Now that the year-long Leveson inquiry is getting under way, it is essential that an investigation of this kind, which has not happened before over the last 40 years, does not become a missed opportunity. It was provoked by the phone-hacking scandal, but it is crucial that it covers many other areas of failure of the press which have remained dormant and unaddressed for far too long. It should start from what is the proper role and rationale for the media. To maintain a properly functioning democracy, its real objectives should be twofold: to keep the electorate fully informed about the key issues that affect Britain and thus to provide a genuine national agenda, and secondly to speak truth to power and thus to lay the foundations for systematically holding the government of the day to account. With some honourable exceptions Britain’s media have fallen far short of these democratic responsibilities.
Much of the media has used its key role to assert its own partisan power and to spread its own very one-sided propaganda. It has also degenerated into becoming a mindless purveyor of scandal, celebrity and sensationalism that may sell newspapers, but degrades the national consciousness.
Almost no constraints are placed on private ownership of the press being used as a bauble of public power by which wealthy tycoons can seek to shaped the world to suit their own interests. Britain imposes no nationality requirement. It only loosely controls the share of any media market held by any single proprietor. It does not limit cross-ownership between the print and broadcasting media. It is merely assumed that lightly applied competition law together with self-regulation is all that is needed, which the infamour Press Complaints Commission has shown to be a farce.
Several reforms are urgently needed. Since far too much market share is allowed to power-hungry moguls (reaching in Murdoch’s case to 37%) whose ambitions often run counter to the public interest, no proprietor should be permitted to own more than one daily and one Sunday paper, and ownership should be confined to British citizens. A newspaper proprietor should not be allowed to own any broadcasting company. To diversify the ownership of newspapers more widely to reflect the proliferation of public opinion in Britain, public financial support should be provided in accordance with strict criteria to support the start-up of new titles, especially via independent trusts which are balanced in their coverage and free of overt bias.
In addition a right of reply should be established, at similar length and with the same position and prominence in the newspaper, where wholly untrue and seriously damaging information has been printed. The useless PCC should be abolished and replaced by a statutory body with the capacity where necessary to impose real sanctions, and the media representatives on this new body should be in a small minority. And one of the key issues for Leveson should be to consider how freedom of the press can be reconciled with fair and balanced reporting.