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Taking on the Media Barons: the fight starts now

Revelations of a secret meeting between Rupert Murdoch and Margaret Thatcher in 1981, which cleared the way for him to buy the Times and Sunday Times was the perfect taster to a conference at Congress House. "Taking on the media barons. How can we make the media fair for all?" took place on Saturday 17 March 2012.

Notes from that meeting in 1981 showed that Murdoch's plans included taking on the unions, introducing new technology and cutting the workforce by 25 per cent. Both sides later denied that such a meeting had taken place.

The real backdrop to the conference was, of course, the Leveson Inquiry. Frances O'Grady, TUC deputy general secretary, said:

"This is a once in a generation opportunity to curb the power of the media moguls. It is a narrow window of opportunity. A year ago these issues were not even on the political agenda. The idea of a different system is the stuff of dreams but if we don't act quickly and work towards a fairer system we will be back to business as usual."

Taking on the media barons conference
Speakers included (clockwise from top left): Dan Sabbagh, 
Harriet Harman, John Hendy, Frances O'Grady,
Chris Frost, Michelle Stanistreet

The conference, organised by the NUJ, TUC and Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, brought together media experts, journalists, academics and trade unionists. Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary said:

"Today, we must start the campaign and fight for a programme of change and reform for a fair and accountable media. We must use the events unfolding in courtroom 73, which are genuinely gripping the interest of the public, to ensure that we put a stop to the power of editors and the proprietors who are desperate to maintain the status quo."

Dan Sabbagh, the Guardian's head of media and technology, painted a picture of the media barons. He described them as the craziest set of characters in the world – rivalled only by Premiership football club owners – complete with their own Bond-style villains, the Telegraph's mysterious and sinister Barclay brothers, holed up a secret hideway In the Channel Islands.

He said that the Leveson Inquiry had exposed unacceptable, intrusive, inappropriate and illegal practices in a section of the press where the proprietors had an inside track with government and an overweening power that made them think they were invincible. He believed that Lord Justice Leveson would bring about changes to the industry but feared that, unless the issue of plurality of the media was tackled, any reform would be limited.

Tony Burke, Unite assistant general secretary, said that ownership mattered because whoever controlled the message, also controlled the political agenda "shaping it to their own twisted and bigoted image". He said:

"As we know it's not just elected politicians. Controlling and compromising public servants and the police is also easy to do when you control such a large media empire."

John Hendy QC, the "silk of choice for the trade union movement" and counsel for the NUJ at the Leveson Inquiry, made a passionate plea for the TUC and trade unions to submit evidence to the inquiry. He described how Michelle Stanistreet had presented the inquiry with evidence from members, detailing the bullying culture of newsrooms, the racism, sexism and other disgusting practices. Newspapers at the inquiry had attempted to block this evidence. He spoke of the "dirty deal" done by Tony Blair with Murdoch in 1997 which allowed him to set up a stooge staff association and derecognise the NUJ.

He said that any reformed press regulatory body must include the NUJ and its code of conduct and conscience clause. He added:

"The trade unions have been treated despicably by the press. Most are seriously anti-union. They are shoving out the voice of the unions and their 6 million members – and that includes the BBC."

In the session "Regulatory reform: what is to be done?", Professor Chris Frost, chair of the NUJ Ethics committee, said that any new body must be one that saw its central role as defending press freedom.

He said there should be a press ombudsman, which would mediate with the public who felt that they had been wronged by the newspaper involved. An overarching body would hear appeals from the ombudsman, draw up a code of conduct and decide on punishments – including fines and compensation – for newspapers which broke the code. This body's power would be underpinned by statute. He said:

"But most important is the need for a change of culture. Journalists are scared to do their job responsibly."

Séamus Dooley, NUJ Irish Secretary, said he might have an Irish solution to a British problem. The Irish Press Council has 13 independently appointed members, with the majority drawn from outside the industry, and an ombudsman. The NUJ has a key role and finds itself sitting around the table with representatives from News International, who would not touch the union with a bargepole in the UK.

He said:

"The Irish model is by no means perfect but it may yet provide the foundations for a new and more acceptable system in the UK. Central to the success of any model will be greater involvement by civic society, including the trade union movement."

While the Leveson Inquiry is examining the crisis in ethics and behaviour of a certain section of the press, there is another equally serious crisis in the media industry. Pete Lazenby, chair of the Leeds branch of the NUJ and joint FoC of the chapel at Yorkshire Post Newspapers, spelled it out.

When he joined the Yorkshire Evening Post in 1972, there was a staff of 1,350, eight editions a day and a daily circulation of 230,000. Today, there is a staff of 400, two editions (the last the day before publication) and a circulation of 35,000. He blamed the greed of newspaper owners for much of the decline of the regional press. He said:

"Where Tesco's was happy to make 10 per cent profit, regional newspapers were told that 30 per cent wasn't enough. And the answer has been to cut, cut, cut."

The consequence of this has been the consolidation of newspaper groups into a smaller and smaller number of hands and a vast shedding of titles. The loser has been democracy. Dr Nathalie Fenton, of Goldsmiths, University of London, said her research showed that when people lost their local paper they also lost a sense of community and felt a vulnerability and powerlessness.

"Interviewees professed a strong sense of the loss of local journalism as watchdog."

It is a global problem. Jim Boumelha, president of the International Federation of Journalists', said:

"It is now possible to contemplate a time in the near future when major towns in the US will no longer have a newspaper."

In the past year, US newsrooms are 30 per cent smaller than they were in 2000. It is a similar story in Europe.

So how can we rescue the press? Professor James Curran, director of the Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media Research Centre, said that no media corporation should have more than 15 per cent of the total revenue of the UK's core media system. If a company had more than 15 per cent it must take on public service obligations. Three potential sources could provide funds to stem the crisis in local journalism: a 1 per cent levy on the turnover of content aggregators; a levy on internet search advertising, as in Spain and the Netherlands; or a levy on internet service providers. The fund would be administered by a public trust.

Harriet Harman, deputy leader of the Labour Party and shadow secretary of state for Culture, Media and Sport, was the event's keynote speaker. She said that the need for change was clear, however, politicians should not use the scandal to exact revenge and settle old scores.

She admitted that when in government, many senior figures in her party did become too close to News International and Murdoch.

"As we approached 1997, we – as Tony Blair said in his famous 'feral beasts' speech – turned to 'courting, assuaging and persuading the media... after 18 years of Opposition and the, at times, ferocious hostility of parts of the media, it was hard to see any alternative'."

She said Labour did do things that Murdoch objected to by strongly supporting the BBC and establishing Ofcom. "But we didn't sort out media ownership or complaints," she said. She said that newspaper editors should to come together with their own proposals, rather than have one imposed upon them.

"The new system must be independent of politicians and also end the power of serving editors. They can't be allowed to go on marking their own homework."

Read Harriet Harman's full speech.