This week Hacked Off, the campaign for a free and accountable press, has published research sourced from the government’s own data, that shows a disturbing closeness between Murdoch’s press empire and Boris Johnson.
Among the findings is the extraordinary revelation that Rupert Murdoch personally met with the government at least three times in Johnson’s first six months. The last of those meetings was only 72 hours after the general election result was announced.
But it goes further. Between 2018 and 2019, staff at Rupert Murdoch’s News UK met with government ministers and advisors a total of 206 times. Parliament sat for roughly 73 weeks across this period – which means News UK employees were getting an average of 2.8 meetings per week. The cabinet, by contrast, usually meets only once per week.
Editors and proprietors meeting with politicians is a fact of life – or it has been for the last twenty years, at least. But the regularity of meetings that have taken place between Murdoch’s interests and the government – and the failure of either side to disclose what was discussed – leaves the public in the dark over the extent of Murdoch and his associates’ influence on the government.
That failure of the government to publish minutes of the meetings is a violation of a Leveson recommendation to publish all details of discussions on media policy, and leaves us in a situation where powerful media bosses can lobby on press regulation and any other policy areas in total secrecy.
Is it surprising then that the policies pursued by this government include the scrapping of a public inquiry into alleged corruption between politicians, newspapers and the police, and a do-nothing approach to bullying, abuse and unethical conduct in the press? This all paints a picture of a government whose media policy is driven by Murdoch, not the public interest.
Some people argue to the contrary, claiming that Murdoch’s influence is on the wane. They claim that newspapers are a dying industry and that their influence is diminishing, and that the internet has diversified the media landscape.
But the reach of the top newspaper titles – and certainly of Murdoch’s – shows that newspapers have never been more successful. Yes, fewer people are picking up The Sun on the way to work. But many more are reading it online. In fact, of the top 10 news websites in the UK, 8 are those of national newspapers.
Indeed, News UK, Murdoch’s publisher of The Times, Sunday Times and The Sun, report that 72% of UK adults are reached by at least one of their publications every month. Their influence is undeniable yet they continue to face zero accountability.
The closeness between this pervasive media empire and the government has real consequences in reporting. Too often, instead of scrutinising the powerful, newspapers have picked on members of the public.
Already this week week, The Times have published a piece attacking Traveller culture and The Telegraph have had a go at “fat” nurses. Last week, we discovered that The Times’ anti-Muslim campaign had resulted in the paper paying damages for libel after it implied that a prominent Muslim supported FGM.
We’ve also seen Black Lives Matters activists targeted, NHS workers and teachers put in the firing line when raising concerns over the government’s handling of the pandemic and numerous other concerted attacks which have profoundly shaped our political landscape.
Regulating newspapers is not about restricting free speech. It is about providing redress to the public after bullying and abuse. In an important sense, it is about giving free speech to those who through malicious press attacks have been silenced.
The worse news is that the current Johnson administration was elected on a manifesto which promised to do nothing to increase press accountability, or to tackle evidence of corruption between the police, press and politicians, all despite the fact that the UK’s print media is the least trusted in the world.
By contrast, Labour and the Liberal Democrats’ manifestos promised a tough stance on police-press corruption, with a commitment to see through the promised second part of the Leveson Inquiry, and to implement independent regulation.
Going up against Murdoch’s unaccountable empire may not win many favourable headlines. But it is the right, progressive, and socially just thing to do. After all, our elected representatives should be accountable to voters, not to press barons.