As printed in the Guardian
In 1931, the then leader of the Conservative party, Stanley Baldwin, made a speech in which he warned of the danger of letting a few individuals dominate the newspaper industry. What such people were seeking, he said, was “power, and power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”.
Britain, he said, was a country envied the world over for its free press: “its fairness, the ability with which it is conducted, and the high principles of journalism to which it adheres” were world-renowned, and should not be allowed to fall under the control of press barons. He had in mind Lords Rothermere and Beaverbrook, who had explicitly clashed with him over policy, and tried to remove him at least once as leader of the Conservative party. They were neither the first nor the last to use their papers as explicit weapons of political influence.
Baldwin could well have been speaking today. DMGT, which owns the Daily Mail, is reportedly planning a bid to take over the Telegraph Media Group. The Mail is already one of Britain’s biggest newspapers, and DMGT also owns the Mail on Sunday, Metro and the i. Adding the Telegraph, the Sunday Telegraph and the Spectator would escalate the group’s influence even further.
Now I like Lord and Lady Rothermere, and they are probably the nicest people in the upper echelons of today’s media. But even they should not be allowed the huge power that would arise from such a conglomerate.
There are many reasons to be worried. The quality of our press is thanks, in part, to the ruthless competition in the sector, rewarding the best and punishing the rest. Our free press is its own best friend – and harshest critic. When one newspaper prints an error or misrepresents the facts, it is, more often than not, another newspaper that draws attention to it. And if one paper’s content starts to slacken, another will capitalise with lethal instinct.
The Mail group’s bid puts all that in danger. That is not a comment on the Daily Mail or its owners. Unlike Baldwin in 1931, I have no desire to attack the Mail itself. Instead, I am stating a simple truth about our media as a whole: it relies on a precarious balance of influence and competition, and we must ensure that balance remains.
Much of this will have been brought into sharp focus by the “retirement” of Rupert Murdoch – although I doubt that we have heard the last of him. He has held an excessive level of influence over the press and therefore over politics, owning both the Times and the Sun as well as their Sunday incarnations. His power extends into publishing and television, and his huge holdings overseas make him arguably the most powerful media mogul on Earth.
In 2012, the then editor of the Times, James Harding, left his post amid reports that Murdoch had not been happy with the paper’s coverage of the phone-hacking scandal engulfing another of his papers, the now defunct News of the World. In evidence given to the Competition and Markets Authority in 2017, it was also suggested Harding was removed because the Times had supported Obama in the 2012 presidential election.
In either case, any such action on the part of Murdoch seems like it may have been against undertakings he gave when he bought the paper. He said only the paper’s directors would be able to hire and fire editors, and he guaranteed editorial independence.
I have been a fierce defender of press freedom my whole political life, but not a defender of the freedom of press magnates to use their power to dictate the terms of political life. It has been distasteful to watch the leaders and would-be leaders (and even prime ministers) of all parties pay court to Murdoch in a desperate attempt to gain his support – and an unpleasant reminder of the dominance of money over democracy, one which we should not forget too easily.
This is a stark reminder of what Baldwin’s “power without responsibility” looks like. It is just one example of the kind of control a press baron can exercise – pretty much entirely without accountability. No single individual should have been allowed to accumulate such a degree of influence. But what’s done is done. The focus must be on making sure it doesn’t happen again.
If the Mail group were to add the Telegraph to its portfolio, it would represent another step towards an uncompetitive press dominated by the powerful few. A 2021 analysis by the Press Gazette found DGMT had nearly a 40% share of the UK print market – even bigger than Murdoch’s share. Extending that any further would have serious and worrying implications for our democracy.
The press is one of our key tools for holding the powerful to account. Few private citizens have the time or resources to apply the kind of scrutiny that journalists do. Without a properly functioning press, that scrutiny simply won’t happen to anything like the degree it does now. There will be nobody to fill the void.
If the press is to work – that is, to fulfil its dual purposes of informing and scrutinising – it must be competitive and diverse. A media landscape skewed heavily towards any one individual, or group of individuals, is not a free media. With possible takeovers on the horizon, we would do well to heed Baldwin’s warning and remember that this is a critical issue not just of competition, but also of democracy.