Saturday, 7 April 2012

What price the freedom of the press?

One of Militant's most bizarre ideas in the 1980s was the nationalisation of printing presses, to be handed over to political parties to print propaganda in proportion to the votes received at General Elections (presumably to be abolished when the disciples of Trotsky moved beyond their Transitional Programme) - a sure-fire teaser to those outside the Tory tent.  This was allied to a programme of radical impracticality that satisfied an adolescent urge to smash the system without a suggestion as to how the world should actually be ordered.

Infantile disorders aside, the ownership and control of the media has been a long-standing area of concern to anyone who believes in the supremacy of the citizen.  In the last twelve months, the unravelling of the Murdoch empire has commenced, with strange echoes of the decline and fall of Robert Maxwell twenty years ago.

Murdoch, when cornered, fights nasty.  Apparently his main remaining organ, "The Paraffin Lamp in a Brothel" (copyright CPGB 1969) has turned against Cameron and Osborne since the budget, feeling more confident that a new-right revival could ride the surf of popular disgust - turning on the Chipping Norton set in a way that would make Rebekah Brooks quake were she not awaiting the outcome of two police investigations.  The diminished "Times" has a go at Francis Maude, while the "Sunday Times" ran the story that broke Dinnergate.

Whether Murdoch really considered that Cameron would be in a position to deflect the spotlight from the murkiness and criminality within News International and now, apparently, Sky News, is a moot point.  Since 1979 the "Scum" has tried to play kingmaker at each election, making its positioning prior to the 1997 and 2010 elections front page news elsewhere, and claiming responsibility for the calamitous result in 1992 which entrenched the cronyism through the bankruptcy of the Major regime and the craven neo-con-trick of the Blair years.  Now it's trying to repeat the same trick, cracking the whip and destroying those it has built up, but on half the circulation it once had.

While the focus has been on the hacking and corruption investigations, satisfyingly dragging the "Daily Mail" into the mire as well, there should be concern about other trends.  It seems likely that there will be significant changes to legislation as a result of the last decade's excess, and there will be politicians wishing to settle the scores over the wounds inflicted by the press in recent years.

Leaving aside the oligarch's playground that the "Independent" and "Evening Standard" have become, the former trying desperately to maintain a position in a declining market with limited resources, and the latter a diminished freesheet for the rich of London and those who suffer its transport system, and the interesting marketing position of the "Financial Times" which is now so expensive to buy that its print circulation is apparently in near free-fall, the real question is for how long the "Telegraph" will escape scrutiny.

In 2009, the Torygraph had a good year with its investigations into MPs expenses.  This created the climate of sleaze required to boot out the Labour Party - but did not exactly create the momentum to elect the party containing the buyers of duck-houses and procurers of moat-cleaning services.  For a paper with a dyspeptic and dying readership (down around 40% in a decade), it has been difficult to come to terms with the decline in the Tory hegemony and the realities of a post-feudal society.  Hardly any surprise that the mores of "Downton Abbey" have been applauded by the rag, as "Lord" Fellowes is exactly the sort of caricature Tory (c.f. Boris the Clown) the paper has been trying to assimilate.

However, Cameron and his mates recognise that they owe the paper a debt of gratitude, which is now being played out in the deafening silence about the propriety of the proprietorship.  "Private Eye", to its credit, has been running a considerable number of stories about tax arrangements (offshore) and there has recently been a furore about the acquisition of various luxury London hotels.  It does seem odd at first glance that the paper that has been hardest on MPs is run by a company controlled by two people domiciled in the Channel Islands, registered in the British Virgin Islands, with residence in Monaco (allegedly), as none of those areas are noted for their corporate responsibility or attention to the detail for cleaning contracts and mortgage payments.

Last week, the BBC ran an interesting feature on the machinations on Sark, where the Torygraph's owners own an island and a large amount of property - to which they did not see fit to contribute or to respond.  Instead their representatives have been assiduous to discredit the BBC rather than respond to criticism.  We shall see what transpires, but they can probably rest assured that the new legislation won't include a "fit and proper" test for media ownership.

As an aside, the same proprietors acquired "The Scotsman" for a few years around the turn of the century.  The Edinburgh paper was turned, under the tutelage of Andrew Neil, into a vituperative mouthpiece of Unionism, and it must be said that the effect on circulation was unsurprising.

Reforming the media to protect both pluralism and journalism is something that any Liberal should be espousing.  The decline in traditional newspaper sales, and the rise of electronic distribution and citizen journalism (which the "Guardian" is using as a seeming justification for further cost-cutting), is not down to ownership, but is not assisted by the air of distrust and opacity that exists around newspaper groups and control structure.

A start could be made to ensure that ownership is in the hands of appropriate organisations - the recent revelations that Thatcher met Murdoch during the fire sale of Times Newspapers in 1982 add fuel to the need for proper scrutiny in this area - and that they might need to be UK- or EU-based.  There also needs to be strong power for the Competition Commission to ensure that predatory tactics aren't adopted: the price war in the quality press nearly killed the "Independent" and damaged the "Guardian" without the transparency to see how much real damage it was doing to the News Corp balance sheet.

There is never any justification for the state to promote editorial intervention - the laws of defamation see to that.  However, this will tempt politicians who feel that they have been poorly-treated in recent years.  The poor darlings need to recognise that proper behaviour runs in both directions, but should not be so craven as to resist criticising the hypocritical activities of owners who do exactly the opposite of what they want the politicians to do.  The elimination of proprietorial gangsterism would be a good first step to a freer press.

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