Rupert Murdoch has won his bid to increase News International’s share of BSkyB from 39% to 61%. An alliance of media organisations including the Guardian, Telegraph, Daily Mail, Mirror and BT had demanded the bid be referred to the Competition Commission.
Labour had said they wanted that too. As did the ex- Media and Culture Secretary, Vince Cable. Even Tory James Hunt, who replaced Cable in that post, was promising to refer the decision right up to the last minute.
Despite all this, Hunt permitted the takeover in return for a promise by News International to let go of the loss-making Sky News for at least 10 years. Murdoch gets his own way — again.
Does it matter that Murdoch, as opposed to any other pro-corporate billionaire, owns yet another huge media outlet? Yes. Murdoch will now own 40% of the UK newspaper market and have around 10 million subscribers to his TV channels in the UK and Ireland. His media networks are consistently right-wing, anti-working class, and anti-labour movement.
Whether it is the Sun and News of the World, or the more upmarket Times and Sunday Times, Murdoch has both ends of the market covered, each with their own bespoke mix of celebrity gossip and lefty-bashing.
Murdoch’s organisation also represents a particularly aggressive model of media ownership born in the Thatcher era, which created the material conditions for his triumph — anti-union laws, mass unemployment, deregulation. He is now acting as cheerleader-in-chief for the most right-wing government since the Second World War.
Key turning points in the struggle between the organised labour movement and the bosses during that period were marked by the symbiotic relationship between the government and News International — the miners’ strike, the Wapping dispute and the against-the-odds Tory election victory in 1992 (“It was the Sun wot won it”).
However some of the reaction to Murdoch’s latest expansion serves only to mislead and miseducate our movement.
Left Labour MP John McDonnell, for example, urged Jeremy Hunt to go ahead with referring the deal to the Competition Commission because “nobody believes these undertakings agreed to by Murdoch will be adhered to in the long term. Many people will think we have reached a new low in British politics when the Conservative Party is backed by Rupert Murdoch before the election and then delivers this deal within months of being elected.”
In fact there is no “new low”. This is just another demonstration of the supine nature of the institutions which are supposed to protect press freedom and democracy.
When Murdoch wanted to buy the Times and Sunday Times in 1979, it was also expected to be referred to competition bodies. He got out of that by claiming that the two papers were not going concerns and delaying his takeover would risk them going out of business.
In 1990, when he proposed to merge his Sky company with British Satellite Broadcasting (BSB) to create BSkyB, he used the exact same argument — both were loss-making companies.
A socialist response should not be to line up with the other media barons to argue for a “level playing field”. Nor should we pretend that there is a democratic media equilibrium which nasty Rupert (often demonised as “foreign”) is spoiling. With the exception of the unique way in which the BBC is run, all the British mass media is in the hands of oligarchs or major corporations.
The political differences between them are marginal in the great scheme of things. Of the non-Murdoch papers two of the tabloids, Star and Express, are owned by Richard Desmond’s United Newspaper Group; one, the Mail, is owned by the Northcliffe Group, and one by the Mirror Group. All companies own local and regional papers and most have huge shares in TV and radio stations too. With the occasional exception of the Mirror they are uniformly and consistently hostile to unions, socialist ideas of any kind and, above all, strikes.
When it comes to trade unions and industrial action the more serious broadsheet papers are worse. None of them, not the Guardian and not the Independent, troubles its conscience long before denouncing striking workers.
Socialists are often accused of moaning and making excuses when we blame the “meejah” for our defeats and failure of our ideas to triumph, but the power this monochrome media control gives to the ruling class and their system is immense. We all need a source of news and information to make sense of the world and it takes great determination and political confidence to filter out of that news and information the prejudice and assumptions which are transmitted by the sources we have to rely on.
Combating this power and influence is an immense job. It is one of the reasons socialists are so committed to sustaining our own newspapers, websites and publications. It is why we give huge importance to political education and independent reading and the habits of debate and criticism.
And of course struggle at whatever level can transform superficial thinking overnight. Whether it is tabloid homophobia, and racism challenged by black and lesbian and gay miners’ support groups in 1984, or the entire city of Liverpool turning away from the Sun after the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, the hold of the press on working class consciousness can be rapidly undermined — but it is still necessary to work hard at drawing out the lessons and spreading the message.
We cannot hope to compete with the resources and financial power of multinational capital, but we can develop and nourish critical minds and a sceptical, questioning culture. Lenin once said of the great liberal paper in Britain, the Guardian, that it “tells the truth 80% of the time all the better to lie for the other 20%”.
Being a socialist does not mean rejecting all information in the bourgeois media, but it does mean taking responsibility for thinking, interpreting and making sense of that information — sorting out and explaining what are the facts as opposed to the lies and half-lies. One of the truths we have to communicate, unfortunately, is that we would have a bosses’ press and media with or without Rupert Murdoch.