The Power and Influence of Proprietors.

Critics would argue that perhaps the biggest challenge within this discussion is that newspapers are not doing their jobs. But should there be any limits on how much media one individual can control? Should the media be treated as a semi-sacred public trust? Many critics see newspapers in Britain as first and foremost businesses. Journalism has become, in William Hachtens mind, a “big business controlled… by media moguls who place a higher priority on the size of the profits than on the value of their contributions to society”. Tony Harcup continues:

(Newspapers) “… do not exist to report the news, to act as watchdogs for the public, to be a check on the doings of Government, to defend the ordinary citizen against abuses of power, to unearth scandals or to do any noble things that are sometimes claimed for the press. They exist to make money, just as any other business does. To the extent that they discharge any of their public functions, they do so in order to suceed as businesses.”

This is very much evident in the ways that newspapers are being filled more and more with lifestyle, motoring and home and leisure pages among others. The dependancy on advertising revenue to earn money distracts away from the fact that those pages could have been used for more stories. Likewise, cross promotion is a key feature to promote to platforms. Case in point, The Sun serialising the Rebecca loos story to sell both more copies of the paper and her upcoming book.

Proprietors are often accussed of meddling with the news. This is particularly distressing when viewed with further evidence from reporters who have been fired or have walked out because their consciences did not allow them to change their story to fit their owners interests; case in point, “a News Corporation executive reportedly told two journalists who lost their jobs after refusing to alter a story: We paid $3 billion for these two TV stations. We will decide what the news is.” Former East Asia editor Jonathon Mirsky of the Times agrees, saying that everything was done to avoid upsetting the Chinese authorities, to keep in tune with Rupert Murdoch’s business interests in China:

“I saw the paper change from one keenly interested in reporting and analysing China to one so apprehensive that the editor spiked a piece by me on cannibalism during the cultural revolution… because he was having lunch that day at China’s London Embassy.”

If we believe Mirsky above, it is clearly outrageous that he should have been effectively gagged for such a triviality. Research shows that there is nothing new in media owners being accused of using their journalists to pursue certain agendas. A.J. Liebling once stated, in a very pesimistic fashion, that “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” In 1949 Lord Beaverbrook told the Royal Commission on the press that he ran the Daily Express “merely for the purpose of making propaganda and with no other motive” and in the 1980’s “Robert Maxwell described the Daily Mirror as his personal megaphone.” Similarly, Rupert Murdoch was quoted as saying “I did not come all this way not to interfere.” Sam Kiley, a former employee of Murdoch’s and foreign corespondant for the Times found out first hand what Murdoch can do, he says:

“I pulled off a little scoop by tracking, interviewing and photographing the unit in the Israeli army which killed Mohammed Al-Durrah, the 12 year old boy whose death was captured on film and became the iconic image of the conflict, I was asked to file the piece ‘without mentioning the dead kid’.”

He was left wordless and consequently left the paper. Some may argue that the public do not want to hear about a child’s death and that it would be insensitive to mention it, understanding the opposite viewpoint to Kiley. However, Andrew Neil, former edior of the Sunday Times says that Murdoch is normally far more subtle in his approch regarding obtaining the news that HE wants, “beginning with choosing editors who are on the same wavelength as him…” He continues that it is clearly “demonstrated by the way the editorial line of all 175 Murdoch-owned newspapers on three continents just happened to agree with his own pro-war stance leading up to the 2003 conflict in Iraq.”

Many companies are run in an old-fashioned dictatorial fashion and CEO’s of large corporations may understand the reasoning behind choosing like-minded staff. It usually minimises conflict and should, therefore, increase productivity. However there is something somewhat threatening to basic freedom of speech if employees have to tow the party line and agree with their bosses in journalism. In a creative environment such a thing could become very toxic. However, when your News Group is providing circulation for over 30% of the market and yet providing what is one man’s oppinion, it is undeniably somewhat worrying. Moreover, only four newsgroups (News International, Mirror Trinity, Associated and Express) take up 98.67% of newspaper readerships and, likewise, this trend is being immitated by television as can be seen by ITV which, since 1990 has merged seventeen different franchises into one meaning that audiences are getting condensed oppinion rather than broadening their horizon with different sources and thus reducing diversity, similar to the market liberals’, political economy perspective who argue for state regulation. On the other hand, pluralists argue that it should be groups who run the state rather than people.

Indeed, one of the biggest issues surrounding the debate regarding proprietors is that of political campaigns. Even when it looks as if the news is being fair and unbiased, in reality, critics argue, they are still finding ways to trick their audience. For instance, when the Conservative Party leader David Cameron appeared on Channel Five (27.7.2007) answering questions which had been submitted by email, it was still the company rather than the viewers themselves who selected the topics on which he was interrogated. Likewise, during July 2007, three thousand video clips were posted on Youtube posing questions for the democratic challengers in the run up to the American Presidential elections but again it was the political staff of the broadcaster CNN who acted as moderators and who decided which of the thirty-second videos would be aired during the candidates’ televised debate and not the viewers. Nicholas Jones states that:

“When it comes to politics, many of the big media conglomerates tend to have a clearly defined position… In pursuing their commercial agendas, these companies will be anxious to retain any influence which they can exert on the government of the day and as a result they will inevitably try to find ways to shape and even dominate the opportunities for political debate.”

Robert Maxwell owned the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and Sunday Mail. In a Daily Mirror article, September 8 1998, entitled ‘Red Devil’, Rupert Murdoch’s plans to buy Manchester United and the resulting fans reactions to this news is exposed: “Reds fans begged the world-famous club not to sell out and called on supporters to boycott Murdoch’s Sun newspaper and Sattelite TV station”. As Tony Harcup puts it: “No prizes for guessing which newspaper is part of the Murdoch empire and which is one of its main commercial rivals.”

Robert Maxwell, owner of the Daily Mirror

Newspapers have always been used by their owners to promote their businesses and in the process put down their rivals. At the very least, editors tone down or censor negative reporting on their owners’ businesses. What’s more worrying is the discovery by a US survey that “almost a third of local journalists admitted to softening the tone of a news story in line with their employers interests, and one in five reporters have been critisised by bosses for stories damaging to their company’s financial interests.” Moreover, proprietors have influence not just by direct intervention or by establishing lines that will not be crossed as Tony Harcup discovers: “They set the tone, they decide which markets to target, they control editorial budgets, and they hire and fire the editors who are their representatives on Earth.” This is very much evident in the Sun which following its purchase and re-launch by Rupert Murdoch in 1969, had its Editor Larry Lamb set about exploiting its entertainment values. He based the paper’s appeal on sport, scandal, ‘saucy’ humour and sex. Above all he introduced the daily image of half-naked women. The ‘page three girls’, “these luscious lovelies you drool over at breakfast time’ (Sun 20 September 1982) became a shorthand reference for all the paper stood for.” In essence the paper “decreed that its selling points should now be ‘sex, sport and contests’.” The result is a media obsession with celebrity, fame, trivia and lifestyles, to the point where many in the so-called “quality media” now believe they cannot attract a broad constituency without adding in the celebrity gossip and soft lifestyle coverage, however, Robert Manne argues that the problem is that while “the dumbing-down approach maintains the macro audiences that attract advertisers; it simultaneously drives away the micro audience that craves quality journalism.”

An element of the predicament with reporting today lies in the fact that we live our lives at speed. We devour news in sound bites. The tabloids scream out headlines – sometimes alarming headlines – in order to grab the readers attention, persuading them in the first instance to purchase the paper and secondly to read it from cover to cover. Although it’s understandable to use the ruse of headlines to shock, amuse and tempt the audience, the subsequent article is often froth and no substance. Does this matter? Not really if froth is what the reader wants; the paper has entertained, informed and is probably recycled at speed. The danger is when the journalists are not writing the truth or only the truth in the eyes of their proprietor. For example, in the Thatcher era, Murdoch was generally supportive of the Conservatives. He then switched his support to Tony Blair and a storm followed in Britain when their secret liaisons, where they allegedly discussed national policies, became known. However, some will defend the man who lives up to his billing as a press baron: “Rupert Murdoch is not a newspaper proprietor any more,” says business commentator Alan Kohler. “He is a global entertainment retailer, and so are his children. They are not monsters who will one day return to the swamp,” he argues. “They are role models for anyone who wants to get rich in the media.”

It was in 1931 that Conservative party leader Stanley Baldwin launched his famous attack on newspaper proprietors:

“Their methods are direct falsehood, misrepresentation, half truths, the alteration of the speaker’s meaning by putting sentences apart from the context, suppression… what the propriertership of these papers is aiming at is power, but power without responsibility – the preogative of the harlot through the ages.”

I would suggest that Baldwin’s attack is still very relevant to this day and that his concerns still warrant a concern for the public. Undeniably there are a few exceptions, such as the BBC which is publicy owned and still to this day uses the ideals and Reithian principles of public service broadcasting, and the Guardian which is owned by the Scott Trust which keeps the finances and editors separate. However, something drastic has to happen to bring about change, as HG Wells put it in a message to his fellow NUJ members back in 1922:

“We affect oppinion and public and private life profoundly, and we need to cherish any scrap of independence we possess and can secure. We are not mere hirelings; our work is creative and responsible work. The activities of rich adventures in buying, and directing the policy of groups of newspapers is a grave public danger. A free-spirited, well paid, and well-organised profession of journalism is our only protection against the danger”.

However, recently the ageing billionaire and global media executive Murdoch commented; “Power is moving away from the old elite in our industry – the editors, the chief executives and, let’s face it, the proprietors,”.

Media mogul, Rupert Murdoch

He enthused that the digital future that would put the power into the hands of the populace, already initiating a blog, sharing pictures and music online or downloading television programmes. “A new generation of media consumers has risen demanding content delivered when they want it, how they want it, and very much as they want it,” he declared as he referred to it as the dawn of a golden age of information – an empire of new knowledge. Always talented with a seemingly innate instinct for mass taste, technological appreciation and a skill for effectively exploiting political power, Murdoch’s warning to the media empires of the twenty-first century who try to imitate him, if not beat him, is ‘change or die.’ Perhaps, as the era of the media heavyweight comes to a close the imbalance of political views will become fairer and more balanced?

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