The Independence of Britain’s Media has been in Jeopardy for a Long Time
With attacks on journalist Jess Brammar’s credentials to be appointed to a BBC role continuing by the right-wing press, Maheen Behrana explores how editorial independence has been eroded in Britain over a number of years
Sir Robbie Gibb, a member of the BBC’s governing board, is currently behind attempts to block former Huffington Post UK editor Jess Brammar from a senior editorial appointment overseeing the corporation’s news channels – citing Brammar’s left-wing views and concerns over her impartiality.
But it just so happens that Gibb himself is not so impartial. The former Downing Street director of communications, sits on the board of the Enterprise Forum – a Conservative lobbying group. This was something that Gibb failed to declare on appointment to the BBC. Following the revelation, the Enterprise Forum deleted all references to Gibb on its website and issued a statement declaring that he no longer worked there. Despite the cover-up, the word fiasco springs to mind. People in glass houses…
It seems that every few weeks, we are affronted with yet another story about how our media outlets are becoming less and less politically independent.
We know, for example, that the Prime Minister has been pushing for Paul Dacre to be made the new Ofcom chair. Dacre is the former editor of the Daily Mail and doesn’t seem to have quite the impartial credentials you might hope for from someone chairing a media regulator.
Also in the firing line is Channel 4 – an institution which has a reputation for being rather irreverent to political power. Not only did Conservative ministers veto the reappointment of two women to its board in April, they are also now attempting to privatise the broadcaster – a step that could have serious implications for its content.
It is frightening that we have reached a stage where such blatant attacks on media freedom are commonplace. Now that there are threats to compromise our media regulators themselves, it is easy to feel as if this Government has gone rogue like never before.
But, while such obvious attacks on media freedom in the Boris Johnson era may be startling, the threats to media independence are nothing new.
Business As Usual
It is a well known fact that mainstream British media outlets are essentially controlled by billionaires. Rupert Murdoch famously owns the Sun and The Times through his company News UK – and is now pushing to be able to interfere in the editorial independence of the latter.
Nevertheless, it seems that he may well have already been doing that. A famous spat with former Times editor, the late Sir Harold Evans, suggests that Murdoch interfered in its editorial independence right from the start of his acquisition of the newspaper in 1981. Even more damningly, Evans alleged that this was done with the full knowledge and covert approval of then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – despite her having ostensibly put legislation in place to prevent this from happening.
Billionaires such as Murdoch often have a very cosy relationship with the British political establishment, even if this is indirect. Rebekah Brooks, the current chief executive of Murdoch’s News UK, enjoyed a notoriously familiar friendship with former Prime Minister David Cameron. Last year it emerged that the former owner of the Daily Express, Richard Desmond, had directly texted Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick about his property development interests.
Of course, beyond close connections, billionaires are often ideologically aligned with the Conservative Party – largely because of its laissez-faire policies on taxation. The only Labour victory in recent years was achieved with the backing of Murdoch’s Sun newspaper. Faced with all of this, few would doubt the political value of wealth.
Interference in supposedly neutral and editorially independent media outlets is not a new phenomenon either.
During the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, for instance, the BBC was accused of anti-independence bias – a claim that has been strongly supported by an openDemocracy report. Also worrying is how the BBC was found to be the most pro-war of the broadcasters during the Iraq War. Then, of course, there was Brexit.
Tom Mills, a lecturer in sociology and policy at Aston University, points out that – in reality – the BBC has always been accountable to the government of the day, which sets its licence fee, appoints its senior leaders, and sets the parameters within which the corporation can operate. It is no wonder that the BBC may appear at times to pander to government sentiment – it relies, as it always has done, on the government’s good favour for its very existence.
From the meddling of the monied and the partisanship of politicians to the influence of intelligence services, we would be wrong to think that we have ever had an impartial and independent media.
This Government may seem particularly brazen in its attempts to manipulate the press, but it seems to be getting away with it because media manipulation has been going on for so long and is firmly entrenched in the way society’s communications function.
What we see and what we remark at is just the very visible tip of an unpleasantly big iceberg.
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