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World Press Freedom Day, 2015

7 May 2015

London theatre-goers have recently been enjoying Clarion, a play about a tabloid paper led by a foul-mouthed, rampaging editor with a penchant for anti-immigration headlines such as "Fury over Sharia law for toddlers”.

He affects a Julius Caesar helmet and takes a car horn to morning conference to parp at reporters when he doesn't like the ideas they put up.

There is little doubt which newspaper is being parodied, even if you were unaware the playwright, Mark Jagasia, is a former show business editor of the Daily Express.

Yet, Morris Honeyspoon, the play's editor, pales into comparison with the reality of Express owner and pornographer, Richard Desmond. Tom Bower is the author of a series of unauthorised biographies of media moguls such as Robert Maxwell, Tiny Rowlands, Richard Branson, Conrad Black and Richard Desmond.

But his book on Desmond remains unpublished following a libel case taken out against him by the Express proprietor over allegations made in Conrad and Lady Black: Dancing on the Edge. Desmond had chartered a private jet to the US the week before the trial to enlist Black's support for his case, visiting him in his Miami prison cell where he was serving a sentence for defrauding investors. He lost the case; but the biography has not seen the light of day.

At a meeting at the NUJ to mark World Press Freedom Day, Tom Bower said that among all media monsters, Desmond stood out. He said. "At least Murdoch and Maxwell and the others loved newspapers, Desmond just doesn't care. It's all about power and money to him."

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, knows Desmond well; she used to work for him. She said:

  "My erstwhile employer is the man who recently handed over a £1million bung to UKIP, on top of a £300,000 donation secretly made last year.
"There are loads of reasons I’d consider this a nadir in Desmond’s ownership of Express Newspapers – not least that he has refused his own staff a pay rise for the past seven years. His self-serving statement backing UKIP said he handed over the donation because UKIP stands up for people who are “struggling”.
"While Desmond and Nigel Farage seem natural bedfellows in many respects, the reality is that Desmond has worked his way around the parties, oiling the wheels at different times with donations to Labour and to the Tories. He has lapped up the influence it brings, the invitations to Number 10, and now he is after a peerage.
"This epitomises all that’s wrong with the ownership of British newspapers, where billionaire tax avoiders and asset strippers are allowed to diminish and degrade once-respected national titles."

Media ownership matters, she said. Rupert Murdoch’s News UK holds a third of the entire market share; 55 per cent of national radio listenership is held by the BBC’s channels, however news content for almost all commercial radio stations is provided by Murdoch's Sky News, giving it 43 per cent of the national audience share for radio.She said:

"Increasing concentration into fewer and fewer hands is bad news for a healthy democracy. All democracies require balanced, impartial news coverage which does not depend on the personal prejudices and foibles of media moguls or commercial pressure to appease shareholders."

Media ownership is particular relevant during the run-up to an election. An analysis by the industry's paper, Press Gazette, found that the UK daily newspaper market backed the Conservative Party over Labour by a margin on five to one. The weekend preceding the general election five out of 11 main national Sunday papers backed the Tories. The night before the election, the Daily Telegraph contacted all those it had emails for and told them to vote for the Conservative Party.

This year, the bias has been particular brutal. Research by the Media Standards Trust found Ed Miliband has been pilloried to an even greater extent than Neil Kinnock was in 1992, with 95 per cent of the Sun's leader columns anti-Labour, compared to Kinnock's 79 per cent. Miliband's "light-bulb moment" has been the Sun's front-page picture of the notorious sandwich-eating incident and the headline Save our Bacon.

Rupert Murdoch, apparently, berated his staff on the Sun for not doing enough to stop Labour winning the election this time.

Des Freedman, professor of media and communications at Goldsmiths, University of London, and chair of the Media Reform Coalition, said it mattered because newspapers had a significant influence on readers and shaped people's perceptions and views.

A survey by Ipsos MORI found that people believed Muslims made up 24 per cent of the population, whereas in England and Wales it is 5 per cent. People believed crime was on the increase when it is on the decrease and also estimated that 34 times more benefit money is claimed fraudulently than official estimates.Des Freedman said:

"There may be a decline in the circulation figures of the traditional press, but the reality is not that the internet has opened up the sphere of influence. Five groups account for more than 70 per cent of online news consumption and the old monopolies are being replicated by the new in the online world with Amazon for books, Google for searches and Facebook for networking."

Michelle Stanistreet said the NUJ is also concerned about the link between the power of proprietors and the threat to editorial freedom. She said in Peter Oborne’s blistering statement when he resigned from the Daily Telegraph, as chief political commentator in February, he revealed the deliberate suppressing of stories about a major advertiser, HSBC. She said:

"Peter Oborne rightly described this, and other examples where the boundaries between editorial and advertising had crumbled, as a 'Form of fraud on its readers'.
"This collapse of standards isn’t a problem restricted to the Telegraph. We’ve been hearing from members of the NUJ with their own examples of where journalistic standards and ethics have been compromised because of the political and economic agendas of those running titles.
"That’s why as part of our World Press Freedom work, we’re rolling out a campaign on this – in the first instance asking all members of the NUJ to come forward, in confidence, with their testimony."

Take part in the NUJ's confidential survey to support journalists' editorial freedom from the pressures of proprietors and advertisers

Tags: , world press freedom day, media barons, media plurality, media reform, richard desmond, rupert murdoch, robert maxwell, the sun, the daily telegraph, general election, tom bower, express newspapers, conrad black, ukip, news uk, ed miliband, media reform coalition, ownership