which is heavily influenced by Twenty-First Century Fox, it may be easy to assume that Murdoch’s acquisition of Sky will not make much of a difference to its British viewers. The issue, however, is much more complicated than that.

In September, it was reported that Theresa May also had a private meeting with Murdoch in New York, just months after she moved into Number 10. Over the weekend, Reuters suggests that the deal could be seen as positive for the British economy post-Brexit from the point of view of Theresa May.

Murdoch, in the Leveson Inquiry, previously spoke about his multiple visits to 10 Downing Street via the backdoor, revealing close ties with former prime ministers including Margaret Thatcher, Gordon Brown and David Cameron. Speaking under oath, Murdoch repeatedly denied if he did any favours for the prime ministers by providing media support in its newspaper publications in exchange for business favours.

Providing an insight into the reaction of parliament Murdoch’s latest bid, that was not of shock but anger.  MP Jonathan McDonnell said, in an address in London last weekend, “I think we need to be really motivated by anger at the moment about what’s happening. I think if Murdoch’s bid goes through, they will be celebrating the closing of the waters over Leveson Inquiry and it will be a significant step backwards to the oligarchical control of our media on a scale that, even though we find offensive at the moment.”

And what can the public expect from a number of the politicians? “We will be calling for [Murdoch’s bid] to be referred to Ofcom on the basis of a public interest investigation,” McDonnell assured. “We’ll also be asking questions about the visit of Theresa May to New York when she met Rupert Murdoch. We’ll be asking simple questions: Why did you visit Rupert Murdoch? What was discussed? Was the Sky bid discussed? And was any deal done?”

Highlighting a deep concern for the public, Dr Justin Schlosberg, Media Coalition Chair, stressed the fact that “ministers are allowed to sit down and chat with Rupert Murdoch without the public having any insight as to what the discussion was about”.

In a discussion of ‘Challenging platform monopolies’ at the Media Democracy Festival, Schlosberg talked about his efforts in submitting an FOI request for more details about the meetings of senior politicians and media at senior levels, but deemed that his request was “fudged”. He later went to the Information Commission, who informed him that engagements between ministers and senior members in the media “can be confidential” — a situation that is in direct conflict with one of the Leveson recommendations for politicians to disclose the content of discussions with media personnels in meetings, including those of private nature.

The problem of such incestuous ties of government officials and media bosses need to be looked into. But perhaps those questions will carry more weight when put forward directly to the prime minister herself in Parliament by Mr McDonnell.

“I am fearful we could be entering into a fairly dark age of media ownership — The cartels, the oligarchs back in control. This renewal of power and the arrogance of media elite ownership continuing an even more extensively dominating dissidence,” Mr McDonnell.

Speaking in London on a panel with Peter Jukes, author of ‘The Fall of the House of Murdoch’ and Brian Cathcart of Hacked Off, Fenton recognised that there is a fear in journalists, particularly in the gig economy, where contracts are not secure and desperate to hang on to those jobs resulting in journalism that is compliant.

It has been five years since the Leveson Inquiry. Following which Murdoch has strategically split his empire of print publications and broadcast networks into News Corp and Twenty-First Century Fox — presumable to separate the latter from the scandal. This time, the acquisition of Sky network is set to be carried out by Twenty-First Century Fox, instead of News Corp as attempted previously. The reappointment of his son, James Murdoch, earlier this year to as Sky chairman perhaps hinted at the plans for the bid. James Murdoch is also CEO of Twenty-First Century Fox.

Should the question of media plurality arise, the change in the media landscape in the past few years will serve as Rupert Murdoch’s ammunition to fire back at any cries of media monopoly, an observation echoed by the Financial Times. Argument points from Murdoch’s party can include falling newspaper circulation, the rise in online users — whereby the bodies in to be questioned would be Google and Facebook, and not Murdoch. Additionally, on-demand television services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime provide weight that plurality in the media is more available than ever before.

While the BBC currently serves as a counterweight to commercial media, the Media Reform Coalition suggested in its media ownership report that the public broadcast service is under threat due to the reduction in government funding.

The Media Reform Coalition and media activists are calling for a Leveson Inquiry Part Two to commence. The Leveson Inquiry is a judicial public inquiry investigation following the phone hacking scandal by ‘News of the World’, which Murdoch shut overnight — only to open the ‘Sun’ newspaper days later. The inquiry, divided into two parts, looked into the ethics and role of the media; relationships of politicians, police, and the media.

“One of the things Leveson urgently recommended was a great deal more transparency in the context of ministers and senior media personnel. None of that has been taken on board,” explained Schlosberg. According to the official website of the Leveson Inquiry explains that the second part of the inquiry is unable to take place “until the current police investigations and any subsequent criminal proceedings have been completed.” Media activists groups have been pressuring the government for part two to commence.

Following Murdoch’s Sky bid announcement, a petition to ‘Stop Murdoch’ has been launched demanding Culture Secretary, Karen Bradley to “issue a public interest intervention notice” into the buyout of UK’s largest broadcaster, Sky. Launched by Schlosberg,the petition has collected nearly 1,700 signatures at press time.