Saturday, 8 June 2013

Who owns our press? Everyone should know, for the sake of our democracy.

Everyone agrees that newspapers play a crucial role in British democracy, even if they disagree what that role is. The Press Gazette has published the results of the National Readership Survey. I have used these results - for both print and online - to draw up tables with readerships and information about owners and political orientation. Almost 78% of our press is owned by a handful of mostly foreign-based billionaires.

Too often, far from protecting our democracy, our papers subvert it. In his Inquiry, Lord Leveson quoted some lines from Tom Stoppard’s Night and Day.  Milne:-  “ No matter how imperfect things are, if you’ve got a free press everything is correctable, and without it everything is concealable”.  Ruth: - “I’m with you on the free press. It’s the newspapers I can’t stand.”  In a free press, the nature of the newspapers matter very much.

The nature of a paper is set by its owner. Press barons wield far more power and influence than all but a very few MPs and have, unsurprisingly, used it to further their own interests. 

Since 2010, the barons have pushed the highly contentious argument that there is no alternative to austerity (for other people, not for them or those close to them) and have largely ignored the stories which historians will doubtless note – the widening social divisions and the swelling numbers at food banks, the 21st century's soup kitchens. 

And now these unelected barons are intent on taking the UK out of the EU and freedom from all those pesky regulations giving workers' rights.

Newspapers exercise power and influence in a number of ways. It is not just that they have a megaphone which lets them dominate the public debate. They also have privileged access to politicians. And one of their most powerful forms of influence is the ability to effectively set the political agenda for the other media and more widely, in parliament, the workplace, the kitchen and the pub. In the terms of political theory, the press barons impose the elite's cultural hegemony.

As Martin Kettle has argued, the answer to the old 1970's question – “Who governs Britain?” – is now, in important respects, the press barons. The most recent example of their power – and arrogance - is how they are still trying to ignore the Leveson Inquiry findings and the subsequent decisions of the elected House of Commons. 

Newspapers put great store by the concept of editorial independence. Sometimes, it is a reality. The Lebedevs, for example, own papers – the Independent and the Evening Standard – which take markedly different political stances.

Too often, however, editorial independence is a sham. Proprietors choose editors who they know share their views. Editors know well what is expected of them without the need for a proprietor to actively interfere. Rupert Murdoch’s candour at the Leveson Inquiry was revealing. He said that if someone wanted to know his opinion on a subject they should just read the leader in the Sun.

UK press weekly print and on-line readership (for papers over 1 million) in March 2013
Combined print and online readership
(In brackets print alone)
Effective owner/s

Information about effective owner/s
Political orientation of newspaper/s
% of  combined print and online (Print alone)
The Sun/The Sun on Sunday
Rupert Murdoch
Billionaire. Lives in US.
Supported Tories in 2010
The Mail/ Mail on Sunday
Lord Rothermere
Billionaire. Lives in France.
Non-domiciled for UK tax
Supported Tories in 2010
Lord Rothermere
Billionaire. Lives in France.
Non-domiciled for UK tax
Supported Tories in 2010
Mirror/Sunday Mirror/ People
Trinity Mirror plc

Public Limited Company
Supported Labour in 2010
The Guardian/The Observer
Scott Trust Ltd
Supported Lib Dems in 2010
Telegraph/ Sunday Telegraph
David and Frederick Barclay
Billionaires. Live on private island near Sark.
Supported Tories in 2010
The Times/ Sunday Times
Rupert Murdoch
Billionaire. Lives in US.
Alleged tax avoider.
Supported Tories in 2010
The Independent/ i/Independent on Sunday
Alexander (father)and Evgeny (son) Lebedev
Alexander is a billionaire, ex-KGB and lives in Russia. Evgeny lives in the UK
Supported anti-Tory tactical voting in 2010
London Evening Standard
Alexander and Evgeny Lebedev
Alexander is billionaire, ex-KGB and lives in Russia. Evgeny lives in UK
Supported Tories in 2010
Daily Express/Sunday Express
Richard Desmond
Billionaire pornographer.
Supported Tories in 2010
Daily Star/Daily Star Sunday
Richard Desmond
Billionaire pornographer.
Alleged tax avoider.
Supported Tories in 2010

Daily Record/ Sunday Mail
Trinity Mirror plc
Public limited company
Supported Labour in 2010
Financial Times
Pearson plc
Public limited company
Supported Tories in 2010

Readership of UK press (for papers over 1 million) in March 2013 by effective owners
Effective owner(s)
%  of combined print and online (print alone)
Lord Rothermere
27.3       (27.8)

Rupert Murdoch
24.9       (27.9)

Trinity Mirror plc
13.0       (13.9)

Alexander and Evgeny Lebedev
10.6       (10.1)

Richard Desmond
  8.2        (9.2)

Scott Trust
  7.3       (4.7)

David and Frederick Barclay
  6.8       (5.1)

Pearson plc
  1.8       (1.5)

27.3% of the press is owned by Lord Rothermere and 24.9% by Rupert Murdoch so that these two men have over 50% between them. 

77.8% of the press is owned by a handful of billionaires. There are only 88 billionaires among the 63 million people in the UK and most of the barons do not even live in the UK.

All students of British politics need to know who owns our press.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Miliband urgently needs to defuse Tory electoral time-bomb and may need to think outside the box

The Tories have a plan to beat Labour in 2015, however dire the economic situation. They will tell the voters - “don’t blame us - it is Labour’s fault”. This could be highly effective. Polls show that more people still blame excessive spending by the last Labour government for the state of the economy than blame the policies of the Coalition. Unless Labour takes action urgently to change public perception, this issue is a ticking time-bomb set to explode to cause maximum damage. 

The Tories have hired Lynton Crosby as their election supremo for 2015. He is known as the “Australian Karl Rove” – a reference to the “evil genius” who used highly aggressive tactics to help George W Bush. Crosby will have noted how Barack Obama used the economic legacy of the Bush regime against Mitt Romney in 2012. Obama’s pitch was – "Why hand the keys back to the guys who drove the car into the ditch?"  It is easy to imagine Tory posters grouping Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls above that question.

Obama may have been right about the blameworthiness of the Republicans. However, Labour can make a compelling argument that the economic crisis in the UK was not principally its fault but was the result of an international banking crisis with its roots in the US.

The central Tory charge is that Labour over-spending was to blame for the deficit/debt problem in May 2010. The ONS graph below illustrates very clearly that the facts do not support this. Immediately before the banking crisis struck in 2007/8, the UK’s debt was significantly lower as a percentage of GDP than it had been when Labour came to power in 1997. It was only after the crisis and as a result of the ensuing economic mayhem that the deficit and debt increased very dramatically. Furthermore, the Tories’ criticism overlooks the fact that they were pledging to match the level of Labour’s spending right up until the banking crisis.

Labour cannot escape all responsibility for the fact that the banking crisis itself occurred. The Labour leadership has already admitted fault and apologised for failing to regulate the banks tightly enough. However, here too, the Tory attack is undermined by their own actions - they were calling for even less "burdensome"regulation at the time.

Labour can never hope to comprehensively win this argument - it was on their watch that the deficit rose to excessive levels. The best they can hope is to neutralise the issue so that the next election is fought on the record of the Tories post-2010 rather than of Labour pre-2010.

Labour needs to start the task of persuasion urgently. After the 2010 election, the Coalition was highly disciplined in constantly reiterating their narrative that it was all Labour’s fault. Labour was deflated, disorganised and distracted by its own leadership campaign. The Coalition’s version of history is now well embedded in the mind of the electorate. If Labour waits until the next election to challenge it, they will find it is far too late.

It will not be at all easy to tackle this issue. It is rarely enough in politics to be right or even to have the best arguments. Labour will need to grab media and public attention for what looks like a stale issue. They also need someone delivering the message who has credibility with crucial swing voters.

Ideally Labour would like someone who the media will cover, who is compelling and who has sway with crucial swing voters. Someone who can do a similar job to Bill Clinton at last year’s Democratic Convention when he took apart the Republican economic argument in language that the ordinary voter could grasp without feeling they were being patronised.

It will be difficult for Ed Miliband or Ed Balls or any of the Shadow Cabinet to even get a hearing. They may have to thnk outside the box.

Perhaps Miliband could approach someone like Eddie Izzard, the comedian rumoured to be considering running to be mayor of London?  Perhaps Izzard could make the point, not only with humour but also using charts like the maverick presidential candidate Ross Perot used flip-charts to great effect in the US in the 1990s?

Or perhaps Miliband could ask Tony Blair? This would be a deeply controversial idea in the Labour Party, of course. However, if Blair agreed he could be highly effective. He may be unpopular on the Left but he still holds great sway with target swing voters. The issue concerns not only Labour’s electoral prospects but his legacy too. He wrote about it recently in the New Statesman - “Labour should be very robust in knocking down the notion that it “created” the crisis.”  He was clear that the cause of the crisis was the “financial tsunami that occurred globally, the US.”

Asking Blair’s help would have an element of risk for Miliband who has been at pains to distance his party from Blair and New Labour.

Whoever he enlists for the difficult task, it is essential that Miliband ensures this Tory electoral time-bomb is urgently defused. The result of the next election could depend on it.

@TomLondon6                                                                                                    No.312