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Press freedom is once again in peril, according to right-wing newspapers.
As part of a mass offensive recalling the heady days of reaction to the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices, and ethics of the British press following the phone-hacking scandal, an editorial in the Mail on 28 November boomed that freedom of the press is a “democratic necessity” and among the “precious institutions and freedom which must not be compromised at any price” – while Charles Moore warned in the Telegraph on 24 November that “the nationalisation of a British national newspaper seems possible”.
What is the source of this renewed threat? According to Juliet Samuel in The Times on 22 November, it is the prospect that one of the UK’s major newspapers may be “effectively bought and controlled by an Arab dictatorship”.
More specifically, it’s the spectre of the Telegraph Media Group being bought by Abu Dhabi-backed Redbird IMI, a joint venture between the US private equity firm Redbird Capital, which is run by former boss of CNN and NBC News, Jeff Zucker, and International Media Investments (IMI), a vehicle controlled by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Deputy Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and brother of the country’s President.
Much of the press coverage of this possible deal has been greatly distorted by the fact that the Daily Mail and General Trust is extremely keen to buy the Telegraph titles and News Corp to acquire the Spectator magazine, which is also part of the Telegraph Media Group.
Both parties are thus bitterly hostile to the deal, although less for the ostensible reasons given – national security and press freedom – than for rather less noble and more self-interested ones.
Scrutiny of the proposed deal has ended up in the hands of broadcasting and communications regulator Ofcom but how it intends to carry out its task has itself failed to receive the scrutiny it deserves.
On 30 November, Lucy Frazer, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary issued a Public Interest Intervention Notice (PIIN) under section 42(2) of the Enterprise Act 2002. This specifies two public interest considerations as relevant to the takeover: the need for accurate presentation of news; and the need for free expression of opinion in newspapers.
Ofcom has been tasked with preparing a report for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) on these matters and will report back by 26 January.
There are a number of causes for concern but, in particular, the nature of the public interest considerations and the role of the Secretary of State in issuing the PIIN in the first place.
The public interest tests which Ofcom is undertaking stem from amendments to the Communications Act 2003 at its pre-legislative stage by a committee chaired by Lord Puttnam, which was rightly concerned that this ‘deregulatory’ measure didn’t contain sufficient safeguards for media plurality. These amendments regarding accuracy and free expression of opinion were then incorporated into the Enterprise Act.
In May 2004, the then Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) issued guidance on the operation of the public interest merger provisions relating to the media, and these form the basis of the PIIN.
On accuracy, the guidance states that the impact of a possible merger is likely to be assessed by reference to the past behaviour of the company wishing to undertake the acquisition or by those controlling it. Also important are any measures the company proposes in order to preserve accuracy in news presentation.
Regarding free expression of opinion, the statutory guidance states that this concerns “the extent to which the transaction would affect the freedom of editors to operate without interference from the proprietor”. This will be considered in light of “any measures which the parties may have put in place to preserve editorial freedom”.
However, there is also a third test in the amended Enterprise Act, but for some reason this has been excluded from the PIIN, although it would appear to be highly relevant in this instance.
This stresses “the need for, to the extent that it is reasonable and practicable, a sufficient plurality of views in newspapers in each market for newspapers in the United Kingdom or a part of the United Kingdom”. It does not refer only to the local or regional press: “each market” also encompasses the three market segments – downmarket, midmarket and upmarket – of the national press.
Of course, the “reasonable and practicable” qualification allows for all sorts of get-outs, and the guidance duly notes that the wording reflects the Secretary of State’s view that “although plurality of views in each and every market is the ideal goal of the regime, it may not be reasonable to require this in relation to a particular part of the market because of associated costs”.
But what is immediately noticeable about the two tests which have been included is just how limited they are.
This undoubtedly relates to their origin in the DTI, essentially a trade body concerned with economic matters, as opposed to the DCMS, which might have been expected to take broader cultural issues into account. And given press owners’ antipathy to any measure that might limit their empire-building, it would be surprising if they had not lobbied the DTI to keep the scope of these tests as narrow as possible.
Indeed, the House of Lords Communications Committee in its 2008 report ‘The Ownership of the News’ complained that the public interest considerations for media mergers did not include “any requirement to establish that a merger will not adversely affect professional news gathering and investigative journalism” and recommended – in vain – that such a requirement should be included in the legislation.
It also expressed concern, equally vainly, that “the considerations for newspaper mergers are hard to measure objectively and are in need of review” and wondered how the accurate presentation of news could be considered and measured before a merger had actually gone ahead.
When it comes to the matter of the “free expression of opinion”, Jeff Zucker has already promised to create an editorial advisory board that would uphold the independence of the Telegraph titles and the Spectator and emphasised that he has no plans to change their management or editorial teams.
However, history suggests that such undertakings count for nothing when it comes to the UK national press. As former Sunday Times Editor Sir Harold Evans stated at the Leveson Inquiry, Rupert Murdoch himself told The Times home Editor Fred Emery in 1981 that the guarantees of editorial freedom which he’d recently given in order to be allowed to purchase the titles were “not worth the paper they’re written on”.
Further conditions entailed that the two newspapers had to be run as separate titles under separate editors. However, in January 2019, News UK, citing changed market conditions since 1981, successfully lobbied for these to be relaxed, allowing the papers to share resources, including journalists. Two years later, the company equally successfully lobbied to be entirely released from these undertakings.
The DCMS consulted with Ofcom on whether these changes were in the public interest and it argued that they were, finding that “the UK newspaper market is currently reasonably plural” and, even in the event of a merger, “readers would still have access to a wide range of viewpoints”. There were also commercial incentives for the two titles to deliver accurate news in that “their ability to attract readers and advertisers is linked to their reputation for quality, accurate and trusted news”.
The papers’ many critics would vehemently disagree, and such a Panglossian view of plurality in the UK national press as a whole raises serious questions about whether Ofcom is adequately equipped to deal with the proposed Telegraph Group deal, and indeed press mergers of any kind.
Judging free expression of opinion in the press solely in terms of editorial freedom from proprietorial interference is extremely limited. No one who knows how newspapers work seriously believes that proprietors constantly tell their editors what opinions to express. Instead, they appoint editors and managers who know perfectly well what lines their proprietors expect them to take on the main subjects of the day and, in all likelihood, agree with them.
This is a process of allocative as opposed to operational control. It means that what many journalists would welcome most is freedom from editorial power.
In the case of the Telegraph, how such control works has been chillingly illustrated by its erstwhile chief political commentator, Peter Oborne, who resigned because stories about HSBC were routinely suppressed on account of it being an important advertiser and about Hong Kong, so as not to upset valuable Chinese interests.
It is also germane to Ofcom’s Pollyanna-ish views about the ‘plurality’ of the UK national press that this ended his career not only at the Telegraph but in the rest of Fleet Street too. A similarly grim picture of lack of journalistic autonomy, based on interviews (inevitably anonymous) with practising journalists, can be found in the chapters by journalism academic and former journalist Angela Phillips in the edited collection New Media, Old News.
On the role of the Secretary of State in issuing the PIIN, it’s worth recalling that, in this respect, the Lords Communications Committee argued that this power should also be invested in Ofcom, because governments spend time building good relationships with powerful media proprietors. This is not necessarily wrong but it does raise a possible conflict of interest if the same people who want, and need, to stay on the right side of a media company, have the final say on that company’s business interests.
This is a particularly important consideration in the present case.
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That the Telegraph titles have consistently supported the Conservatives, both in government and opposition, is incontrovertible. However, under the ownership of the Barclay family, the papers, along with the rest of the Tory press, have increasingly thrown their weight behind the hard-right factions of the party. That the Government has tacked ever closer to these factions is surely not a coincidence.
For a government in a situation as fraught as the present one, press support is more than usually vital and it is thus perfectly reasonable to harbour the suspicion that the Secretary of State’s concern about the future ownership of the Telegraph titles and the Spectator may be, at least partly, motivated by fears about the future direction of three particularly valuable press allies.
It could also be the case that, given the current conflict in the Middle East, in which the Government, the Telegraph titles and the Spectator strongly support Israel, she may have concerns about how a newspaper owned by Abu Dhabi-backed interests might cover future conflicts in the region. In this respect, any fears might be well founded.
The UAE has a very poor record when it comes to press freedom. It is 145th out of the 180 countries included on the index compiled by Reporters Without Borders. And there are questions about IMI itself in this respect. For example, until last year, it owned the newspaper al-Roeya, but in September this was shut down just weeks after it ran a story about how Emiratis were struggling with higher fuel prices following the invasion of Ukraine.
Thus, for all the wrong-headedness in the way in which the free expression test is framed, there is actually a good reason for running it. But let’s not get dewy-eyed about the state of press freedom in Britain. As Robert Shrimsley put it in the Financial Times on 29 November: “Let’s spare ourselves the humbug of pretending that existing British media moguls are as hands-off and virtuous as a Disney princess is chaste. Individuals buy newspapers for status or power and invariably use them to advance personal or professional interests. And the roll call of UK press barons is hardly one to shout about.”
And when the likes of Janet Daley in the Telegraph on 2 December state that “the power wielded by a state must be, always and without qualification, separate from the presentation and analysis of information in the public domain”, let’s remember that Ian Gilmour, a member of Margaret Thatcher’s first Cabinet, proclaimed that the press “could scarcely have been more fawning if it had been state controlled”.
Both of these judgements could just as easily have been applied to Boris Johnson and to Liz Truss in her early days in power.
And finally, let’s remember why Byline Times came into existence, as summed up in its motto: what the papers don’t say.
Julian Petley is a Honorary Professor of Social and Political Sciences at Brunel University London