When the Evening Standard unexpectedly fell in behind Boris Johnson for Conservative Party leader, Robert Peston tweeted an explanation as to perhaps why. It would seem that Boris Johnson and his wife used to take weekends away in a villa owned by Alexander Lebedev. In many ways Lebedev is a very standard Russian oligarch. He did shady dealings that, thanks to wild west nineties Russian capitalism, caused him to amass a fortune of billions. He’s been a KGB agent, and a member of the Russian Parliament, and is an acquaintance of Vladimir Putin. But most importantly, Alexander Lebedev is the owner of the Evening Standard. So by Robert Peston’s reckoning, the Standard fell behind Johnson because…. he and its Russian oligarch owner are mates.
When you think international media baron, the obvious name that comes to mind is Rupert Murdoch. Who, notoriously, has been swinging political discourse to the hard right all across the anglophone world for decades. In order to expand his empire with an American TV network, Murdoch had to renounce his Australian citizenship, because American TV networks have to be owned by Americans. In the UK we have no such rules, allowing the Australian-American Murdoch to own the Sun and the Times. Alexander Lebedev, his son Evgeny and Sultan Muhammad Abuljadayel, a Saudi businessman, collectively own the Evening Standard and the Independent. As found by the Leveson Inquiry, the UK is quite the outlier in having no rules against foreign ownership of media. The United States, Canada, Australia, France and Spain all have rules against foreign media ownership.
Taking the precedent set by other countries into account, banning foreign ownership is not a radical action. Applying analogous standards to our own fourth estate would result in profound change. Murdoch’s malign influence vanquished after decades, and no Russian oligarchs having questionable relationships with senior politicians. The Sun, the Times, Evening Standard and the Financial Times would all have to find themselves new owners.
With this achieved, radical reform could be undertaken to improve competition in the British press. For the benefit of the market, and for journalists and readers alike, no one owner should possess directly competing titles. I’m sure it could be argued that the Sun and the Times do not directly compete, as one is a tabloid and one is a broadsheet. In the end though, both are daily newspapers with a centre-right conservative editorial stance. Both have endorsed the Conservative Party at the last three general elections, and both endorsed Labour at the three elections before those. This shouldn’t be a surprise, Tony Blair courted Rupert Murdoch to make sure what happened to Labour in 1992 wouldn’t happen to Labour in 1997.
It’s not only the tyrannous grasp of Rupert Murdoch that needs to be broken. Reach PLC, formerly Trinity Mirror, owns the Express, the Mirror, and the Daily Star. Three directly competing tabloids. The sins of Reach are not nearly the sins of News Corp, its three tabloids all run radically different editorial lines. The Daily Express is hard right and staunchly Eurosceptic, the Daily Mirror is the only Labour supporting tabloid left, and the Daily Star… exists. What Reach PLC provide by publishing three distinct but competing nonetheless tabloids is the illusion of choice. It matters not if the reader is a Farage loving Leave voting Express reader, or a Labour voting Mirror reader, all the money goes back to Reach PLC. Breaking up Reach PLC is about competition, but also ensuring consumer choice is meaningful.
The greatest sin of Reach PLC perhaps is the sheer number of local titles they own. Directly, Reach PLC owns the Daily Record in Scotland, the Manchester Evening News, the Liverpool Echo, the Newcastle Chronicle, the South Wales Echo, and Live branded news services in Cornwall, Essex, and Leeds. Meanwhile, through its subsidiary Local World, Reach own sixteen daily newspapers in places like Leicester, Stoke, Hull, Bristol, Nottingham, Plymouth and Cambridge. Then they own thirty six(!) weekly newspapers serving places like Torquay, Essex, Cornwall, Kent and Sussex, Exeter, Scunthorpe, Tamworth, Carmarthen, Bath, many overlapping or directly competing with one another. Local World then own a further FORTY free weekly local newspapers, many of which overlap areas in which they also sell paid weekly papers. The sheer scale of Reach PLC’s monopolist grip on local news is honestly a bit overwhelming to look at.
This kind of mass ownership ends up being quite negative for local news, sacrificing genuinely local reporting and coverage for cost saving and centralisation. The Birmingham Mail and the Newcastle Chronicle share a political editor, despite being cities two hundred miles apart. This is only made worse by the fact that the political editor they share operates out of an office in London, 137 miles from Birmingham and 290 miles from Newcastle. The most important thing about local newspapers surely that they are meant to be local. All these local papers being owned by a giant London based conglomerate robs local news of its locality. Reporting on what goes on on Birmingham City Council should be by a political editor who lives in Birmingham, and reporting on Newcastle City Council should be done by a political editor in Newcastle. The job should not be shared, and the job should certainly not be based in London. Breaking up local paper conglomerations, and regulating to ensure local news is genuinely local, would be better for consumers and better for journalists too.
Going on international example, even this is not groundbreakingly radical. France ensures national companies do not own too many local and regional newspapers. France also addresses the issue that local newspapers frequently fail to make money, by generously subsidising its local media. The British government could also do this, because local news is important to local government, something else British governments should take a much more active interest in. The funds for this could be raised by selling partial ownership of these new independent local newspapers, though I would prefer all these new media outlets created by the reforms proposed to be at least partially under democratic ownership. This would mean the local journalists and print workers owning part of their local newspaper, and perhaps the readers could opt in to the shared ownership scheme too. Local government structures could also be a part of this ownership structure.
No doubt, the press would cry foul at these proposals. It would be called Stalinism, and an unprecedented threat to press freedom in the United Kingdom. However the contrary is true, these modest proposals would be about ensuring accountability. Aimed at creating a freer, fairer, more competitive market, and a better industry for readers and journalists alike. A free press does not mean a press free to be dominated by a handful of international billionaires.