After a smooth summer of sporting excellence and high circulations, the British press is getting set for the storms of autumn. Chief among them is due next month with the much-anticipated report of Lord Justice Leveson into press behaviour.
Although there has been much speculation about the conclusions of the report close observers now think that Leveson, and the government, do not plan any radical proposals on ownership rules to limit the overweening structures of media power.
The Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom in the UK, a veteran lobbying group which has been banging on about the threat of media monopolies for decades, wrote to Britain’s former culture secretary Jeremy Hunt asking what steps he plans to take to save local newspapers, following reports that one of Britain’s biggest groups, Johnston Press, is to close titles and merge editorial offices.
The answer is not much. The minister’s office replied that the government is not planning to tackle the threat of monopoly control of the local press, or any other media, in its forthcoming Communications Bill but it has promised to “listen carefully to any recommendations” made by Lord Leveson’s inquiry.
Although Leveson’s original remit for the inquiry included “how future concerns about press behaviour, media policy, regulation and cross-media ownership should be dealt with by all the relevant authorities”, the issue of ownership has disappeared completely from list of areas to be covered in the final report says the campaign.
This may disappoint many who argue that the excessive size and power of Rupert Murdoch’s media holdings was a critical factor in his ability to exercise undue, not to say malign, influence over British politics.
It’s a point well made by Steven Barnett, a contributor to an updated book on the phone-hacking scandal previewed this week in The Guardian, who argues that ownership is the key to the exercise of press freedom. Barnett sets out a range of principles and policies for an ownership regime that will keep media power in check.
But others who have feared a wide-ranging assault on media may be relieved. The notion that Leveson is taking aim at the free press in Britain emerged in a panicky comment in August from the Editor of The Independent who said his Lordship was “loading a gun” for the newspaper industry.
A major question is whether self-regulation in the UK press can be put back on track. Some within media argue that the role of the press in itself exposing newsroom malpractice at the News of the World shows that self-rule in the press can work. Leveson’s job may be to give that regulation some legal force.
But putting the issue of monopoly ownership to one side may only do half the job. Sharpening the teeth of a new press regulator will help, but, in the end, will it be enough?