ONCE IN A LIFETIME CHANCE TO BRING MEDIA BARONS TO HEEL

Chris Youett, NUJ rep on TUC Midlands

Labour MPs determined not to let Rupe get away with it

This is a report by Chris Youett, NUJ rep on TUC Midlands, on the recent & highly-successful conference organised by the NUJ and held at the TUC, called to find ways of bring media owners to heel in the wake of the phone hacking scandal.

IN THE wake of the Murdoch phone hacking scandal, the UK and Ireland has a once in a lifetime chance to bring the media barons to heel, a public conference at the TUC heard (writes Chris Youett).

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 The conference, organised by the National Union of Journalists, heard TUC Deputy General Secretary Frances O’Grady say that MPs in both countries had a rare opportunity to make the media fair for all.  She added: “Even 12 months ago, this wasn’t on anyone’s agenda – and the Leveson Inquiry was casting light on areas where The Sun doesn’t shine.

 “Rupert Murdoch’s News International media empire has too much power, the Daily Mail sets too many policies, Daily Express owner Richard Desmond isn’t a fit & proper person to own any newspapers and the Daily Telegraph’s owners, the Barclay twins, are hiding their affairs in the Channel Islands.

  “The TUC believes that state licensing of journalists is unacceptable, so we need a complaints system that works as well for the Daily Star as it currently does for the Morning Star,” Ms O’Grady said.

 The meeting heard six simple ideas for reigning in the power of media barons:

1. not allowing any publisher to own more  national newspapers with more than 15% of  total circulation (Murdoch’s titles currently own over 35%); 

2. a compulsory small levy on all titles to fund a media complaints body that would then have the resources to properly investigate all complaints;

3. the NUJ to be let back into Wapping;

4. forcing all online providers to pay re-transmission fees 

5. a strong Ofcom with real teeth: and,

6. anyone bidding for ownership of the national media will have to prove that he or she is a fit & proper person before the bid is allowed to go ahead.

      Had Rule 6 been in place 30 years ago, Rupert Murdoch would not have been allowed to buy Times Newspapers and the crooked publisher Robert Maxwell would not have been allowed to buy Mirror Group.  The NUJ believes that had it not been excluded from Wapping under a secret deal done between Murdoch and the then Prime Minister Tony Blair, the hacking scandal would never have happened.

The Parliamentary Labour Party is privately determined that none of its members will ever be allowed to cosy up to the Murdoch empire or do secret deals.  Deputy Leader Harriet Harman added: “Good journalism is good for democracy.  Most journalists are very professional, but they are now working under competition for a shrinking market.  

 “Job insecurity is making it difficult for journalists to complain about shrinking markets.  Had the NUJ had more power, then most of the current problems would have been avoided.

 “Coverage of trade unions is one sided – and it is not right for media owners to use their rights of free speech to attack the rights of others to disagree.  The concentration of media ownership and the lack of an effective complaints system are unhealthy.  

 “The malpractice at News International was never down to just one rogue reporter.  Had it not been for the phone hacking scandal, Murdoch would now own all of BskyB.

 “We need a strong Ofcom in place of inadequate laws.  Labour wants tougher tests for media ownership including a fit & proper person test before the bid is put in.  Prospective owners will have to shew more than their criminal records.  If they fail, then their applications will be struck out.  This has to be done under the jurisdiction of the UK courts – and we can use the Enterprise Act now to start to bring media barons back under control,” Ms Harman said.

NUJ research shewed that, over the past 20 years, over 40% of the jobs had been lost in local newspapers.  This needed to be taken into account when any new bids were made.

 Ms Harman pointed out: “This is a decisive moment for free speech for the victims of the hacking scandal.  The recent out of court settlement made by News International to Charlotte Church and her mother shewed that they were regarded just as a commodity to sell papers.  It was a courageous decision of Charlotte to appear in front of the Leveson Inquiry.

 “I am no fan of the power of the state – and government power is dangerous if it is not held to account.  I have invited newspaper editors to bring in their own proposals for Press complaints.  I also want a citizen-centric system that applies to all.  

 “The Press Complaints Commission closed itself down, but the new body will only apply to those who opt in.  Broadcasting has much tougher regulation, which Murdoch objected to.  A ‘right of reply’ isn’t good enough.  Inaccuracies need to be correctly promptly by publishers – and we need statutory underpinning of redress,” she concluded.

 Tony Lennon of media union BECTU asked why the printing media was being treated differently from broadcasting.  Local radio stations have less reach than local newspapers but still had to work to higher professional standards.  This included impartial coverage of elections.

 The Republic of Ireland already has tougher Press regulation in place.  NUJ Irish Secretary Seamus Dooley said this was in marked contrast to the UK where editors were still treated as if they had the divine rights of kings.

 He asked: “Why aren’t reporters, photographers and sub-editors involved too?  In the Republic our regulation system was proposed by working journalists”.

There was much concern in the UK over the increased use of so-called “production orders” to force photographers and camera crews to hand over unpublished and unbroadcasted materials to the police.  At some airports, such as Birmingham International, Press photographers flying to cover legal events in Ireland were routinely “turned over” by the local police with undeveloped film being seized.  

 Ironically many police forces employ their own camera crews to record major events – and can easily buy copies of all photos from newspapers and agencies!

 Ms Harman said: “Press photographers should not be seen as an arm of the law.”

 NUJ National Treasurer Anita Halpin pointed out that the way the printed media was distributed also made it difficult to protect a free Press.  Twenty years ago there were over 70 distributors to the trade.  Now there were only a couple.  She added: “An open distribution network is crucial to diversity of the media – as is the right to display newspapers, books and magazines in news agents.”

 Prior to News International’s move to Wapping, most titles were distributed by evening newspaper trains.  This system was founded by the Great Central Railway over a Century ago.  A leading director of that railway was Sir Berkeley Sheffield, Samantha Cameron’s grandfather.  Murdoch withdrew all his titles and delivered them via his TNT subsidiary.  He was sued by British Railways for breach of contract & settled out of court.

Mrs Halpin’s remarks were echoed by Morning Star Deputy Editor Richard Bagley.  He said: “There is no right of access to supermarkets, who only want mass-circulation titles.  There used to be newspaper trains, which democratised distribution.  There used to be 73 distributors; now there are only two.

 “It is also difficult for specialist titles to get onto the BBC as the corporation say that sales aren’t high enough.  Norway subsidises most local papers.  Perhaps we ought to look at the same system for the UK, which should be tied to a right to distribution and shelf space,” Mr Bagley added

  Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ General Secretary, said the Murdoch’s closure of the News of the World was a cynical ploy as the Sunday Sun had been in place for some time. The hacking scandal was the perfect storm to bring media owners to heel. 

 She added: “The lid on Murdoch was wrenched open by good journalism.   Too many political leaders sucked up to Murdoch.  His action at Wapping resulted in greater media concentration. 

  “At Wapping, the NUJ was intentionally excluded.  Murdoch did a secret deal with Prime Minister Tony Blair to legalise the News International Staff Association (Nisa) to stop the NUJ gaining recognition under the Fairness at Work legislation.

 “Since the News of the World closed, more & more News International journalists are joining the NUJ – and we hope to challenge the legality of the Blair deal in the courts.

 “It was a shameful decision by outgoing BBC Director General Mark Thompson to agree with Prime Minister David Cameron to freeze the licence fee for the first time in history.  Management has passed all the cuts down to the sharp end – and this will emasculate coverage.

 “BBC management has blamed journalists for the freeze while ring-fencing executive perks.  We need properly funded public service broadcasting and a media complaints system that works, Ms Stanistreet concluded.

Many people at the meeting felt that the BBC was far more accountable to the public than any commercial organisation.  BECTU Assistant General Secretary Luke Crawley pointed out: “State regulation hasn’t stopped good journalism in broadcasting – and a shortage of money is stopping the BBC from competing on a level playing field with BSkyB.

 “I am surprised that there are no re-transmission fees charged in the UK for re-use of terrestrial programmes by Internet Service Providers (ISPs).  In the USA, Murdoch subsidiary Fox News collects every cent.

 “The growth in unpaid internships in the media will mean that only rich kids will be able to afford to work in UK newsrooms.  We need the voices of all social classes,” he added.

 Jim Boumella is President of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) that represents over 600,000 journalists worldwide.  He said that changes in traditional revenue streams were putting all the media under a lot of financial pressure.

 He added: “President Sarkozy set up a Commission to look at ways of saving French newspapers.  Only the US has suffered more structural decline with newsrooms employing 30% less journalists.  In the US, 75% of titles are owned by hedge funds.  So few shares are publically traded.  The industry is highly profitable, but its ownership is narrow”

Veteran provincial journalist Pete Lazenby has worked for most of his life on the Yorkshire Evening Post in Leeds.  He said that in 1972, the paper produced eight editions per day and sold over 230,000 copies a night.  It employed 1,350 staff.  Now it only produced two editions a day and only employed 400 staff.  

 Mr Lazenby added: “When I first started, the final copy deadline was 4:00 pm.  Now it is 6:00 pm the night before.  All the gaffers are united by one thing only: greed.  Tesco’s counts itself lucky to make 8% profit.  The main regional media employers make 30% profit – and that still isn’t enough.

 “We are part of Johnson Press who last year made £400 million profit.  None of this has been used for expansion.  It was all paid out in dividends & bonuses.  Many of our problems are down to bad management.  You can apply this to most media groups.  For 258 years newspapers have been printed in Leeds.  We are now printed in Sunderland and Dinnington,” he pointed out.

Dr Natalie Fentor is Professor of  Media Studies at Goldsmith’s College, London.  She said that newspapers had a vital role to play in fostering a sense of community, conveying political analysis and community news, offering platforms for debate and giving a forum for advertising of goods & services.

She added: “Closures of titles have left many communities feeling a sense of isolation and that they were not being listened to.  Most public services are delivered locally – and the absence of local papers is responsible for declining civic participation.  We have found that when local news is absent, voting levels also go down.  There ought to be subsidies to support real journalism.”

 Granville Williams of the Campaign for Press & Broadcasting Freedom said the packed meeting shewed how high up the agenda bringing media barons back under control was.  He added: “Twelve months ago, everyone wanted to be at Rupert Murdoch’s parties.

 “Now people are demanding change – and ownership of the UK’s media is still important.

  “There has been a relentless assault on the BBC, trade unions and Ofcom from Murdoch’s titles.  Politicians are trapped in a world where to attack the Murdoch empire is to risk his attack dogs being set on them.  Trust in democracy is also undermined as publishers interfere in the political process.

 “Labour leader Ed Miliband has broken the link between Labour and the media barons – and it is time to limit each owner to a 15% share of the national newspaper market.  Any more than that should automatically trigger the public interest test that was applied when Murdoch tried to buy all of BskyB,” Mr Williams observed.

Growing numbers of media workers now believe that the Wapping Dispute 25 years ago wasn’t about restrictive practices, but giving Murdoch massive increases in his profits so that he could fund the world-wide expansion of his media empire without having to face bank scrutiny.

 Had printing of The Times moved to the Birmingham Post & Mail’s presses in 1982, it would have gone into profit within five weeks – and Murdoch would have had full colour presses, which would have made all his titles more attractive to advertisers.  The NUJ’s Chris Youett had no problem in getting the full support of all the unions in Birmingham for the move.

 Tony Burke, Assistant General Secretary of Unite, pointed out: “Rupe hopes that all his problems will go away.  They won’t.

 “Most governments think that they can’t touch him as they who control the message control political agendas.  I can see just six major print sites coming in the UK.  I expect the media to be digital-only by 2020 – but the trick is how to make money from it.  This is where Murdoch is ahead of the game.

 “Free expression is feared not only by right wing governments but also by big media groups,” he added.

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