Too much attention has focused on Murdoch’s cussed personality, not enough on what kind of press we want to see in this country. At present there is no nationality requirement for ownership. There is no limit on the share of any media market controleed by any one proprietor. There is no constraint on owners’ power to take over parts of other media domains. There is no control to prevent market dominance. There is no right of reply. There is no provision to increase diversity and improve balance in the press. Self-regulation has patently failed, but there are no measures to ensure that, consistent with freedom of the press, newspapers do not abuse their role in the manner highlighted by, but no confined to, the phone-hacking scandal. All of these need to be corrected.
First, press ownership should be limited to UK citizens and subject to a fit-for-purpose test. Both counts would exclude Murdoch – an Australian who adopted US citizenship in order to control large chunks of the US press, and clearly not fit-for-purpose in the light of the massive hacking scandal involving both phones and computers, the illicit derailing of his ONdigital rival, and the extensive bribery of the police.
Second, News Corporation’s 37% control of the UK newspaper market is far too great a concentration of power, especially in such a sensitive area as agenda-setting in a democracy and when that power has been used to intimidate individuals and pressurise governments to conform to his will. To counter this, there should be a mandatory restriction on any one person or organisation controlling more than one daily and one Sunday paper. In addition, plurality should be secured by limiting the share of all media revenues (i.e. TV, radio, press, book publishing and computer games) held by one company to 15%. And the law restricting monopolistic cross-media ownership between broadcast and print media, which Thatcher swept away to secure Murdoch’s partisan support, should be reinstated and strengthened.
Third, the secret power structure intertwining both the press and police with No.10 must be broken up and regulated to ensure it is never resurrected. What is needed is a new body with much greater powers to check abuse and investigate evidence which may point to corruption, similar to the role of the SEC in the financial arean. And to make sure the relevant evidence of wrongdoing, where it exists, is forthcoming, there must be statutory protection for whistleblowers.
Fourth, there must be a right of reply instituted in the UK as already exists in many other countries. And the feeble and toothless Press Complaints Commission must be replaced, perhaps on the co-regulation model currently operated in Denmark where a broadly self-regulating media is balance by a regulatory council that can go to law when it needs to enforce its judgements.