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The humbling of Murdoch and the Fourth Estate

July 19, 2011

Well Rupert Murdoch said that his appearance to answer questions in Parliament was the most humble day of his life.  But has there really been a shift in power within the Westminster Village? And what next for the “fourth estate”?

It was Bristol’s most famous MP, Edmund Burke, who coined the phrase “fourth estate”.  He was pointing out that Parliament had three elements, the Lords, the Bishops and the Commons. But the press gallery were a fourth estate, reporting what happened in Parliament but arguably more powerful in their own right as the filter of opinion.  What was true in the late 18th century holds now, perhaps even more so as print journalism contains more views than news.  The internet is our modern version of the paper “broadsides” of Hanoverian Britain, lampooning Monarch, Parliament and anyone regarded great and good.

Parliamentarians have experienced much reform since Burke.  The Commons is accountable to a mass electorate.  The sayings and doings of MPs are open to microscopic levels of scrutiny bringing about transparency and change.  Some but by no means all of this has come about because of pressure from the press.

But the press itself remains remarkably unchanged.  A tiny number of men still own or control most of our national newspapers.  They regulate themselves. They don’t have to pay taxes here.  They don’t even have to live here or carry a British passport.

But are the members of the fourth estate about to experience the wind of change blasting through them?  No, if left to their own devices.  We have after all been here before.  There was widespread revulsion against tabloid press practices after the death of Princess Diana.  Change will need to be forced upon them.  The humbling of Rupert may be satisfying but futile unless his business practices and levels of control are changed.

So what could we do?  Here are some ideas:

  • Ownership – in a free market we would get worried if any supermarket or bank held more than a quarter market share.  Surely no individual or company should have a dominant position in order to influence our opinions.  And press barons should not also dominate the airwaves.  Plurality of ownership is more likely to lead to diverse opinion.
  • Personality – Murdoch snr is an Aussie carrying a US passport.  The land of the free doesn’t allow foreign nationals to influence the opinions of American voters.  I believe in open markets.  British companies operate all over the world.  So I wouldn’t favour a pure nationality test but we should have a wider “fit and proper person” test for media ownership and effective control.
  • Regulation – the Press Complaints Commission has to go.  A cabal of editors can no more be trusted to police themselves than MPs set proper expenses rules or the Catholic Church throw out errant priests.  An independent regulator of the print media has to have the power to set a code of practice and to fine transgressions.  Is journalism a trade or a profession?  Dodgy gas fitters and negligent doctors soon find themselves out of work.
  • Transparency – sunshine is a great cleanser and the press desperately need a bright light on their shadier activities.  Phone hacking is not much worse than “good old  fashioned journalism that we hear about, such as nicking letters, rummaging through bins or cash in envelopes to sources.  Other businesses have to keep proper records so their claims can be verified.  So in a kiss and tell story which has been literally sexed up for our titillation, why not disclose that Miss Tracey  Slapper has been paid £1,000 for her contribution to the story?

Back to Parliament.  I think this furore has been good for the reputation of Parliament, giving backbenchers of all parties their day in the sun.  Select Committees do excellent work every day.  It’s taken a major story about the press for the press to report their meetings.  Whenever I show people around Parliament I stand in Central Lobby and explain how people can come and “lobby” their MPs. But the “Lobby” is also the secret garden of Parliamentary reporters, with their “sources close to the Prime Minister” or the anonymous “senior source” being quoted either trashing the reputations of rivals or puffing up the status of acolytes.  More transparency is better than “off the record” if trust is to be re-established and the reputation of all of Burke’s estates enhanced.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. July 20, 2011 10:27 am

    Readers may be interested in a written answer to a Parliamentary Question I received today on the level of Govt advertising with the News of the World and other NI titles from 2005 to date. I asked the question in the week prior to the announcement of closure of the NotW, when commercial advertisers were already jumping ship. I also raised it on the floor of the House of Commons.
    It shows that the last Govt spent many millions advertising with the Murdoch papers. In the year before the general election the Sun received £4.5million and the NotW £1.8m. This year that spend has collapsed down to just £400,000 with the Sun and just over £100,000 with the NotW.
    The full dataset can be seen here:

  2. James permalink
    July 20, 2011 10:51 am

    If the Murdoch media are to be far less powerfull in setting political agendas and debate in the future, perhaps our Party’s leadership could stop using iliberal soundbites like “Alarm Clock Britain” designed to appeal to Sun journalists and readers…

    • July 20, 2011 11:13 am

      James – I don’t agree with that. Any party, incl the Lib Dems, that fails to attempt to appeal to Sun readers, or Mirror and Star readers, is turning its back on millions of voters. As for the papers themselves, a distinction should be drawn between sucking up to proprietors in order to get the endorsement of their papers and speaking to journalists about matters we want reported.

  3. Tony Dyer permalink
    July 20, 2011 11:20 am

    Yes, we have all been here before – and we will be back here again.

    “But are the members of the fourth estate about to experience the wind of change blasting through them? No, if left to their own devices. We have after all been here before. There was widespread revulsion against tabloid press practices after the death of Princess Diana. Change will need to be forced upon them. The humbling of Rupert may be satisfying but futile unless his business practices and levels of control are changed.”

    could just as easily been written relatively recently as;

    “But is the financial community about to experience the wind of change blasting through them? No, if left to their own devices. We have after all been here before. There was widespread revulsion against financial speculation after (insert the financial crisis of your choice). Change will need to be forced upon them. The humbling of Fred Goodwin may be satisfying but futile unless business practices and levels of control are changed”

    or, in regards to the MPs expenses scandal;

    “But are members of parliament about to experience the wind of change blasting through them? No, if left to their own devices. We have after all been here before. There was widespread revulsion against political sleaze and scandal after the arrest of Jonathan Aitken. Change will need to be forced upon them. The humbling of (insert name of MP from different party here) may be satisfying but futile unless MPs practices and levels of control are changed.”

    I am afraid I have become very cynical about episodes such as these – you have a sudden flurry of politicians and other talking heads saying that “something must be done”, and that major changes are required, but once the headlines have died down, you tend to end up with some watered-down cosmetic changes and life carries on as before. So little suprise that as “Rupert” was eating his humble pie, it was announced that £14 billion of bonuses had been paid out in the financial sector whilst the economy is still trying to recover from the effects of the financial crisis caused by their business practices.

    I don’t have any confidence that this episode will result in any major changes to the way many journalists behave, in the same way that there as been no real change in the way much of the financial sector behave. And that is because there has been no great change in the way most politicians behave.

    “Hypocrisy can afford to be magnificent in its promises; for never intending to go beyond promises; it costs nothing.”

    • July 20, 2011 4:39 pm

      You’ve clearly not heard of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority which started work in May 2010. Or the independent commission on banking (the “Vickers” commission) set up by the Coalition and due to present its final report in about 6 weeks.

      • Peter permalink
        July 30, 2011 4:00 am

        To be fair to the original poster, with regards to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and the independent commission on banking; only time will tell as to whether we ‘end up with some watered-down cosmetic changes and life carries on as before’. The OP was talking about what happens after the spotlight moves away, and since it hasn’t yet it’s a bit to early to judge results.

  4. rosemary permalink
    July 20, 2011 3:41 pm

    Have you noticed the Euro is on the edge of the cliff? (Something Messrs Blair and Murdoch used to argue about.) What is Parliament doing about it?

    • July 20, 2011 4:43 pm

      I’ve blogged about this a couple of weeks ago. And mentioned it in the final debate on the Finance Bill last week. But you are generally right – a media snowstorm about a scandal about the media is sucking the life out of all other issues that should be on the airwaves.

      • May 26, 2012 11:30 am

        Hughes views – Memory is a strange thing. While the SDP made a spslah in some areas of the broadsheet press, they made no particular impression on the British public at all – and polling evidence from the time suggests your ‘recollection’ is a tad off.Luke – I agree that Britain never embraced Thatcherism. Unfortunately a part of the Labour Party did.You starkly show the inbuilt advantage the Right have in our party: we on the left will always end up conceding that ANY Labour government (even this one!) is better than ANY Tory government. This keeps us reasonably in line and keeps us parading the streets and lying to voters. The Right never admit anything remotely similar, though Luke’s admission here is the starkest I’ve seen: that he’d rather the brutally right-wing Thatcher regime than a left-wing Labour government.I’m not shocked by the sentiments – but I am shocked by the honesty. We on the other hand will keep voting for you and providing you with the platform from which to attack us. When the right split they are forgiven and welcomed back (see the parade of SDPers – many of whom are now in faux left groups like Compass!) The double standards is extraordinary.

    • rosemary permalink
      July 20, 2011 4:44 pm

      Unless Stephen has a better one, I shall give my own answer to this: they are off on holiday till the second week of September, after having reconvened today to have an emergency debate about …hackgate. What woudl Burke have thought about that?

      • July 20, 2011 8:27 pm

        you make an entirely fair point! APart from the holiday word – maybe true for some MPs but not me, I will be in Bristol most of that time. “Lobby ” journalists do have lots of holiday….
        I’m sure we would reconvene if there was an actual default or crisis in a fellow EU state.

  5. rosemary permalink
    July 20, 2011 10:19 pm

    Yes, Stephen, the pressure must be great. Burke could not have dreamed of what the modern MP must contend with – all that email for a start, and then the surgery and case work. Perhaps not having time to reflect makes it hard for them to judge what they should be having emergency debates about. This one was an hysterical distraction from your long term strategy for this parliament, for which there may be a price to pay.

    • rosemary permalink
      July 21, 2011 8:10 am

      In your favour Stephen you did not appear to be part of the hysterical distraction. Had you decided to go one better and bring some sense of reason and proportion into the debate, you would not have disgraced us had you asked Mr Miliband this question: Did Mr Murdoch have any undue influence over the decision to keep us out of the Euro?

      • rosemary permalink
        July 21, 2011 9:05 pm

        One further thought, if you will forgive me, Stephen:

        You and your parliamentary colleagues would be justified in debating in general, at some time or other, i.e. not in an emergency debate in a reconvened session, the question of the Fourth Estate. As Kipling said originally, and we have long known, it has the prerogative of the harlot thoughout the ages, power without responsibility. This Pornocracy – unelected, unrepresentative, unaccountable, often hereditary, and usually in for life, will be with us as long as we still have some semblance of free speech.

        But MPs have the responsibility, and should not have danced maniacally to its tune, including in this case, “the many agendas” referred to by a witness. Nor should the public – who fed the “firestorm” referred to by the PM as justification for leading not one but two emergency debates, the second of which brought him back early from a continent which does not get enough serious attention; and at a time when its leaders may be of some help in resolving the Libyan impasse and helping Somalia.

        The Parliamentary select committee hearing I found more enlightening than the widely publicised circus chaired by Mr Vaz, was the one on defamation, not broadcast live at the time, chaired by Lord Mawhinney, and attended by Matthew Parris and Paul Dacre. They – sincere and honourable MPs with no wish to play to the gallery – got right down to examining the ramifications of
        censorship and regulation, both on and off he internet, and I commend it to anyone who has a serious interest in this subject. It could have been held at any time.

  6. Koulla permalink
    July 30, 2011 8:09 pm

    I fully endorse Stephen Williams’ opinion that no individual or company should have a dominant position (in the media) so as to influence our opinions and that plurality of ownership is more likely to lead to diverse opinion.

    So, perhaps we should consider enacting legislation limiting any individual, family, company or associated companies ownership of any newspaper or radio or television station aired in this country (apart from the BBC) to a small percentage (say 10 or 20 per cent) of that media’s shareholding.

    It would be difficult but I’m sure it could be done.

    Some individuals and families such as the Murdochs would no doubt fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo but if our politicians could find the courage and the integrity to see it through, I am sure they would find the Murdochs’ teeth are drawn.

  7. Koulla permalink
    July 31, 2011 11:14 am

    Realistically, I suppose all a person would have to do to get around a law limiting their ownership of the media is to front their friends and trusted employees. I would welcome any ideas on how to prevent this, if possible. One way might be to outlaw all secret trusts involving the mass media (which can be defined in the legislation) and to subject all other trusts involving the mass media to scrutiny by the Law Courts, giving the Judges power to rule all such trusts which can’t be justified on other grounds an outright gift to the beneficiary. This would give powerful media figures pause for thought – the risk that they could lose millions to the beneficiary. Of course, laws like everything else have unintended consequences that are often unforseen, so if anybody would like to take this up and run with it or has a better idea, I for one, would welcome it.

  8. rosemary permalink
    August 4, 2011 5:33 pm


    “(apart from the BBC)”. Are you sure you have the right target? Before they shut the News of the World, NI controlled 37% of our national newspaper circulation, much of this arising from the two tabloid publications.

    Besides the national press, the media consists of TV, radio, internet, local newspapers, magazines, and more.

    It is widely believed that broadcasting has by far the greatest influence over people’s minds, not the press. BSkyB puts out 6.8% of broadcasting.

    More than 7 million people listen to the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme alone, and that is only one of the BBC’s many news and current affairs programmes. The largest and most powerful broadcaster across TV, radio, and the internet by far, is the BBC. The BBC controls more than 70% of news broadcasting across the UK. It is not technically a monopoly, but it exerts monopolistic control over the market, and over opinion forming. Moreover, its all powerful presenters are now taking the destructive and prurient gossip they love to peddle, and which was formerly supplied to them by the tabloids they affect to despise, direct from the internet. If they pick up political opinions from a paper before passing them to the public, that paper will most likely be the Guardian, not a Murdoch paper. It is in the Guardian that media jobs are advertised.

    Why do you want the omnipotent state broadcaster to be exempted from your reforming legislation? As there is no extra charge on top of the flat rate tax it levies on everyone with a TV set, it has a huge captive audience, many of whom will never have bought a Murdoch paper, but will have learned from the BBC over the years to hate him.

    If you believe that the BBC’s bias – not just anti Murdoch; anti Conservative; anti private sector; anti business and enterprise; anti Unionist; anti America; and anti Israel; but in favour of the EU; in favour of mass immigration; in favour of high taxation and ever increasing public expenditure; in favour of comprehensive education; in favour of ever more universities; in favour of leniency in criminal justice; in favour of mothers being out at work… to pick just a few longstanding orthodoxies – has served the country well, then you probably won’t be concerned about the predicament the country is now in, or the part the BBC played in bringing that about.

    You appear to be concerned about Murdoch. But if he really had all that power, then why have so many people over the years been happy to incite hatred against him? It contrasts oddly with their treatment of Maxwell. So petrified were they of him, that not only did no-one criticise him in public, no-one dared shop him. Even after his death he doesn’t attract the odium Murdoch does. To me, this singular hatred of Murdoch seems overdone, and the unquestioning faith in the political wisdom of the BBC and its mentress the Guardian, inconsistent.

    That does not mean I wish to disband the BBC, or even the Guardian, as many detractors do. Far from it. As said earlier in the discussion, it is better to keep a hold of nurse, for fear of getting something worse. I ‘d just like this debate on censorship and regulation of publicly expressed opinion to be balanced. If people aren’t happy with perceived influence form some organs, and want them regulated, or even shut down, then they must be prepared for other people to demand the same of organs they dislike. And when it comes to abuse of power and influence in the broadcast media, as opposed to the press, it is more a question of beams and motes, than of pots and kettles.

    But if the BBC bias is your bias, you won’t have a problem with it.

  9. rosemary permalink
    August 4, 2011 7:15 pm

    PS for Koulla:

    A good reason not to be complacent about the BBC’s hegemony is that it might be taken over by a different tendency.

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