Media Ownership (Regulation)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:59 am on 14th September 2011.

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Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Chair, Political and Constitutional Reform Committee 10:59 am, 14th September 2011

As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood.

Media ownership in this country is massively over-concentrated, and that has resulted in a number of problems, some of them profoundly unhealthy for our democracy. The media are so over-powerful that they have frightened and corrupted Governments of all political colours, and have chilled and intimidated Parliament and Members of this House in the performance of their duties. Vibrant British politics has shrunken into a grotesque tango between the press and No. 10 Downing street, who are unwilling but inseparably locked partners in a duopoly that diminishes all others, including Parliament, local government and civil society. For me, the ownership problem is not about the corruption techniques that have recently been exposed; it is part of the broader question of the settlement of our democracy: a democratic agenda, and a Britain in which people know their rights, own their politics, aspire to better for themselves and their families as citizens, and are less subjects and placid consumers of low-grade trivia.

The problems of the press pre-date hacking. There are a number of problems with the role of the press, including the constant denigration of individuals, the culture of cynicism, the trashing of whole classes of people—Members of Parliament know a little about that—the demise of the inspiring and investigative journalism that I was used to in my youth, the dumbing down of once-great newspapers, and the international reputation of our press. Those problems deserve a hearing, but I will not go into them in any detail here. All too often, the press will lead and the rest of the media pack—TV and internet—will fall behind the very low standards that are set. We deserve better from our media.

Today I want to focus on the greatest threat to a free and independent media: the over-concentration of ownership. When one person or organisation can become so insulated by its own power from scrutiny of its behaviour, and so important that Prime Ministers of all colours go cap in hand hoping for its approval, our already feeble and unwritten system of checks and balances becomes more obviously ineffective, and we should fear for our democracy and take action to protect it.

Much of the recent debate has been about symptoms not causes, about the things that the press themselves are interested in, including hacking and intrusion, and unhealthy links and relationships, rather than about what we as politicians should focus on: the power that distorts markets and politics alike. It is that distortion that drives the practices that we have recently seen, such as hacking and a tendency to be loose with the truth and protected from the consequences. The answer is to create a broader diversity of ownership of media outlets and let good, professional, effective journalists blossom and get on with their job of standing up for ordinary people and getting the truth our there for us all to consider and reflect upon.

Now is a good time to make progress. I congratulate the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport for picking up on this problem, along with the Minister present today—the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, Mr Vaizey. In the middle of the hacking scandal, the Opposition day motion on Mr Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation’s bid for BSkyB contained no reference to ownership. I amended it by adding that the Prime Minister

“should consider a statutory settlement for the press based upon the principles of diversity of ownership, fairness and honesty”.

That was happily superseded by the Prime Minister’s amendment to the motion, which set up the review of media ethics and regulation that we now know as the Leveson inquiry, and included

“the issue of cross-media ownership…more effective way of regulating the press—one that supports its freedom, plurality and independence from Government”.—[Hansard, 13 July 2011; Vol. 531, c. 312.]

I am pleased that the Government have developed a position that includes those matters.

We all await the results of the Leveson inquiry, and I very much hope that it will balance its examination of the symptoms—some of the sexier press behaviour—with that of the causes, such as the lack of plurality of the media, and media and cross-media ownership. It should not be an incestuous inquiry, giving the media prurient stories about the media and thus feeding the cycle. It should look outwards at the media’s involvement in and relationship to our constitution and our politics. It should seek to lay the ground rules of a strong, independent media, with the possibility of opening up a new chapter and restoring the media’s reputation as a key contributor to the plurality of institutions in our democracy. That is what the media need to be, and Justice Leveson might help to nudge us all towards that better position.