An inquiry into media ethics in Australia – where Rupert Murdoch has a seventy per cent share of the newspaper market – was hailed at a TUC fringe meeting as another milestone in a widening international campaign against the power of News Corporation.
Confirmation that the inquiry would go ahead came within hours of the start of a rally in London (13.9.2011) to establish the broadest possible campaign to urge the Leveson Inquiry to recommend new limits and controls on media ownership in the UK.
On behalf of the organisers of the rally – the National Union of Journalists, Unite and the CPBF – the veteran campaigner Granville Williams said activists would face a daunting challenge in trying to maintain the outcry against phone-hacking at the News of the World and the corporate abuses of News International; it could take several years for any changes to be implemented.
“Only the involvement of a broad range of concerned citizens will ensure we get even half of what we want...an end to the way in which for over thirty to forty years Rupert Murdoch has been able to take a grip of British politics and democracy.”
But help was at hand...a succession of speakers outlined a series of moves designed to keep the issue of media ownership in the public eye and to force the Coalition government to pay heed to the evidence which would be presented to the Leveson inquiry.
Sam Barratt of the American online pressure group Avaaz – which has been campaigning against News Corporation together with its UK counterpart 38 degrees – said their part in forcing the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard to concede an inquiry into the effectiveness of the Australian Press Council illustrated the success of their ongoing international campaign.
The Australian inquiry will be headed by a retired judge, assisted by a journalism professor, and its terms of reference include examining the effectiveness of media codes of practice, press self-regulation and the impact of technological change.
Barratt said their success mirrored the work of Avaaz and 38 degrees in delaying and eventually frustrating the attempt by the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt to approve Murdoch’s bid for total control of BSkyB, “one of the greatest media cash cows in the world.”
“Hunt did not know what hit him. His department was inundated with 40,000 comments. He had not realised, for example, that we had 3,000 members in his South West Surrey constituency and he had an even greater surprise when forty to fifty of them ambushed him on a visit to Sainsbury’s in Godalming.”
Barratt said the power of online campaigning had caught the Australian government off guard. “We took the campaign to Australia and once 30,000 people wrote to Gillard asking for change, there was no way a Prime Minister with a majority of only two could ignore those submissions.
“The next target for Avaaz is the USA...we really want to take action in America. We now have 10 million members worldwide, 700,000 in the UK and our strength is our tenacity and our speed. There are only thirty-six of us around the world but if we have an idea on Monday morning, we can execute it by Monday afternoon.
“We say no company should own more than twenty per cent of the media in any one country, anything more distorts the political debate. Changing the media landscape is a big issue around the world and it will allow more people a say in the politics of their country.”
Granville Williams identified a more immediate danger: the potential threat to the future of the BBC following Jeremy Hunt’s decision to seek advice from Ofcom on establishing an agreed means of measuring cross-media power and whether there should be a limit on the influence of the BBC as well as on the Murdoch companies.
“We all remember how vulnerable the BBC was during the Hutton Inquiry and now that Hunt has linked the BBC to News International by an Ofcom reference as well as by the Leveson Inquiry, the danger is even greater. But there is no equivalence between the two: the BBC is monitored, regulated and accountable and only BSkyB is accountable in terms of News International.
“We do need to be vigilant that the BBC is not allowed to become a target...but it could easily become a target again not just for the Murdoch press, but also the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail.”
Tony Burke, assistant general secretary of Unite, opened the rally by expanding on the theme for evening, “The Emperor has no clothes – Murdoch’s Media Empire from Wapping to Hacking.”
He promised that in the wake of the phone hacking scandal the union movement would renew its pressure on the government to remove the clause in the 1999 Employment Act which exempted staff associations from the union recognition procedures administered by the Central Arbitration Committee.
News International’s staff association did not qualify for a certificate of independence but Murdoch had used exemptions in the 1999 Act to prevent Unite and the NUJ winning recognition in News International’s newspapers.
“That was a deal done by Tony Blair and Rupert Murdoch...Now we have now been told we can take our case for recognition to the International Labour Organisation because what happened at News International is not only in breach of the ILO convention but would not even be allowed in the USA.”
Michelle Stanistreet, the NUJ general secretary, urged other unions to join journalists in a campaign to persuade the government close the loophole which Murdoch continued to use to block union recognition.
“There is a clear parallel between union busting and the morale vacuum at the heart of News International. It is high time Murdoch was forced to let the NUJ back in.
“We want the closure of that loophole, just as we want the Leveson Inquiry to recommend a journalists’ conscience clause, to give protection against dismissal.
“Murdoch’s lack of humility and personal responsibility could not be clearer...for him it was power at all costs, contempt for the Police, and an interest in journalism only because it furthers his political influence.”