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Should we allow the media moguls to reach the Sky?

A flow chart illustrating media ‘plurality’. Photo: Raziye Akkoc

Not a day goes by without a reference in the media, the press especially, to an activity, action or decision relating to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, News International or more recently, the BSkyB bid.

If anyone subscribes to the Media Guardian Briefing weekday e-mails, you’ll know exactly what I mean. From Jeremy Hunt’s approval of the BSkyB bid to Murdoch’s bid for F1, from Sky Sports’ 20 year anniversary to the ever-growing phone-hacking debacle, the media commentators, writers and critics from the Guardian, Independent, Telegraph, and even the Times and the Daily Mail provide a mass of information wholly relating to Murdoch’s enterprises alongside other media stories in the e-mails.

Murdoch isn’t the only man with several fingers in media pies. Richard Desmond (the man who is bringing Big Brother back to our screens) is another media mogul, set to grow after his recent acquisition of Channel 5 in July 2010.

Considering the fact that the purchase from the former owner, entertainment network RTL of Five Group includes 5* and 5 USA, Desmond’s television purchase is quite considerable. Then there’s his newspapers. He owns both the Daily Express and the Daily Star also, as well as the magazines OK!, Star and New. In an interesting parallel with Murdoch presented, BBC News informs me that Desmond was interested in buying The Sun last year.

Of course, Desmond does not have nearly the same influence on news output as Murdoch but his comparison with Murdoch highlights the lack of media plurality in the UK. (Note. Channel 5 news is produced by, yes you guessed it, Sky News).
Before I received the e-mails from the Guardian and hearing about the BSkyB bid, I believed that the assumption that Murdoch had too much control, power and influence was exaggerated – after all, he currently owns only part of the Sky franchise and aside from the Sun, his press influence didn’t seem that big. I’m not anti-Murdoch; the man is incredible and if he can get more, why shouldn’t he?

I know I would want more if I could get more, especially if I knew I could have more power within the media. I blame the past governments, especially the governments of the last 30 years which have allowed this expansion and still do.

In the light of the recent bid for BSkyB, a closer look at the moguls amongst the British media landscape is imperative – how an Australian-American owns many of our media institutions – and the legislation currently in the UK.

I seek to emphasise the importance of media plurality as I now understand, particularly in the light of the Arab Spring, how information is not just there, it is found, and if we’re fortunate, it’s printed. Often it isn’t, as many in China and Iran know well enough.

Media Legislation

During Margaret Thatcher’s government, legislation, control and restriction of media companies declined. It was during her government that Murdoch bought the Times and the Sunday Times.

Again in 1990, Murdoch was able to merge Sky TV with British Satellite Broadcasting (BSB) to form BSkyB, and now News Corporation wants to buy the 61 percent it doesn’t own. (Today, BSkyB is the UK’s largest pay-TV satellite broadcaster with over 10 million subscribers recorded in March this year.)

Approval of this bid came from Jeremy Hunt, though his final word is due soon. It’s interesting to note that while Conservative governments have allowed Murdoch’s companies to flourish, Labour has not been wholly innocent either. In 2002, it was Labour who relaxed the media ownership legislation by allowing newspaper companies the opportunity to take over Channel 5. (And in 2010, it was Desmond’s Northern and Shell Network Ltd which bought Channel 5 and its sister channels).

The laws also enabled Granada and Carlton to form one large ITV company so it’s safe to say both the main political parties can be blamed for the situation we’re now in, in which Murdoch could soon own all of BSkyB. But is this bad, many ask? After all, it is generally known that he wields a lot of power at Sky so owning the whole company won’t make much of a difference.

Yet it does, if only to stem to current proliferation of News Corporation and News International. Although it is not possible to make Hunt change his mind, and Sky News is to be spun off into a separate company, after delving into British media and who owns what, it is disturbing to see how much Desmond and Murdoch control (see graph).

Ironically one of the best summaries of why media plurality matters comes from a Conservative Party report from 1995: ‘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.’ In a world of spin and PR, it is important that the media we consume provides a variety of opinions, differing perspectives and several choices.

The issue with regards to Murdoch and Desmond is not that they own so much, but what they own and how popular they are. According to the ABCs for national daily newspaper circulation, Murdoch’s Sun had nearly 3 million readers (2,817,857 to be exact) whilst Desmond’s Express and Daily Star had over 600,000 readers each.

Many believe, including the paper itself, that the Sun has an impact on who wins in the election; as their 1992 post-election headline revealed, ‘It’s The Sun Wot Won It’. I cannot say for sure whether the Sun was “Wot Won It” in 1992 but to an extent, it seems that from that year onwards, whoever the paper backed won.

In late September 2009, the Sun turned its back on supporting Labour since 1997 and returned to Tory support. Personally, though I may question the proprietor’s power, after the recession and the Election That Never Was, Gordon Brown never had a chance of winning in 2010 because of his dithering and his lack of media know-how; he didn’t spin quite as well as Blair did. Hence I do not believe that the Sun dictates who wins – but it certainly does help to pander to Murdoch’s interests as politicians have shown to do.
As aforementioned, there needs to be an equal amount of opinions and coverage of issues, events, etc., which is why having a proprietor with interests elsewhere can lead to limited coverage of a story or excessive coverage. Take for example both the Daily Star’s and Daily Express’ coverage of Channel 5, both paper and channel owned by Richard Desmond’s Northern & Shell Ltd.

According to the Independent, and quoted by Lord Puttnam in the House of Lords Media Ownership debate, “since Richard Desmond bought Channel 5 in July [2010], the Daily Star and the Daily Express have mentioned that broadcaster 1,073 times. That compares to the year before the deal in which there were just 92 mentions.”

Desmond can effectively advertise his own channel, giving unequal attention to the five terrestrial channels. Similarly in Murdoch’s Times, the Guardian highlighted the fact that on the eve of Sky Sports’ 20th anniversary, the paper had two pages “celebrating the eve of the 20th anniversary of Sky Sports, describing it as a ‘TV revolution’ that ‘has altered our viewing lives’.”

The evident bias emphasised by the above examples prove that proprietors can skew a newspaper’s coverage, and if Murdoch and Desmond can do this, then of course it is not surprising that they do.

What is more surprising and maddening is Ofcom’s lack of significant impact and the lack of regulation of the relationship between a company’s newspaper and television channel.

Proprietors and owners of conglomerates will seek to serve their own interests and often their own family as the appointment of James Murdoch (Rupert’s son) as Chairman and Chief Executive of News Corporation, Europe and Asia suggests. Likewise, though not as present and overbearing an owner as others, Alexander Lebedev’s son, Evgeny Lebedev is Chairman of both Evening Standard Ltd. and Independent Print Ltd.

If we oppose internships being given to children of their parent’s friends, etc., then surely we must oppose large media companies giving their children, almost always sons, the top jobs?

Opponents and critics of my view will claim that ITV’s existence as well as Channel 4 and BBC, a massive corporation itself, as well as the myriad of broadsheets and tabloids with the growth of the internet mean that currently there is choice and that the BSkyB bid will not change the landscape. But it will.

With Sky’s profits predicted to be £8 billion by 2016 and Lord Puttnam predicting “News Corporation’s share of national press circulation alone will steadily increase to more than 40 percent by 2014”, it is imperative that the company, already the world’s third-largest media conglomerate, does not get more power than it already has.

In the light of the recent phone-hacking scandal, it is time the media industry, in particular the press, is regulated properly to ensure that it fulfils its duty to provide readers differing opinions and news stories.

In a period in which we see men and women lose their lives for democracy and freedom, isn’t it better if we ensure that the fourth estate maintains its purpose to keep an eye on those with privilege and power who may be party to corruption?

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