Britain: Media, Murdoch and Leveson

Prime minster Cameron, the Murdoch empire and the police have been part of a web of mutual support and corruption

MPs’ expenses, bankers’ bonuses, corporate tax dodgers; this deep, long-term crisis of capitalism has brought with it a thorough-going crisis of legitimacy in capitalist institutions. The murky Murdochgate scandal implicated media bosses, political leaders and police tops and led to the setting up of the Leveson Inquiry into press standards. The report from the first part of the Inquiry is due to be released on Thursday 29 November.

Judy Beishon, from the Socialist Party executive committee looks at the background to the Leveson Inquiry.

The ’Murdochgate’ phone hacking scandal brought out into the public arena the huge power that the press barons wield – intruding into the lives of any of us; threatening politicians with unfavourable coverage if they dare to defy their interests; using the propaganda they want; and so the list goes on.

Public officials, including police and prison officers, have been bribed by newspaper journalists and a number of top Tories had columns in Murdoch’s papers and journals, or book deals with his companies. Prime Minister David Cameron was very close to two of the News of the World editors, Tony Blair secretly became godfather of one of Murdoch’s children; there was a vast web of links involving mutual favours among the rich, along with corruption and some criminality.

When the phone hacking revelations were escalating and his own links became clear, Cameron felt compelled to shunt the scandal of the News of the World’s abuses into an inquiry led by a senior judge, Brian Leveson. The inquiry was subsequently widened to encompass other issues, including other newspapers, and links between the media and the police and politicians.

In the run-up to the inquiry’s report, there has been debate and panic in the media and among politicians over what Leveson might recommend. The right-wing Daily Mail, owned by Viscount Rothermere (who has wealth of £760 million according to the Sunday Times Rich List), devoted ten of its pages on 16 November to point out that there were ’assessors’ working with Leveson during his inquiry who support independent or statutory regulation of the press.

The Tory party is divided on the issue of regulation, with Cameron among those wanting no statutory regulation, while others are pushing for it.

Many of the politicians of all three main parties who are baying for blood in the form of curbs on the press are sanctimoniously arguing that it would be in the ’public interest’. Some of their critics, though, have accused them of being motivated by rage at having been exposed by the press for over-claiming expenses and other corruption or suspect behaviour. No doubt they also want to reduce adverse media coverage of their parties before elections.

The Tories who oppose regulation in the interests of a ’free press’ do so in the knowledge that most of the media is owned by their big business friends, so it’s better for them to leave it unhampered and exert influence over the media barons during dinners at elite clubs and other networking occasions than to risk unpredictable interference from a new body.

The present self-regulation of the press, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), where newspaper editors make recommendations to each other – is clearly unable to stop unacceptable stories and methods. But does this mean that socialists should support ’independent’ or statutory regulation?

Big business barons

Firstly we have to point out that the fundamental problem is not one of poor regulation, but is that the media is almost entirely owned by big business individuals and conglomerates who act in the interests of the capitalist class.

An apt adage is that the mainstream media tells part of the truth some of the time, but only so it can use lies and propaganda the rest of the time.

The BBC is publicly owned, but its trustees are appointed by the government and its senior managers are not far different from those in privately owned media firms in echoing the ideology and needs of the capitalist class.

Therefore its coverage and political line reflects the views of the government and establishment – not those of ordinary people. All the media’s class bias, excesses, corruption, profiteering, lies, inaccuracy, poor quality, repetition and monopolisation will only be consigned to irrelevancy and small audiences when substantial media resources are made available for genuine public use, under public ownership, control and accountability.

Then we would start to have a media that can provide accurate information, quality investigative journalism, quality entertainment, and that can be accessed by minority points of view.

Trade unionists and socialists face a virtual blackout in today’s media – prevented from putting forward a programme against cuts in services and other austerity measures.

This means there is no informed debate where all sides can be heard on these vital issues and others of crucial importance to working class people.

Leveson inquiry

It should be working class people who lead a democratically organised inquiry into phone hacking and other unacceptable practices by the press, not one appointed individual selected by the Tory prime minister – in this case Leveson. Representatives of media workers, media users and the trade unions should be fully involved in the inquiry, as well as the government.

Why should an unelected individual decide what is in the ’public interest’? Let us, the public, decide what’s in our interest! A survey by the Carnegie Trust last month found that 63% of people think that they should have an input into setting future guidelines for the press.

Most people are disgusted by the crimes and privacy invasions of the press that were revealed during the phone hacking scandal and generally don’t oppose the idea of denting the powers of the super-rich press barons to do what they like. Polls indicate that a majority of people support the idea of regulation of the press ’independent of the media and politicians’.

However, a recent poll by the Free Speech Network revealed that less than 1% of people think that regulation of the press is a priority – instead MPs should focus on issues such as improving the economy and health care they say. No doubt this stems from the fact that three out of every four people (according to a PBS UK survey) think that "media outlets sometimes, or frequently, lie to their audiences", and have probably understandably concluded that tinkering with ’regulation’ is a lost cause!

Maybe some of Leveson’s recommendations could – if agreed by the government, which is far from certain – curtail some of the invasions of privacy and other excesses of the press and give people a better route than the PCC to challenge some of the lies that are printed and broadcast.

But socialists need to warn that if regulatory powers are placed in the hands of an appointed committee, it certainly won’t be the views of the majority in society that will be the benchmark, but those of the handful on the committee – with their vested career interests and drawn mainly from the ranks of big business or capitalism’s academia.

Why should they inflict their view of morals on the rest of us, and what’s to stop them from protecting the interests of the rich and powerful by reducing the right of papers like the Socialist to expose corruption and exploitation?

Regulation by law

Any introduction of statutory underpinning of regulation carries even more dangers. This could involve state licensing of newspapers, charging them a fee for doing so, and punishing papers that break a set of rules. This could potentially be extended to websites, blogs and other online activity. Nowadays many ordinary people become ’reporters’ when they are involved in events, or just during their normal routine.

The full force of the law is already brought down on some tweeters and bloggers who are deemed to have broken certain laws when expressing an opinion or joking; more heavy handed treatment could rain down if statutory media regulation is brought in.

In Hungary there were demonstrations in January 2011 against media legislation that imposed restrictions on all broadcast, print and internet media. The new law created heavy penalties for content deemed not in the ’public interest’ or in keeping with ’common morality’, ’public order’ or ’balanced reporting’. An Amnesty International spokeswoman commented: "Facing the possibility of stringent fines or even closure, many journalists and editors are likely to choose the ’safe’ option of modifying their content".

There have been many repressive laws and attacks on democratic rights and privacy already brought in by our Tory-Lib Dem government and Labour before it. At present the Communications Data Bill is being discussed in parliament that will allow the state to store the content of the website visits, emails, text messages and phone calls of all of us if it becomes law.

The 2011 Global Press Freedom Index placed the UK only in 26th place, showing that our ’free press’ is not so free when compared to 25 countries that were judged to have greater press freedom. Plenty of laws already exist that make practises like phone hacking and invading people’s medical records illegal, so there is a danger of a new regulatory body being introduced that further counters a ’free press’ while being useless against future criminality. It’s also the case that increased regulation couldn’t cover online sources from abroad that everyone can access.

Socialists can’t support any new ’privacy’ or other laws that would allow the greed and unscrupulous methods of big business and capitalist politicians to go unreported and make it harder to expose their attacks on trade unionists, socialists, anti-cuts campaigners, benefit claimants and immigrants; and to put forward an alternative.

We need to campaign for a genuinely free media that is neither under big business control nor state control. In a socialist society it should be a means of communication for everyone, with its parameters discussed and decided democratically involving the widest possible number of people. Then it can help with planning what people need and want, and lay the basis for a massive flowering of communication, art and culture.

The Murdoch scandal

  • Murdoch. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation has 200 newspapers globally, over 50,000 workers and reaches a billion people daily. It also has TV shows, films, books and magazines with sales of $33 billion a year. In spite of the phone hacking charges at its now closed News of the World paper (NoW), shares of News Corp went up by more than a third in the year to August 2012, boosting Murdoch’s fortune by $2 billion.
  • Murdoch controls 70% of the newspaper market in Australia; In the USA he owns the New York Post, Wall Street Journal and Fox News TV channel; In Britain, News International owns the Times, Sunday Times and Sun.
  • Phone hacking. A 2006 police inquiry into phone hacking by NoW journalists was led by Andy Hayman, who by 2010 was himself writing for the Murdoch papers. That inquiry ignored a mountain of evidence that the deceit and illegal web of activity was massive. It confined the blame to just two ’rogue’ people – journalist Clive Goodman and private detective Glenn Mulcaire, who were jailed in January 2007 for four months and six months respectively.
  • When the scandal later resurged, the government eventually announced, on 13 July 2011, the setting up of an inquiry led by Lord Justice Leveson. Despite its limitations, this inquiry further exposed the web of lies and crimes and it showed the close links between the owners of the media, top politicians, judiciary and police. The police estimate that over 700 people are likely to have been victims of phone hacking, and the latest figure of possible victims is over 4,700.
  • The crimes involved phone hacking, bribes, data intrusion, computer hacking and improper access to medical, banking and other personal records.
  • NoW’s methods went as low as hacking the phone of murdered teenager Milly Dowler. Murdoch considered himself beyond the law – able to do anything he wanted.
  • Cameron. Tory Prime Minister David Cameron has had very close links with editors of NoW and other press barons. He even employed former NoW editor Andy Coulson as his communications director when Coulson was still receiving money from NoW and had £40,000 of News Corp shares. Coulson had resigned from NoW because he accepted overall ’responsibility’ for the first-revealed phone hacking cases.
  • Another former NoW editor, Rebekah Brooks, was a long-term close friend of Cameron – staunchly supporting him politically and having regular social interaction with him. She’s recently been charged with conspiracy to access voicemails, illegally paying public officials and other charges, along with six other former NoW staff and investigators, including Coulson. Also, six others, including Brooks’ husband and her chauffeur, have been charged with conspiring to pervert the course of justice. She received a £7 million pay-off after resigning from News International over the allegations against her.
  • BSkyB. The NoW scandal exposed connivance between top ministers and Murdoch over Murdoch’s bid to take overall control of TV company BskyB, including endorsement of Murdoch’s plan by Tory former Culture minister Jeremy Hunt; and an alleged deal under the Labour government that Murdoch would give more political support to Labour if funding was cut to the BBC and Ofcom. Murdoch had to suspend this drive when the phone hacking revelations escalated.
  • Bribery. The police and other public officials were bribed by NoW employees. The Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner of the London Met police resigned over these revelations. Met chief Paul Stephenson and his wife had accepted a 20 day free stay at an expensive health spa via a Murdoch intermediary. Also, the Commissioner had hired Neil Wallis as his PR adviser, who was later arrested for suspected phone hacking at NoW.
  • One prison officer received payments totalling nearly £35,000 between April 2010 and June 2011 from News International, Trinity Mirror and Express Newspapers. Another prison officer at a different prison is reported as receiving over £14,000 from Trinity Mirror between February 2006 and January 2012.
  • In July 2011 the 168-year old NoW was sacrificed by Murdoch. He needed to try to stop contamination to his other papers.
  • On 21 July 2012 Rupert Murdoch announced his resignation from the boards of a string of News International companies behind the Sun, Times and Sunday Times, plus some in the US. But he remained at the helm of News Corp. His son James had already resigned in February as chairman of News International and relocated to New York to spearhead other parts of the Murdoch empire; he remains on the board of BSkyB. News Corporation intends to separate its newspaper and publishing arm from its film and TV operations. There is speculation that Murdoch could decide to sell his UK newspapers.
  • In January 2011 Coulson resigned from Cameron’s team under pressure of the phone hacking revelations. Cameron said he was "very sorry" that Coulson felt "compelled" to resign. In May 2012 Coulson was charged with perjury – for allegedly lying to the high court in Glasgow when he gave evidence at the perjury trial of socialist Tommy Sheridan in December 2010.
  • Coulson was NoW editor when Tommy Sheridan won his defamation case against Murdoch’s News of the World Scotland. The Socialist Party and others are demanding that Tommy’s perjury conviction be overturned.

Who owns the British press?

The Sun, Times, Sunday Times: Murdoch’s News International. Rupert Murdoch is estimated by Forbes to have wealth totalling £9.4 billion. He led the attack on the power of the print unions in Britain, strongly supported Thatcher’s war on the miners and was keen to try to destroy leading Scottish anti-poll tax fighter and socialist Tommy Sheridan.

The Telegraph: The Barclay brothers, with £2,2 billion of wealth according to the 2012 Sunday Times Rich List, bought the Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph and Spectator in June 2004 for £665 million. The pair already owned the Scotsman and the Business papers; but the bulk of their empire was based around the Littlewoods catalogue and Ritz hotel.

Guardian and Observer: Owned by the Scott Trust, which is run by eleven people. Although the Trust’s trustee shareholders don’t receive dividends, they control the company’s publications. The Trust is chaired by Dame Liz Forgan, who made cuts as head of the Arts Council on behalf of the Tory/LibDem government.

Trinity Mirror: Encompasses five national and over 160 regional newspapers, plus over 500 digital products. Six large investment companies own a majority of TM’s shares. Sly Bailey announced in May that she was stepping down as chief executive following criticism from shareholders and questions about her £1.7 million pay packet.

Express newspapers: Owned by Richard Desmond, who has £1 billion of wealth according to the 2012 Sunday Times Rich List. He also owns Northern & Shell Media Group that runs TV Channel 5.

Daily Mail: Owner Viscount Rothermere has wealth of £760 million. He also owns regional newspapers.

Metro free papers: Owned by Cristina Stenbeck’s company Kinnevik media. She has wealth of £369 million.

Financial Times: Owned by Pearson plc, a multinational education and publishing company that is the largest education company and largest book publisher in the world.

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