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The myth of the free press

It is a myth that we have a free press in this country. We have a press that is free of direct government control: that is certainly true. But, instead, the mainstream press is almost exclusively dominated by media barons with their own political agendas.

The News of the World phone-hacking scandal is becoming grubbier and, frankly, more stomach-churningly sickening by the day. But it also shines a light on the nature of power in modern Britain. A door has opened slightly, and we can catch a glimpse of the murky links that exist between the political elite, media barons and the police.

It is crucial that we don’t get sucked into a narrative of ‘bad eggs’: that a purge of a few rotten individuals is all that is needed, and things can broadly carry on as before. This sordid story should put the way the British media is run into the spotlight.

If any good comes of this, it is a potentially crippling blow to the Murdoch empire. The Australian-born US businessman is often named as one of the most powerful men in Britain. As we all know, Prime Ministers court his favour and cower in fear of his wrath. There is no more glaring example of how our democracy is distorted by media power than Murdoch’s empire.

There’s a full-on Twitter uprising currently being waged against News Of The World, which has played a major role in forcing a number of companies to withdraw advertising from the paper. But the News International brand – and all of its associated papers – have been severely tarnished. Murdoch’s power has, undoubtedly, been weakened.

Murdoch is the most notorious media mogul, but other than the Guardian – which is managed by the Scott Trust – the entire mainstream press is in the hands of wealthy plutocrats. The journalists themselves come from unrepresentative backgrounds – according to the Sutton Trust, over half of the top 100 journalists are privately educated, with not many over 1 in 10 having attended a comprehensive school. No wonder we end up with biased, right-wing coverage: attacks on public services by those who don’t use them, but resent paying taxes to fund them; opposing the 50p tax band (unlike the general public, as polls repeatedly show) that many of them found themselves placed in; ignoring, or attacking, working-class communities they have had no contact with.

The Murdoch press is far from alone, but it is renowned for its union-bashing. If the NUJ was actually recognised and able to organise, journalists may have stuck to the union’s Code of Conduct and been able to resist being bullied by ruthless and amoral managers.

If good is to come out of this whole affair, it is to call for a total overhaul of our over-powerful, unrepresentative, amoral press. As a minimum, we should support the break-up of media monopolies: no businessperson should be able to control more than one daily newspaper, and they must be barred from having any simultaneous stake in broadcasting. That would at least limit the power one mogul has over elected governments.

We should also fight for the unionisation of all journalists, and for recognition agreements in all newspapers. That would help stop journalists being bullied by those above into conducting the sorts of outrages that are being revealed by the day.

We also should put the focus on just how unrepresentative our media is of the society it exists to serve. That means tackling issues like the death of local newspapers (that once gave working-class aspiring journalists a step on the ladder); unpaid internships and poorly paid starter jobs that only the wealthy can afford; and the emphasis on hugely expensive qualifications, such as the City University journalism course.

But we could also be more radical. We should fight for a free press – and that means a media no longer run by oligarchs. The internet revolution has posed a challenge to the current structure of the British media, but it’s not enough – online content is, itself, often dominated by old-style media providers. We need to look at democratically managed newspapers – run by not-for-profit trusts, perhaps with elected representatives of readers on management boards.

Let’s not just stand back while News International throws a few sacrificial lambs to the wolves. Let’s call for the total transformation of a media that is way out of control, and distorting our democracy. This could be the moment that the British press just pushed the British people too far: and could prove the opening shot for a movement for a genuinely free press.

This first appeared at Labour List

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