Media ownership really matters

Resignations, apologies, arrests, a newspaper’s closure and the final decision to abandon BSkyB bid, the phone hacking case has shaken Murdoch’s empire to its foundations. The same politicians, who were keen to win the support of Murdoch’s newspapers, now try to distance themselves from the scandal. David Cameron has recently raised the need of a review of regulation of the press in the House of Commons but the truth is that the illegal practices of News Corporation reveal the dark side of Murdoch’s abuse of a dominant position on the British media market during the last years.

News Corporation is one of the top five global media groups, which controls over the 37% of national newspaper circulation in the United Kingdom. While media experts have been warning about the risks that a high level of market dominance represents, the whole issue for the total control of BSkyB raised vital public interest issues, such as a threat to media pluralism and diversity. Since  BSkyB supplies Channel 5 News, Sky News and virtually all commercial radio news, it was logical to think that the takeover would represent a threat to diversity due to the reduction of the number of news providers and media outlets essential in democracy, a decline in the quality of the news and content and an abuse of dominant position.

A significant part of the British media – the companies behind The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mail, as well as the owners of The Guardian and The Daily Mirror – joined forces against Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and sent a petition letter to Business Secretary Vicent Cable to consider blocking the takeover. Also, organisations like Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom and National Union of Journalists exposed a scenario in which alerted the public to the plurality fears, and the dangers of the takeover, in terms of the quality of the news and content and an abuse of dominant position.

NUJ General Secretary Jeremy Dearviews said:

Rupert Murdoch’s profit-at-all costs philosophy forces too many journalists to cut corners, compromise professional standards and set aside ethical conduct for fear of failing to deliver the sales demanded by executives. This model of journalism is not in the public interest – it serves only the accountants. Those jailed are victims of a culture which comes from the very top.”  

Media expert Granville Williams from CPBF stated:

“A merged company would completely dominate UK media. It would create the media equivalent of a black hole whose sheer power can distort damage or destroy other media. The size and scale of the resources which News Corporation would deploy against its UK competitors in broadcasting and publishing would put them at a massive competitive disadvantage.”

However, the warnings and efforts did not prevent Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt to give green light for the takeover and the UK government to approve the bid. Very different position from 1995, when a UK government proposal on media ownership established the need to keep the balance of media power:

“A free and diverse media are an indispensable part of the democratic process. They provide the multiplicity of voices and opinions that informs the public, influences opinion, and engenders political debate. They promote the culture of dissent which any healthy democracy must have…If one voice becomes too powerful, this process is placed in jeopardy and democracy is damaged.”  

Years later, the conclusion drawn is that the political system has failed not only to tackle the problem but to prevent the public from the threat to pluralism and diversity that a high level of media market dominance entails. The phone hacking scandal is a natural consequence for not setting legal limits on media ownership, and as such, it is something that could have been avoided. Only a media outlet with an extraordinary level of power and influence and the favour of the political class would have dared to carry out such improper and illegal press practices

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