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Newspaper editors are being urged by the shadow culture secretary Harriet Harman to stop being so defensive and instead “lay their cards on the table” by revealing precisely what mechanism they would accept for handling complaints against the press and for providing the public with a right of redress.

Ms Harman is calling on the government to be equally forthright in taking steps at once to impose new restraints on media ownership to ensure that proprietors face a “fit and proper person” test before the regulator Ofcom considers any future take-over bids.

Her pleas for immediate action were echoed by speakers supporting the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Campaign at an all day conference – Taking on the Media Barons – which was held in London at the headquarters of the Trades Union Congress (17.3.2012).

Several groups, including the CPBF and the Co-ordinating Committee for Media Reform, urged the mobilisation of a concerted campaign to secure a 15 per cent cap on the future market share to be held by any media proprietor.

Earlier, in opening the conference, Ms Harman indicated that Labour preferred to await the outcome of both the Leveson Inquiry and an Ofcom review before taking a view on the future balance of media ownership but she made it clear the party leadership was determined to secure far lower limits and a sizeable reduction in Rupert Murdoch’s holdings in press and television.

Ms Harman told the conference she could not ignore the Labour Party’s own “political baggage” when it came to considering the relationship between ministers and News International – and as the day progressed speakers reminded the conference time and again of the often covert concessions agreed by Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair to appease the Murdoch press.

 

There were also frequent references to the publication that morning of details of a secret meeting with Thatcher in January 1981 at which Murdoch gave her a personal rundown of his bid to purchase The Times and the Sunday Times – and how, if his take-over was accepted, he would have to “crack a particularly tough nut” of local union representatives in order to impose the introduction of new technology and a “25 per cent reduction in overall manning.”

Ms Harman’s starting point was that regardless of what the Leveson Inquiry and Ofcom might propose on the future balance of media ownership a maximum limit had to be imposed and it should not require simply the trigger of a takeover for an intervention to prevent any future unacceptable concentrations of media ownership.

Murdoch already owned too many newspapers yet if it had not been for the scandal over the hacking of Milly Dowler’s mobile phone, the coalition government would have waved through News Corporation’s bid for complete control of BSkyB.

She called on the government to act immediately. Authority already existed under the Enterprise Act to change the law to require anyone making a cross-media take-over bid to prove they were a “fit and proper person”. 

Such a test should be applied even before an application was considered by Ofcom or the European Commission. If there was any evidence not just of criminality but a failure to be open and transparent then the application “should be struck out.”  

Ofcom’s failure to start a “fit and proper person” test on the BSkyB bid until after the Milly Dowler revelations had shown the “cracks” in the system.

Ms Harman said Labour agreed that it would be far better if newspaper editors came forward with proposals for press regulation rather than have a solution imposed on the industry by the government.

But the time had come for the editors to stop being so defensive and to “lay their cards on the table”. The proposals announced so far by Lord Hunt following the winding up of the Press Complaints Commission were “nothing more than business as usual, just a change of name” because there was no guarantee that a new authority would be able to “enforce it rulings against all newspapers.”

Nonetheless she hoped that proposals put forward by the editors could win the support of the Leveson Inquiry and if an agreed press complaints system needed statutory underpinning she believed there would be a “cross party consensus” to get Parliamentary approval.

One potential advantage of providing statutory backing for a “right to redress” was that it might also give editors an opportunity to secure legal backing for a public interest defence for journalists.

In acknowledging that the party had “a lot of political baggage” when it came to Labour’s relationship with Murdoch, she said it should not be forgotten Neil Kinnock had to withstand the “ferocious opposition” of the Murdoch press after Labour’s 1992 election manifesto called for an urgent inquiry into media ownership by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and a statutory press code to deal with abuses of privacy.  “That sounded the signal for the Murdoch press to be determined we should not be in government.”

However, Ms Harman accepted that Labour’s relationship with Murdoch changed after the 1992 defeat. To explain her point, she quoted from Tony Blair’s “feral beasts” speech about the media and his admission that the party turned to “courting, assuaging and persuading the media.”

“Yes, many public figures became too close...we established Ofcom but we didn’t sort out media ownership or a system for complaints about the media.”

Ms Harman’s suggestion that conference should recognise that it was Ed Miliband’s “brave move” in standing up to Murdoch which forced David Cameron to establish a judicial inquiry was acknowledged by Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists.

But the Labour Party also needed to be reminded that it was a last-minute concession by Tony Blair which had allowed Murdoch to continue using the existence of the News International Staff Association at Wapping as justification for the ban on trade union membership at his four national newspapers.

Under the 1992 Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act applications for union recognition can be rejected if there is already “an independent or company union” which is recognised by the employer to conduct collective bargaining.

Ms Stanistreet said Murdoch’s “own proxy union” had been used to keep the NUJ and other unions out of Wapping. News of Margaret Thatcher’s secret talks with Murdoch – and Blair’s subsequent role in stopping union membership at Wapping – showed how far politicians had “cosied up to Murdoch or even changed the law on his behalf.”

Tony Burke, assistant general secretary of Unite, said the final confirmation that Thatcher knew in advance that 5,500 print workers might get sacked if Murdoch imposed new technology was of little comfort to those who had lost their jobs; it was the unions’ defeat at Wapping strike which created the “modern media” and massive profits for Murdoch.

He promised that Unite, together with the NUJ, would not rest until it had secured union recognition at Murdoch’s newspapers; Blair’s support for the “kicking out of the unions” at Wapping would pursued at the European Parliament on the grounds that the legislation was contrary to ILO conventions.

Luke Crawley, assistant general secretary of BECTU, reminded the conference that of all the concessions made to Murdoch perhaps the most significant in financial terms was the agreement of the Thatcher government to approve the merger of Sky Televsion with British Satellite Broadcasting and the crucial relaxation that BSkyB did not have to face the same obligations as the BBC and ITV about having to broadcast original UK-made programmes.

When it came to the crucial issue of the future level of media ownership, Granville Williams (CPBF) called for a cap of 15 per cent market share.  A public interest test would be triggered for any move beyond 15 per cent and if agreed any such company would have to meet a range of public interest obligations.

“A fifteen per cent limit on market share needs to be applied to BSkyB.  We were within a cat’s whisker last July of the coalition nodding through a transformative moment in UK media ownership. Other media owners would have been subjected to ruthless and relentless competition by BSkyB and it would have wiped them out; that is the greatest condemnation of Cameron.” 

James Curran, chairman of the Co-ordinating Committee for Media Reform, reinforced the case for a 15 per cent limit on future media ownership. He said the 15 per cent cap should apply to the total revenue of the core media industries and it would require Murdoch to choose between his newspapers and BSkyB.

“He cannot have both...and anyone with more than a 15 per cent share...up to 30 per cent...will have public service obligations imposed as a condition.”  

Curran said that the labour and trade union movement had to accept that it had been Conservatives which had initiated so many changes in media structures and reform. Perhaps the explanation was that in the past Labour felt that inaction was the best way to preserve media freedom so now was the chance to build on the momentum of Leveson Inquiry. 

A system of press regulation which worked would include a right of reply underpinned by a news ombudsman to provide a cheap method of redress and a check on the future excesses of journalists.

The debate closed with two further reminders of Labour’s failure to defend media freedom and standards. Granville Williams recalled that it was the work of the former shadow broadcasting minister, the late Robin Corbett, which resulted in the Labour’s 1992 commitment to require Murdoch to divest himself of either his newspapers or BSkyB.

A proposed curb on Murdoch’s holding was abandoned in the mid 1990s once Blair became party leader, as was the 1992 election to commitment to introduce a statutory right of reply, because of New Labour’s desire to gain press support. Tom O’Malley (CPBF) said his fear was that campaigners for change were perhaps in danger of “going through the motions once again” because the history of the last seventy years was one of missed opportunities to secure media reform.

Illustrations: The Journalist, January 2012; The Independent, 17 March, 2012

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