Three years after the phone hacking scandal erupted, a newspaper has been shut down, people have gone to jail and a new regulator has been set up. Laurie Fitzjohn FRSA argues that the problem at the heart of the matter – that a mere five families control 80% of the national newspapers we read – has been ignored. He suggests a new approach.
Our press has been controlled by a few individuals right from when printing press prices fell in the nineteenth century opening up a market to combine advertising with news. At the same time our political system was similarly controlled by elites; in 1832 only around 8% of adults could vote. Since then our political system has opened up so that all adults gained equal rights to vote in 1928 and subsequently the backgrounds of politicians have become increasingly diverse. Through this period the press has remained dominated by a few individuals. The concentration of power in our press looks increasingly at odds with our political system; owning the news is the next step for our democracy.
If a few individuals hold too much power then they and the organisations they control can begin to act with impunity. This in time leads to unethical and unaccountable behaviour; phone hacking is just one of the results. For democracy and capitalism to function we need to challenge concentrations of power wherever they exist. If we don’t then one day we may look back and wonder where our democracy went.
Despite the mandate provided by recent scandals, our politicians remain too scared to act. How then can we reduce this concentration of power? There are two options. We can vote with our feet by shifting our reading towards new sources of news and opinion on the internet. Or we can change the ownership of the existing newspapers. We need to do both.
The internet is already providing an increasing diversity of news and opinion from new start-up online newspapers to citizen journalism. This is certainly helping to provide more plurality of views in our public debate. However, this does not replace the need for large news organisations, including newspapers. Only these organisations have the scale to invest in strong online platforms, employ hundreds of professional journalists and effectively monetise content in order to pay them. Hence newspapers as they transition online will more than likely remain a key part of our ‘press’; the concentration of ownership therefore remains an issue that needs to be addressed and should not be set aside in the hope that the internet will solve it for us.
This is supported by the current evidence that key TV channels and newspapers still dominate online news. While national newspapers print circulation has fallen to 9m from 13m in 2000, if we include online traffic, the total readership is arguably rising and reaching a younger audience than newspapers previously reached.
So what can be done? I believe crowdfunding provides an opportunity for change. The campaign Let’s Own the News is a crowdfunded bid to acquire The Times and The Sunday Times from Rupert Murdoch. Success would reduce media concentration without the need for regulations or politicians’ involvement. While, it would not solve the problem completely, but could be an important first step towards showing that there is an alternative to a press dominated by press barons.
The campaign aims to raise £100m, which would be £120 per reader or £2 per UK adult. If successful the editor would be answerable to a board of directors elected by those who choose to invest through the crowdfunding process. Ownership would be capped at 1% per person so that no one individual could exert control.
So far News UK (News Corp) has said the newspapers are not for sale. This is to be expected but should there be an offer of £100m on the table, News Corp would be more likely to consider a sale. Not only because of public pressure, but also because a sale could make business sense; financial markets currently place a zero to negative valuation on The Times within the News Corp share price. At the same time, such a move would be one way for the Murdoch empire to rejuvenate its image in the wake of the phone hacking scandal.
Crowdfunding enables us to act collectively, to each make an investment and which could help to strengthen our democracy. It seems that the appetite is there; in just two weeks the campaign received pledges from nearly 1,000 people totalling over £300k.
Laurie Fitzjohn is founder of the campaign Let's Own the News. Prior to this he worked in investment banking and venture capital for eight years, before this he studied Economics at Cambridge University. The views expressed are those of the author.