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Seize the Chance for Media Reform

Martin Wolf, Financial Times

Intimidated children rounding on the playground bully – that is the spectacle in the UK since the News of the World phone-hacking scandal exploded. As one who has long believed that the influence of Rupert Murdoch on UK public life was quite intolerable, I am delighted to see this reversal of fortune.

Rupert Murdoch, Chairman and CEO of News Corporation
Getty Images

But rage is not enough. The UK must seize this chance to reconsider the structure and regulation of its media.

The media are businesses. But they are not just any businesses. They not only reflect, but also mould, public opinion and so wield immense political influence. That is why dictators seek to control the media and democratic politicians to use them. A person with control over a substantial portion of the press and television exerts huge unaccountable influence over public life. That is (or at least was) the position of Mr Murdoch’s News International.

Some would argue that, even so, it is best to leave ownership to the market and content to rights of free expression, subject only to law on libel and on intrusion into private life. But ownership does matter. The media have an intimate relationship with the functioning of the democratic polity or, in different words, the ability of the people to play an effective role as citizens.

We are both consumers and citizens, individuals pursuing our private lives and participants in public life. Classical liberals, who start by assuming that the role of the state should be very narrowly circumscribed, view the media as no more than an arena for commercial gladiators. But, in Aristotle’s words, man is a “political animal”. We need to make many decisions together. In the west we do this via a law-governed state responsible to the governed. This then is government by permanent discussion. The media are the forum for democratic politics. This is why they matter.

Diverse media require diverse ownership. But economic forces may generate a degree of concentration incompatible with desirable diversity. Politicians will then find themselves grovelling before proprietors who control their communications with the public. At worst, the proprietor may so twist and distort this needed communication as to transform public life. I would argue that the Fox network’s rightwing populism has done just that in the US. This should not happen in the UK.

Yet, paradoxically, a powerful proprietor, such as Mr Murdoch, may also promote diversity. The Times – a decent newspaper – exists today because of subventions from News International. This need for support partly reflects the economics of the newspaper business, as the internet devastates traditional advertising-based business models.

While viewing the media as we would the business of grocers is a grave error, it is no less misleading to ignore the economics of these businesses. Media must be funded. If funds are not to come from the market, they must come from somewhere else. That, too, creates dangers, not least of domination by the state. Each country will have to strike its own balance, aware of the dilemmas, particularly in our era of profound technological change.

What is now needed is a comprehensive re-examination of the role and regulation of the media in the UK. Moreover, any conclusions of such a review must explicitly include a commitment to further review in future, to take account of ongoing changes in technology and the business environment. Such a comprehensive review would look at: the law on privacy and libel; regulation of the press; the concentration of ownership within and across media; the role of public service broadcasting; and the public funding of media, more generally, and particularly of the news.

My preliminary views are that: the privacy of the powerless needs more protection and the wrong-doing of the powerful far less; redress against malicious coverage needs to be tougher, while preserving freedom of expression; rules on cross-ownership of media should be far tighter, with the mooted position of News International in both newspapers and television ruled out, a priori; the country should continue to support the BBC through stable funding, because it defines the notion of a public weal; and we should consider whether the public good of high-quality news gathering and analysis deserves public support.

These are remarkable times. But they are also, so far, largely an outburst of rage by those whom the Murdoch press has humiliated. The prime minister’s planned two-part inquiry into the hacking scandal and related issues covers much, albeit not all, of the required ground.

It is not enough to settle scores with the playground bully even though his misbehaviour has been so egregious. It is essential to design a structure of regulation that preserves freedom for the media, while curbing abuse, including concentrations of unaccountable power. The media are too important to be left to the mercies of politicians or judges. But they are also too important to be left to dominant proprietors. The UK has a golden opportunity to strike a new balance. If it does so, this scandal might yet bear rich fruit.