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13 June 2013

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.

By George Eaton

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.

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“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.”

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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.