Rupert Murdoch owns too many newspapers. This was the uncompromising message from the Shadow Culture Secretary Harriet Harman at the Westminster Media Forum yesterday as reported in the Guardian.
It’s not solely a British problem. Here in the European Parliament we have debated media pluralism, or plurality as we call it in the UK, on many occasions. One of the first debates after the 2009 European elections was about Silvio Berlusconi’s vast and often unedifying media empire. The vote on the resolution went narrowly against the appalling Berlusconi to the surprise of many on the centre right who wrongly foresaw an easy victory for their side.
The media pluralism question raised its head again during the Hungarian EU Presidency. Prime Minister Viktor Orban of the right wing Fidesz Party sought to change the country’s constitution in a number of ways, including curtailing the freedom of the country’s press and media outlets.
Control of the media, specifically media plurality, is a polarised issue in the European Parliament. Given that much of the business here is conducted on the basis of consensus and the rough and tumble of robust debate so strong in Britain is largely lacking in the European Parliament, this is an unusual phenomenon. The only conclusion I can draw from the way parties of the right and centre-right in the European Parliament have rallied round to defend mass ownership of the media is that they benefit from such an arrangement. Berlusconi as Prime Minister of Italy and media magnate was very much to the right as are most owners of newspapers and television.
Harriet Harman is right when she says, “Murdoch owns too many newspapers and had it not been for the phone-hacking scandal the government would have waved through his bid to take control of the whole of BskyB. Both Ofcom and Leveson are looking at ownership . It is clear that there needs to be change.”
This is very welcome news and I for one will be following the progress of the forthcoming Communications Act closely. As Harriet said yesterday, it will be “an opportunity to take action to deal with difficult, historical problems which have been unaddressed to too long.”
Meanwhile the debate on media pluralism continues in the European Parliament. Control of the media is now more than a national issue. Media spans borders and what happens in one European country affects another. I do not wish to see the mauling received by the Labour Party before the 1992 general election happen anywhere else. Neil Kinnock was vilified by the Murdoch press because he bravely committed Labour to tackling media ownership were it to form a government. Tony Blair later felt he needed to make it up to Murdoch prior to the 1997 election.
This is not the way the UK should be conducting its relations with the media. Political parties should never feel they have to be nice to an all-powerful media baron and they should never feel any pressure to compromise their principles and beliefs to get support from such a quarter. The UK and Europe as a whole needs a free and fair press and media. It’s one of the best ways of securing our democracy.