Labour takes aim at Murdoch with new call for media ownership cap

Harriet Harman suggests a cap of 15 per cent on total ownership and calls for cross-party talks on the issue.

One of the omissions from the Leveson report was any detailed discussion of media ownership. The argument commonly made against state-backed regulation is that most of the abuses the inquiry was set up to examine, such as phone-hacking, bribery and the corruption of public officials, are already illegal. But, most obviously in the case of News International, the law has often proved feeble in the face of media pressure. At least one reason for this is NI's overweening dominance of the market; even after the closure of the News of the World, it still commands 34 per of newspaper circulation and, had it not been for the Milly Dowler phone-hacking revelations, it would almost certainly have acquired 100 per cent of BSkyB.

Labour will attempt to put the issue back on the agenda today when Harriet Harman delivers the Charles Wheeler Lecture on journalism at the University of Westminster. The shadow culture secretary will repeat the party's call for a cap of 30 per cent on newspaper market share and will propose one of 15 per cent for cross-media ownership, including broadcast and online. She will urge Maria Miller to establish a cross-party process to propose new regulation in time for the next election and will make it clear that she has Rupert Murdoch's empire in her sights. Here's an extract:

"The Leveson Inquiry focused on the complaints system. And the impunity which came from the lack of a robust, effective complaints system was undoubtedly a key part of the problem. But so too was something else in Leveson’s terms of reference which he was not able take forward in such depth. The invincibility that came with too much power concentrated in the hands of one man.

"Media monopoly matters in a democracy. The concentration of unaccountable media power distorts the political system. The media shapes how we see ourselves and how we see the world. In a democracy, the free flow of information, of different points of view, is crucial for open debate.

"Too much power in too few hands hinders proper debate. Plurality ensures that no media owner can exert such a damaging influence on public opinion and on policy makers. It ensures that no media company can have so much influence that it feels itself immune, above the rule of law. It ensures no private interest can set itself above the public interest.

"But we don’t have a proper regime for protecting against this. The system doesn’t work – its inadequacies and complexities were laid bare by the News Corp bid for the whole of BSkyB. And the system is out of date – this is an age of great change in the media, where we have print newspapers, broadcast media and new media, and a convergence of all three."

Of the proposed 15 per cent cap, Harman will say: "Enders Analysis have proposed a 15% limit and they include any medium of communication that stands between a creator of content and an audience.

"That is a good starting point for discussion. We all need to think about the exact figure, but this proposal draws a clear bright line and defines the media in a way that recognises the huge influence of new media players online."

While, for reasons that do not need to be stated, David Cameron may be reluctant to act, tackling media concentration would be popular with the public. An IPPR survey in May 2012 found that 73 per cent support a cap on the total share a single person or company can own, with 76 per cent supporting limits on newspaper ownership and 62 per cent wanting the number of papers a single owner can hold to be restricted to two or less.

Rupert Murdoch's News International currently accounts for 34 per cent of the UK newspaper market. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Scottish Labour's defeat to the Tories confirms a political transformation

The defining divide is no longer between left and right but between unionist and nationalist.

It was Scotland where Labour's recovery was supposed to begin. Jeremy Corbyn's allies predicted that his brand of left-wing, anti-austerity politics would dent the SNP's hegemony. After becoming leader, Corbyn pledged that winning north of the border would be one of his greatest priorities. 

But in the first major elections of his leadership, it has proved to be Labour's greatest failure. A result that was long thought unthinkable has come to pass: the Conservatives have finished second (winning 31 seats). For the first time since the 1910 election, Labour has finished third (winning 24). Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale stood on a left-wing platform, outflanking the SNP on tax (pledging to raise the top rate to 50p and increase the basic rate by 1p), promising to spend more on public services and opposing the renewal of Trident. But rather than advancing, the party merely retreated.

Its fate confirms how Scottish politics has been realigned. The defining divide is no longer between left and right but between unionist and nationalist. With the SNP as the only major pro-independence party, the Tories, led by the pugnacious Ruth Davidson, framed themselves as the pro-UK alternative - and prospered. In contrast, Dugdale refused to rule out supporting a second referendum and suggested that MPs and MSPs would be free to campaign for secession. The result was that Scottish Labour was left looking dangerously irrelevant. "Identity politics. Labour doesn't get it," a shadow minister told me. Its socialist pitch counted for little in a country that remains ideologically closer to England than thought. The SNP has lost its majority (denying it a mandate for a second referendum) - an outcome that the electoral system was always designed to make impossible. But its rule remains unthreatened. 

Corbyn's critics will seek to pin the baleful result on him. "We turned left and followed Jeremy's politics in Scotland, which far from solving our problems, pushed us into third," a senior opponent told me. But others will contend that a still more left-wing leader, such as Neil Findlay, is needed. Dugdale is personally supportive of Trident and was critical of Corbyn before his election. Should she be displaced, the party will be forced to elect its sixth leader in less than five years. But no one is so short-sighted as to believe that one person can revive the party's fortunes. Some Corbyn critics believe that a UK-wide recovery is a precondition of recovery north of the border. At this juncture, they say, SNP defectors would look anew at the party as they contemplate the role that Scottish MPs could play in a Westminster government. But under Corbyn, having become the first opposition to lose local election seats since 1985, it is yet further from power. 

In Scotland, the question now haunting Labour is not merely how it recovers - but whether it ever can. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.