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Britain’s Media Monopoly Is a Threat to Democracy

Britain's media is owned by a tiny handful of corporations, with three companies controlling 90% of newspaper circulation – if we want a real democracy, it's time to break the power of the media moguls.

The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the serious challenges facing British media institutions. Traditional broadcasters are locked in fierce competition with global streaming services, and the BBC—between attacks on its independence, cuts to its services, and threats to its funding—faces a political reckoning. The pandemic has intensified concerns about the role of social media platforms in spreading misinformation and fostering online abuse, while the ‘anti-woke’, ‘anti-metropolitan’ GB News and Rupert Murdoch’s News UK look tailor-made to further polarise audiences when they launch later this year.

Trust in news organisations is already precipitously low, with research by the Reuters Institute suggesting just 28 percent of the public feel they can trust the news. Worse still, the latest Eurobarometer figures place UK journalists as by far the most distrusted out of 33 European countries.

Yet these debates often overlook the dangerous levels of concentrated media ownership in the UK, and how a few powerful media corporations are stifling public debate through their control of the majority of newspapers, broadcasters, and online media platforms. That’s why the Media Reform Coalition has published new research on the state of media ownership in the UK, and our results paint a grim picture for anyone who cares about a free, independent, and vibrant media.

Take the UK’s newspaper industry: in a national market of 20 daily and Sunday newspaper titles, just three companies control 90 percent of newspaper circulation. Lord Rothermere’s DMG Media—publishers of the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday, the Metro, and the i—accounts for almost 40 percent of all national newspapers sold each week in the UK, while Rupert Murdoch’s News UK and Reach (which publishes the Mirror and Express titles) command one third and one fifth of the market, respectively.

When online readers are included, the same companies control a four-fifths market share among the major newspaper groups, giving these publishers an unparalleled influence for setting the agenda across the rest of the news media.

Even after years of an industry-wide decline in readers and a drastic slump in circulation during last year’s lockdown, the national newspaper market has become more concentrated since our last report in 2019. More worryingly, the editors, executives, and owners at the top of this corporate oligopoly still enjoy routine, unaccountable, private access to our political leaders, as the recent accounts of Rupert Murdoch’s numerous meetings with government ministers make all too clear.

The share of ownership in Britain’s local press is hardly any better. Six publishers control 80 percent of the more than 1,000 local newspapers published across the country, and three of these companies—Newsquest, Reach, and JPI Media—each own a greater market share than the other 50 publishers combined.

The long-term decline in circulation and advertising revenue has put the UK’s local newspaper industry in a perilous state: our research has found that as many as 295 local titles have closed since 2005, while between 2,000 and 5,000 local journalists’ jobs have been lost or put at risk as a result of the pandemic.

The growing trend of chain ownership, takeovers, and buy-outs is also causing serious harm to the basic provision of news at the local level. Research commissioned by the government in 2019 found that 65 percent of the UK’s local authority districts were not served by a single daily local newspaper, as big publishers have looked to cut costs by merging local titles into online-only, homogenised regional ‘newsbrands’, depriving smaller communities of dedicated journalists and focused news coverage.

Piecemeal efforts by the government to save the local newspaper industry, like the Cairncross Review, seem more interested in propping up big corporate publishers than supporting new, independent, and locally-based journalism. The same dominant publishers who have withdrawn from local journalism and helped create the growing number of ‘news deserts’ around the UK can even dip into public subsidies from the licence fee: of the 149 journalists funded by the BBC’s Local Democracy Reporter scheme, more than 9 in 10 of them are contracted to the UK’s three largest local publishing companies.

Online media, meanwhile, have allowed a swathe of alternative journalistic enterprises across the left and right of British politics to challenge ‘traditional’ news organisations. Yet the audiences and revenues of new online outlets like Novara Media, Unherd, and OpenDemocracy pale in comparison to the UK’s legacy news websites and international digital natives like BuzzFeed.

Monthly traffic to the MailOnline, the Guardian, and Sun Online websites sits comfortably in the hundreds of millions, and their reach is amplified by the prominent position that social media platforms give to large newspapers and news broadcasters. More than 22 million people in the UK use Facebook to find and consume news content on a regular basis, and research by Ofcom suggests that traditional news organisations make up almost half of the news sources that these users encounter on their feeds.

Unregulated, unaccountable, and with revenues that dwarf even the largest UK media businesses, companies like Facebook (which also owns Instagram), Alphabet (Google and YouTube), and Apple hold an unprecedented gatekeeping power to determine what news we see online. As the Australian government’s farcical News Media Bargaining Code has shown, global tech giants are more than happy to make cosy deals with dominant media groups while depriving smaller and typically under-represented voices their access to the public.

What about the broadcasters? The BBC remains the UK’s leading source of news, holds the largest TV viewing share, and provides a wealth of national and local radio services – but a decade of funding freezes has kept its budget far below that of its commercial competitors. Even Sky and BT, the UK’s major pay-TV providers, are struggling to keep pace with the market power of American streaming juggernauts like Amazon, Disney, and Netflix.

On radio just two companies—Bauer and Global—have swept up control of almost 70 percent of the UK’s commercial local analogue stations, and together with Wireless Group (a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp) these three companies control more than three-quarters of the national DAB market.

News Corp’s share of news consumption across print, TV, and radio has dropped markedly since it sold Sky to Comcast in 2018, but the launch of Times Radio and the soon-to-come News UK TV show that Murdoch isn’t about to relinquish his grip on British audiences so easily. GB News, for all its claims of going against the ‘mainstream’, is nonetheless intimately connected with established commercial media players. US-based multimedia giant Discovery has contributed £20 million to the venture, and the channel’s co-founders hold close links with John Malone, the US ‘cable cowboy’ and chair of Liberty Global.

Both channels threaten to further tip the uneasy balance of political opinion represented in UK media, with GB News chairman Andrew Neil promising clickbait-ready programmes like ‘Wokewatch’ and ‘Mediawatch’ in its launch lineup. Ofcom’s impartiality regulation—which only requires that broadcasters give general coverage of differing views—will do little to stop these new networks from trying to steer the UK news agenda in favour of their proprietors’ interests.

Media plurality is not a luxury in the digital age, but an essential part of a free and democratic media system – and vested interests, whether newspaper publishers, commercial broadcasters, or tech companies, should not be allowed to control the public conversation. ‘Business as usual’ will not do, and any action from government or Ofcom should not simply bolster the same handful of corporate giants that already dominate the media system.

We need reformed regulation that gets to grips with the complexities of media ownership in the twenty-first century, taking on concentrated political power at the heights of the media industries as well as supporting genuinely independent public interest media. The new online platforms that govern more and more of how we find and consume information must be made subject to public accountability, and the rapid consolidation in the UK’s print and broadcasting markets into fewer and fewer hands must be brought into check.

The immense challenges of trust, truth, and technological change currently affecting UK media won’t be resolved overnight, but tackling concentrated ownership and its dangerous influence on media’s democratic purpose is an essential starting point.

Read the Media Reform Coalition’s latest report here.

This research is part of the UK component of the Centre for Media, Data and Society’s Media Influence Matrix, set up to investigate the influence of shifts in policy, funding, and technology on contemporary journalism. The UK component is coordinated in partnership with Goldsmiths, University of London, and is funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. It is due to report in Spring 2021.

About the Author

Tom Chivers is a PhD researcher at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he is also associate lecturer in media, history, and politics.