Monday, 18 July 2011

What we learnt when we broke free of Murdoch's stranglehold

The acres of newsprint covering the tribulations of the house of Murdoch in the last two weeks has been staggering. It has blown away consideration of other crucial news stories, such as the humanitarian crisis unfolding in drought-hit East Africa and the Coalition's new privatisation plans for public services. As ever, whilst I cling optimistically to the vain hope for a balance in media reporting, I can't ignore the fact that this breakdown in trust represents a crucial juncture for both the elected and the electorate.

And you can see clearly why. By allowing a concentration of print and television media to fall into the hands of the few, politicians hand men such as Murdoch a knife with which to hold at the throat of the entire political establishment. An unelected Australian tax exile has dictated domestic and international policy in the UK for the last two or three decades, aggressively shaping public debate against our best interests. Rupert Murdoch has used his newspapers to ferment opposition to the European Union. Why? Because it's legislative programme represented a brake on his media monopoly. In circumstances such as this, there IS a legitimate case to be made for modest rebalancing of press freedom back towards those we democratically elected to represent our interests.

In recent years, the appetite for 24 hour news has made it even more dangerous to be outspoken about Murdoch's grip on our body politic. He has a 24/7 machine ready to hammer the reputations of those who oppose him. That's why I must praise Ed Miliband's performance in the last couple of weeks. We may not respect Labour's inability to stand up to News International previously, but we can surely appreciate why they felt politically powerless to do so. By putting his muscle behind key demands in this crisis that have now come to pass: the withdrawal of the BSkyB take-over bid, the resignation of Rebekah Brooks and closing down the News of the World, he finally seems to be making the political weather. As recently as two weeks ago, he was being lampooned for his stupidity. Yet it is the Prime Minister who is now finding himself increasingly close to becoming collateral damage as recriminations and arrests continue.

The truth is that politicians and political parties CAN survive without the patronage of the big media giants. As Labour and Tory MPs find their voices again, both they and political commentators are rediscovering the joys of free speech. If it didn't underline just how perversely twisted public debate has become, I'd find it amusing.

For the Green Party and Liberal Democrats, political parties beneath Murdoch's notice, this is nothing new. We've been used to the casual indifference of the press and have had to succeed by building relationships with voters directly. This means becoming embedded more in the lifeblood of communities. Consequently, we have built reputations in strong locally-based, bottom-up politics, which I believe are the antidote to mass-media led gesture politics.

So my response to the News International morality tale? Yes, we need to get a handle on press intrusion and start to regulate more firmly than before, although not to the extent that genuine press freedom is threatened. Regulating a tighter set of rules around what constitutes public interest could move us away from salacious tittle-tattle and back to necessary investigative journalism. Place limits on the amount of the fourth estate that can be bought up by one individual or business.

But for politicians, it means remembering the simplest of lessons from campaigning. That your reputation is forged voter by voter, speech by speech, one constituency issue and judgement call at a time.


  1. We need a democratic and diverse media.

  2. Derek, I wholeheartedly agree with you, although it is worth noting that some would use the healthy sales figures for newspapers such as the News of the World to argue that it was an example of democratic media in action!

    I guess I don't mind a plurality of political viewpoints being represented in our newspapers and television, just as long as we have the mechanisms to hold them to a certain level of professional ethics.

  3. Let's just hope that laws aren't enacted as a result of this scandal which emasculate the press.

  4. Exactly, that's going to be the tough balance to strike.