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Media ownership: power and influence in the hands of the few

23 April 2014

Frances O'Grady

Some like to tell me that we have the best ever media, with the internet opening up new opportunities for comment, news and the sharing of views.

But if you were to use the style of the new web fashion for lists to identify the UK's most powerful media owners, it would be rather short.

Just three companies control nearly 70 per cent of national newspaper circulation – Rupert Murdoch's News UK; DMGT (The Daily Mail group), chaired by Jonathan Harmsworth, 4th Viscount Rothermere; and Trinity Mirror. Five companies control three-quarters of regional daily newspaper circulation and five control more than 70 per cent of online news consumption (measured by browsing time).

If we were to do the same at the global level, it would not get much beyond Amazon, Google, YouTube and Facebook. So, despite the proliferation of websites and social media, power and influence is still concentrated in the hands of the few - super-rich billionaires, multinational corporations and governments.

That is why the TUC is joining the National Union of Journalists and a range of civil and media campaigning groups to support the European Initiative for Media Pluralism. This is a grassroots campaign to secure enough signatures to force a European debate on tackling media ownership concentration.

When you have the Greek government pulling the plug on its public service broadcaster, Turkish TV showing a documentary about penguins as Taksim Square erupts and its Prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, saying he would "wipe out Twitter", an international campaign is vital to support a free and lively press.

It cannot be right that a prime minister of Italy,  Berlusconi,  owned a  huge chunk of the Italian media. The  Bulgarian media is dominated by Delyan Peevski, who was appointed head of the national security service in 2013, until protests led to the decision being reversed.

A mature, vibrant democracy needs citizens that have access to a range of arguments, news, information and opinions. International studies show the best-functioning democracies - those least susceptible to political and business corruption - have many newspapers and an independent media,

The TUC has nearly six million members, but that is rarely reflected in the media. Trade union leaders and their members are just one of the groups that are routinely treated as outsiders, ripe for caricature rather than fair reporting. And we have it much better than some other groups such as benefit claimants and migrants.

The Leveson Inquiry showed exactly how concentration of media power, in a few pairs of hands, corrupted the relationship between politicians and the press and the police. 

Politicians of all parties paid homage at the court of Rupert Murdoch - understandable when his newspapers made up 37 per cent of the newspaper market and whose boast was that they could deliver election results.

If the phone hacking scandal had not put paid to his bid for BskyB, the merged company would have had a reach of 52 per cent of the adult population. And the scary news is that with his son, Lachlan, appointed to a top role in the Murdoch empire, he is about to launch another bid.

The power of the newspaper tycoon is not new. In 2008, the House of Lords select committee on communications heard evidence from former editors of a number of national newspapers who said the media moguls Robert Maxwell, Conrad Black and the Barclay brothers openly meddled with editorial decisions.

That is why we need to sign the petition to demand effective legislation in Europe to put blocks on the concentration of ownership of the media and to ensure that it is free from political interference.

That is why, as the elections beckon, we need to ask our main parties to restrict the market share of media owners, make their acquisitions subject to public interest test and to promote policies for a fair and free press which represents all people, not just billionaires.

Frances O'Grady is the general secretary of the Trade Union Congress.

You can access the petition on the website of the Coalition for Media Pluralism.

Reclaim the media: UK Coalition for media pluralism, has organised a public meeting on Monday 28 April, at the House of Commons, with speakers Tom Watson MP, Caroline Lucas MP, John McDonnell MP and Michelle Stanistreet. Register for a place at the event via the bookings web page.

Tags: , media barons, news, new media, tuc, ownership, turkey, italy, bulgaria, media plurality