Can we trust the news? A question being asked in light of Rupert Murdoch’s proposed takeover bid of the UK’s largest satellite broadcaster, which seems certain to go ahead following a statement of approval in the Commons on 4th March.
The bid for the remaining 61% stake of BskyB which Murdoch’s NewsCorp does not already own would make him the controller of a television network twice the size of the BBC, governing access to much of the country’s information network. The culture secretary Jeremy Hunt’s approval of this bid suggests the government’s acceptance of Murdoch’s rising influence. The question remains: can we rest assured that the future of reliable British news media is secure?
This concern over ‘media plurality’ is nothing new. Murdoch’s control of NewsCorp, The Sun, The Times and the News of the World still represents a far smaller share of newspaper circulation then the percentage controlled by Lord Northcliffe, the great Newspaper Barron of the Edwardian era. Murdoch is also a businessman, and clearly a rather good one; his personal influence on editorial content and reporting is not a cause for concern, given that his existing papers operate with far more independence than Northcliffe’s papers ever did.
Besides, is there such a thing as independent news? Just watch the paranoid ranting of Fox News pundit Glenn Beck for an example of how opinion and reporting are intrinsically linked. NewsCorp’s Sky News provides an alternative source of 24 hour news coverage to the BBC, accusing the latter of holding a liberal bias, whilst Fox News has placed itself firmly in the right wing of American politics. Each controlling body behind our newspapers – the Guardian Media Group, Telegraph Media, Associated Newspapers etc. – are all influenced to some extend by party ties or proprietorial influence. There simply is no such thing as true neutrality when the bulk of revenue in news reporting is made up from advertising. Even The Saint is reliant upon KPMG and other backers to continue its free publications.
Such issues aside, does Murdoch’s record give us cause for concern regarding his control of information access? At the time of writing, one of his native Australian papers is being challenged in court for false reporting regarding an ongoing legal case, the sort of hasty issue of unverified fact that has become a reoccurring a danger in 24 hour news culture. Under Murdoch’s ownership The Sun embroiled itself in a number of controversies, such as the blatant lies reported after the Hillsborough disaster, in which victims crushed by a crowd surge at a football stadium were accused of causing their own deaths under the headline ‘The Truth’, not a single fact of which was verified. At present, a special police commission and two parliamentary committees are looking into the News of the World (another Murdoch paper) phone hacking scandal, over which the government’s communications director Andy Coulson has already resigned.
Yet any direct links between these scandals and Murdoch’s ownership are as yet unproven. Besides which, even ‘respectable’ broadsheets such as The Telegraph have recently pursued pretty underhand methods to create a good story – in this case posing journalists as loyal constituents to encourage Vince Cable (business secretary) to criticise his own government.
Any criticism of Murdoch’s media empire should rest on the standards of healthy competition and a balance of views, not matters of taste. Granted The Sun under Murdoch’s ownership since 1968 has maintained a pretty poor standard of journalism, although recently page three models do at least include their views on current affairs alongside their underwear. Yet since 1978 The Sun has remained by far the most widely circulated paper in the UK. Murdoch did not degrade the news, he simply tailored it to public demand.
The one major concession made by this deal is that Sky News, owned by Murdoch, will be off loaded from his ownership and established as an independent 24hr news service. Of course again the independence of such a service is debatable, particularly as NewsCorp executives would still sit on its board. Another concessionary measure from the government is a pledge to encourage a much wider provision of local news networks, creating a similar system to the US (if you’ve seen Anchorman, you’ll understand). In addition, the first major national daily paper to be launched in over twenty years, The I, a smaller partner of The Independent, has successfully established itself in this competitive market. So perhaps the future of media plurality is more assured than we might think.