Britain’s press is, in large part, a plutocratic, propaganda machine that, while not controlled by the state, is deeply interwoven with it and serving of the narrow vested interests of its oligarchical owners. Indeed, the intimidatory consequences of defying it are not so dissimilar to those used by despotic states, such as bullying, dirt-raking and reputation smearing, and covert surveillance. Through distorting the news, the media have the power to manipulate public perceptions in order to unduly influence the outcome of elections, government policy in general, how legislation is drafted, whether it is passed, and even decisions to go to war. The whole edifice, by abjectly failing to properly perform its democratic function to objectively scrutinise the government, is grossly undemocratic.
The media moguls
Most of the British print media is currently owned by just six men:
- News UK (The Sun, The Times): Rupert Murdoch – founder, chairman and CEO of News Corporation, the world’s second-largest media conglomerate and then its successors after the 2013 split. In 2000, Murdoch’s News Corporation was estimated to own over 800 companies in more than 50 countries, with a net worth of over £3.25 billion.
- Daily Mail and General Trust (Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, Metro): Viscount Rothermere, a.k.a. Jonathan Harmsworth – former managing director of the Evening Standard, he inherited the chairmanship of DMGT on the death of his father in 1998. In 2012 he had an estimated wealth of £760 million.
- Express Newspapers (The Express, Daily Star): Richard Desmond – became licensee for ‘adult content’ Penthouse magazine and later Asian Babes and Posh Housewives, and then invested in OK! magazine and Channel 5 television station. The latter he sold, making a huge profit. He is estimated to be worth £1.3 billion.
- Press Holdings (The Daily and Sunday Telegraph): David and Frederick Barclay – of “humble origins as two of 10 children born to a Scottish travelling salesman and his wife in a house in Hammersmith, west London, which they shared with several other families”. They set up a painting and decorating business before moving into property. In 1992 they bought the European newspaper and, in 1995, the Scotsman. The Ritz Hotel in London was also purchased in 1995 and the mail order firm, Littlewoods, in 2002. The Daily and Sunday Telegraph (including The Spectator magazine) were acquired in 2004. The Barclay brothers currently own the delivery firm, Yodel, amongst other businesses, and are estimated to be worth £6 billion.
- ESI Media (London Evening Standard, Independent, Independent on Sunday, i): Alexander Yevgenievich Lebedev – worked for the Soviet Union’s KGB and its successor, the Foreign Intelligence Service, until 1992, and is a former member of Russia’s lower house of parliament, the Duma. He established the Russian Investment-Finance Company and, in 1995, this bought the National Reserve Bank, which, in 2012, having grown rapidly, faced serious difficulties. He also owned 49% of the Russian newspaper, Novaya Gazeta; but in November, 2012, Lebedev announced he was selling off his assets in Russia. In January 2009, Lebedev bought a 75.1% share in the Evening Standard newspaper for £1 and, in March 2010, he acquired The Independent and Independent on Sunday, also for £1. In 2008, Lebedev’s fortune was estimated to be worth £2.3 billion, but this had dropped dramatically by 2013.
Power and influence through distortion
The distortion of reality by the media, with the view to capitalising on the prejudices, insecurities and ill-informed views of the masses, in order to advance the ideology and often the radicalism of their very rich owners, is commonplace. This can include ignoring mass protests, or exaggerating any disorder that may occur as part of them. Conducting vitriolic media campaigns aimed at destroying any party the media wish to keep out of power and any individual who they deem as being in their way, is also grist to the mill. By these means, a very small cabal of the elite is able to exert enormous, plutocratic, political power and influence.
This was particularly evident in 1992, when The Sun, The Daily Mail and The Daily Express colluded together to attack the Labour Party which, at the time, was riding high in the opinion polls. Prior to that, in the eighties, Rupert Murdoch had secretly met Margaret Thatcher to brief her on his plans to buy The Times and The Sunday Times (which would support her political ambitions), to take on the trades unions and dramatically cut the papers’ workforce, while avoiding scrutiny by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, which could have scuppered the deal. In 1995, Tony Blair, all too cognisant of the power of spin and the media in British politics, and having moved the Labour Party to the right as the Conservative Party descended into disarray, even flew to meet Rupert Murdoch in Australia to ensure that The Sun would back him. That backing proved to be crucial and Blair won the 1997 election with a resounding victory. In return, it appears, News International managed to have the Employment Relations Act watered down in order to ensure trades union power in the company was kept to a minimum. Other, more subtle and covert tweaking of legislation was very likely in order to keep the media conglomerate onside.
Pressing for war
That Murdoch exercises editorial control on major issues in his newspapers, including which party to back in a general election, is self evident. The unacceptable extent of Murdoch’s influence on government can be measured by his support for the war in Iraq – a war which went ahead despite its illegality, absence of proper pretext and the British public’s opposition to it. All 175 of Murdoch’s newspapers around the world backed the war. According to Chris Bryant, a former Labour Foreign Office minister who suffered character assassination for daring to criticise the media for illegally paying police officers for information, “If the Murdoch papers had been against the Iraq war, I’m sure the Iraq war would not have happened.” This appears to suggest that had it not been for Murdoch, Britain’s role in the estimated 1.7 million pre-war deaths in Iraq due to sanctions; the 655,000 deaths directly attributed to the Iraq war and its aftermath (up to the year 2006); the galvanising of Islamic extremism through the creation of a fertile breeding and recruitment ground for terrorists; the destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure and basic services; the exacerbation of Iraq’s religious divisions; the ensuing extreme regional instability and anomie; the inflamed hatred of the West and the resulting threat to Britain’s security; etc.; might have been avoided. But Murdoch’s influence on the war did not end there as, after Blair’s departure, there was some hesitancy by the government about instigating inquiries into what actually went on in case the media would disapprove.
Hobnobbing elite clique
The actual nature of the relationship between Blair and Murdoch was not open to exposure at the time, but its intimacy became evident after Blair stepped down as prime minister and he became godfather to one of Murdoch’s children. Indeed, during New Labour’s time in power, both Blair and Brown, probably acutely aware of the damage the press could do to politicians it did not favour, were only too ready to meet with media barons and their editors, and without any record of the meetings being made. As John Harris of the Guardian pointed out at the time: ‘British politics was blurring into a mulch largely built around policies the Murdochs could endorse, and their company was apparently so gone on its own power that some of its staff obviously thought they were way beyond the law’. In fact, just three days before the phone hacking crisis broke, a party hosted by Elisabeth Murdoch at her Oxfordshire home was attended by a grand procession of government ministers, advisers, senior opposition politicians, journalists, musicians and public relations gurus. Just two weeks previous to this, Rupert Murdoch had held a summer party, which was attended by David Cameron and his wife, the Labour leader Ed Miliband and many of the other ‘great and the good’ of the British media and politics who felt the need to pay homage. The influence of all this on government policy can be reasonably imputed.
David Cameron was as in hock to the Murdoch empire as his predecessors. He met its executives many times and socialised closely with Rebekah Brooks, when she was chief executive of News International. Both were part of the ‘Chipping Norton set’, the clique based around Cameron’s Oxfordshire home and which included Rupert Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth, Google’s head of communications and public policy Rachel Whetstone and her husband Steve Hilton, Cameron’s former strategy director. According to John Harris the ‘Chipping Norton set’ had become ‘a hardened clique’ that demonstrated the collusive, opinion-moulding impact of focused media power on British politics. By such strategic fraternisation, in 2010, despite having only 23.47% of the electorate behind him, Cameron managed to garner support from 71% of newspapers by circulation and win power.
In-bred elitism in journalism
The bias towards the perspective of the privileged and often London-centric, with little understanding of issues that face the ordinary person, is reinforced by journalism largely becoming a closed-shop profession for the well-to-do. This has resulted from entry to the profession being increasingly subject to unpaid internships, post-graduate degree requirements, good connections and growing competition for limited vacancies. Consequently, while just 7% of the population was privately educated, in 2014, 54% of the top media professionals were. Thus should, by chance, journalists choose not to oppose government measures that would disadvantage the privileged, their bosses are in a position to coerce them to toe the editorial line. Indeed, with increasing de-unionisation and the casualisation of journalism, today producing independent copy could well result in dismissal. Furthermore, increased workload and fewer newspaper sales means information from one-sided public relations releases is increasingly being substituted for investigative, government-scrutinising journalism.
Additionally, drawing as it does from a small, privileged section of society, the journalist profession is becoming increasingly in-bred. Children follow their parents into it and incumbents often have family and social connections in political circles, which helps lubricate the revolving door between media and politics. Owen Jones, in his book entitled “The Establishment”, cites many examples, including Conservative MP and London Mayor, Boris Johnson, who is a former editor of the Spectator and is currently a columnist for the Daily Telegraph. Tony Blair’s former speech-writer, Phillip Collins, who was a former columnist for The Times; The Time‘s comment editor, Tim Montgomerie, who was chief of staff to former Tory party leader, Iain Duncan Smith; Alastair Campbell, a former Daily Mirror hack who became Tony Blair’s spin doctor; Graeme Wilson, Cameron’s press secretary, who was formerly The Sun‘s deputy political editor; Bob Roberts, who was the Daily Mirror‘s political editor before becoming Labour’s director of communications; The Times‘ executive and then associate editor, Daniel Finkelstein, who is George Osborne’s speech writer and was a Tory cabinet advisor and candidate for Tory MP before being made a peer; and former editor of the News of the World, Andy Coulson, who briefly became David Cameron’s communications director before resigning after being found guilty of conspiring to hack phones (such was the over-weaning arrogance of the British media, in addition to illegally paying police officers for information, they also indulged in illegal phone hacking on a grand scale); are others.
The BBC – transmitter of mainstream ideology
The BBC is assumed to be an impartial and apolitical counterweight to Britain’s oligarchic press; but Owen Jones shows that, judging by the political leanings of those it recruits to senior positions, it is, in fact, “a transmitter of mainstream ideology”, as the following list suggests:
- Chris Pattern – Chairman of the BBC Trust – ex-Conservative Party chair and cabinet minister.
- Andrew Neil – presenter of Daily & Sunday Politics and This Week – chair of the Spectator magazine and ex-Sunday Times editor.
- Ronnie Gibb – editor of the BBC’s political programmes – ex-chief of staff to the Tory, Francis Maude, and ex-chair of the right wing Federation of Conservative Students.
- Nick Robinson – BBC’s political editor and presenter – ex-national chair of the Young Conservatives.
- Kamal Ahmed – BBC’s business editor – ex-business editor of the Sunday Telegraph.
- James Harding – head of BBC News – ex-editor of The Times.
Those who have gone through the revolving door the other way include:
- Thea Rogers – ex-senior BBC political producer – now works for George Osborne.
- Craig Oliver – ex-BBC news editor – now David Cameron’s director of communications.
- Guto Harri – ex-BBC political correspondent – then Boris Johnson’s communications chief, before becoming director of communications at Murdoch’s News UK.
- Stephanie Flanders – ex-BBC economics editor – now works for the investment bank, JP Morgan.
This in-built bias means that staff in the BBC are expected to stick closely to the management line; that issues like the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal after Israel’s pulverisation of Gaza in 2009 and the surreptitious privatisation of parts of the NHS by the Tories in 2012, receive barely any coverage; and that Conservative politicians and business leaders are given far more on-screen exposure than Labour politicians and union representatives.
According to Jones, “The British people are not being served by a media that exists to inform them, to educate them, to understand the realities of the country they live in and the world around them. Instead, much of the media is a political machine, lobbying for the often personal objectives of their owners. The media and the political elites are frequently deeply entwined, sharing as they do many of the assumptions about how society should be run and organised. Journalists are often utterly subordinate to the whims of their editors and increasingly drawn from backgrounds that are strikingly different from those of their readers.”
George Monbiot has similar concerns: “Governments ignore issues when the media ignores them. And the media ignores them because … well, there’s a question with a thousand answers, many of which involve power. But one reason is the complete failure of perspective in a de-skilled industry dominated by corporate press releases, photo ops and fashion shoots, where everyone seems to be waiting for everyone else to take a lead.”
Danny Dorling, author of “Inequality and the 1%”, puts it like this: “The top 1 per cent today have an enormous amount of money. They own newspapers and TV channels, and they spread myths to offset the growing consciousness among the 99 per cent; stories about benefit scroungers are designed to rally people to their side. They spread myths of generating jobs through their ‘wealth creation’. They are treated with deference in newspapers and on TV and radio news programmes, just as clerics used to be treated a century ago. Business ‘dragons’ are presented as benevolent creatures, not destructive scary reptiles.”