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‘A Great Power for Evil’

In Byline Times’ fourth anniversary print edition editorial, Peter Jukes and Hardeep Matharu explore how and why the established media continue to have a monopoly over the damaging narratives shaping our politics and culture – more than a decade after the phone-hacking scandal

Rupert Murdoch. Photo: PA/Alamy

Culture is Upstream of Politics… 

Trump strategist, right-wing ideologue-come-media executive and Cambridge Analytica co-founder Steve Bannon famously remarked that ‘politics is downstream of culture’. If you want to change a country, you have to change its culture. 

It’s a strategy our established press here in Britain have long understood and deployed to their personal advantage, in line with that of the political classes with which they are so closely entwined. But at a considerable cost to the public they profess to selflessly serve.

‘Changing culture’ is no abstract endeavour with undefined aims. On the contrary, it has a very clear target: to make people think and feel differently about the society in which they live. 

Director, doctor and public intellectual Jonathan Miller made the point aptly in a memorable 1971 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, when he confronted Enoch Powell about his inflammatory rhetoric on immigration. When Powell replied whether Miller was implying that nobody would notice the difference between ethnic groups across cities in the UK if he hadn’t spoken about them, Miller disagreed.

“Difficulties are in the nature of human coexistence,” he told Powell. But “the differences that there would be are not necessarily the differences that would excite fear and horror unless someone stands up and says that fear and horror are an appropriate response; someone invested with the authority of public office. When you do that, the charisma of your office, and the charisma of your role as a politician, will often convince people…

“Social cooperation is a hard and difficult thing. I feel you would have done your duty as a politician, as an ethical politician, much more productively if, instead of exciting the notion of future strife, you had encouraged the notion of future cooperation on the basis of understanding.”

The same can be said of a number of today’s politicians, as well as the editors and journalists of the influential newspapers that back them up to promote division and disruption on an everyday basis. If the press is the ‘fourth estate’, by its nature, it must hold itself to higher standards; being invested with the privilege and power and the charisma – to which Miller refers.

And yet, more than a decade on from the phone-hacking scandal which laid bare the corrupting influences at the heart of the British media, have the fundamentals really changed?

A hard Brexit that has inflicted economic and reputational self-harm on Britain like no other development in modern politics. A poorly managed pandemic that has taken the lives of 222,000 people. The carousel of three Prime Ministers. A political system debased and a democracy embarrassing itself on the international stage. All of these events were, to an extent large or small, shaped by the narratives created by the UK’s media – which continues to avoid accountability for its own elite position by stirring up ‘culture wars’, elevating rival elites (only to knock them down), and hiding its true role in how it influences our society.

This is not a new phenomenon, so there is no excuse for the press’s continuing failure to take responsibility for the way it has framed our culture. Yet the political-media class seems to simultaneously claim to represent the nation, while denying that it has any influence over it. 

Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s The Media Show with one of us last year, Spectator Editor Fraser Nelson claimed his magazine had very little influence on politics or politicians, citing its circulation figures – and yet the Spectator boasts of the importance of its summer party as the ‘place to be’ in Westminster. A case of pass the Pimms and then wash your hands. 

Back in the 1970s, a new, up-and-coming newspaperman pointed out the problem. “We have more responsibility than power I think,” he said. “The newspaper can create great controversies… throw light on injustices – just as it can do the opposite. It can hide things, and be a great power for evil.” 

That newspaperman was one Keith Rupert Murdoch.

…But Culture is Downstream from?

Economics. Or that, at least, would explain the trajectory of the newspapers since the explosion of online publishing and the increasing concentration of ownership. 

The ‘special problem of monopoly’ was one of the flaws in the free market that most vexed the founder of modern economics, Adam Smith. Smith could see that the most fatal thing for free and fair competition was the presence of big companies which could distort it by collusion – and there are few better examples in the UK today than our press.

In terms of pricing and control, monopolies can begin to distort by price gouging or dominating suppliers at anything more than 25% of the market. As a senior financial figure in News International (now News UK) admitted during the phone-hacking trial a decade ago, Murdoch’s national newspapers had 40% of the circulation, but 50% of the revenue. 

This concentration of power quickly leads to abuse of power, as we’ve seen with Murdoch’s outlets on both sides of the Atlantic – from the News of the World’s phone-hacking and police bribes to Fox News lying about stolen elections.

Monopolies and cartels also seek to game the regulator and get their legs under the table of the state. The Conservative minister John Biffen was channelling Adam Smith when he tried to resist Murdoch’s acquisition of The Times and The Sunday Times in 1981 and said “whenever you find a senior politician and a powerful media owner in private conclave, you can be certain that the aims of a healthy, plural democracy are not being well-served”. 

Two decades later, Lance Price, head of communications for Tony Blair when he was Prime Minister, described Murdoch as “the 24th member of the Cabinet”.

Adam Smith’s remarks about cartels and cronyism may have eluded the eponymous Adam Smith Institute and its Tufton Street network of opaquely-funded think tanks, but there has now been an almost complete merger between the political and media class. The most embarrassing example of this is the rise and fall of former Spectator Editor and Telegraph columnist Boris Johnson.

As Prime Minister, Johnson ennobled the son of a former KGB spy, Evgeny Lebedev, owner of the Independent and Evening Standard; and in his resignation honours has reportedly put the Mail’s long-time Editor (and now Editor-in-Chief of its publisher) Paul Dacre forward for a peerage.

These are personal examples of the blurring between the private interests of editors and newspaper owners and costs to the public purse. The hundreds of millions of pounds of Coronavirus subsidies (or “bungs” as Johnson’s former chief advisor Dominic Cummings called them) are even more egregious.  

Industry standards spread. When there’s a race to the bottom, the rest of the media tends to get dragged down too and the partisan polemic of Fleet Street has begun to affect our broadcasting standards too. Hence the title of Byline Timesfourth birthday bumper print edition: THE CARTEL.

The main vehicle for this cartel is the News Media Association (NMA), which includes the Mirror Group newspapers and the Guardian. Though the more liberal papers are allowed their own campaigns and party politics (within a narrow band), certain practices – especially press malpractices – are not spoken about too loudly by these titles. In fact, head over to the Guardian’s website today and you won’t find a ‘media’ section under its main menu tab at all anymore. But who noticed that disappear? 

The fear of unemployment and economic harm that would worry any individual journalist speaking out also applies to papers within the cartel. There would be no access to COVID bungs, lobbying over online rivals and the BBC, joint action over online advertising, or any of the other undisclosed benefits conferred on those who join this secretive club if they broke their vows of silence. 

Byline Times has some bruising experiences of this cold-shouldering of outsiders. More recently, when trying to launch an advertising campaign for new subscribers, we were stonewalled by Private Eye and told by the Guardian that it wouldn’t take our ads. But the biggest shock was from the i newspaper. 

Having originally run our online ad for a few days, our ad agency was then told: “We had to stop the campaign we had in play with Byline Times as per the request from our digital director at iNews; reason cited being the publication had/has been critical of DMG Media & our Chairman.”

Quod erat demonstrandum. The power of cartels and monopolies. 

iNews, an otherwise admirable publication, is owned by DMG Media which is chaired by none other than soon-to-be (as we strongly suspect) Lord Dacre who, when not praising free markets and competition, inveighs against unelected politicians and restrictive practices. 

Nothing will change in this country, neither its politics nor our culture, unless we solve this chronic economic problem of monopolies and crony cartels in the media. 

Byline Times will continue to fight for truth, accountability and pluralism in the press – and thanks for supporting our mission over the past four turbulent years. 

This editorial was originally published in the Fourth Anniversary 2023 print edition of Byline Times

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