Labour deputy leader says media barons such as Rupert Murdoch have developed a sense of invincibility
Labour’s deputy leader, Harriet Harman, has called on the government to lay down plans for a tough communications bill in the Queen’s speech on Wednesday, including rules to curb Rupert Murdoch’s dominance in newspapers and pay TV and a framework to tackle the rising power of technology giants such as Facebook and Google.
Labour‘s deputy leader, Harriet Harman, has called on the government to lay down plans for a tough communications bill in the Queen’s speech on Wednesday, including rules to curb Rupert Murdoch‘s dominance in newspapers and pay TV and a framework to tackle the rising power of technology giants such as Facebook and Google.
Harman, who also holds the posts of shadow deputy prime minister and shadow culture secretary, has tabled a seven-point plan highlighting areas Labour believes should be overhauled, including major changes to media ownership rules in the light of the fallout from the phone-hacking scandal.
“We have a situation where [Murdoch] owns national newspapers accounting for 34% of total sales – it is too much,” said Harman. “It is important for democracy, and also the issue of fairness for new entrants.”
Murdoch’s News International owns the Sun, Times, Sunday Times and Sun on Sunday, the replacement for News of the World which was shut in 2011 in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal.
Labour is challenging the government to introduce rules to block a single person or company from owning titles accounting for more than 30% of the market, with deals that lead to control of over 20% subject to “specific conditions” and approval by the media regulator Ofcom.
Harman also believes rules relating to cross-media ownership – controlling a mix of, say, newspapers, TV and radio stations – need to be toughened, arguing that powerful media barons such as Murdoch have developed a sense of invincibility.
“The current system didn’t protect from the monopoly Murdoch built up,” she said. “There’s no progress. Look at Murdoch by way of illustration.”
In 2011 Murdoch’s News Corporation was forced to abandon an £8bn bid to increase its 39% stake in the pay-TV broadcaster BSkyB to full ownership, following huge public pressure and political outrage over phone hacking and concerns raised by rival media organisations about diminished plurality.
BSkyB was subsequently investigated by Ofcom to assess whether it was fit and proper to own a broadcast licence. The company was cleared but James Murdoch, who stepped down as chairman of News International and BSkyB before the test, was heavily criticised.
Harman wants the “fit and proper person” test extended beyond criminal convictions to take into account “any failure of good governance or history of impropriety”.
“I want to make sure we don’t have a situation like before,” she said. “Everyone was concerned about those responsible for newspapers that broke the law was fit and proper. The system was inflexible. It is about where and when you could consider [the] fit and proper [test]. It was an inflexible process”.
In addition the culture secretary would be given more power to intervene in mergers on propriety grounds, while Ofcom would be able to step in the media market if monopoly concerns were raised.
To rein in companies controlling too many media assets, Harman is proposing a cap on the percentage of revenue of the UK’s total cross-media market that could be owned by a single person or company.
This cap could include satellite channels and the licences for ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5.
“There is no tablet of stone,” she says. “The point is to reach a sensible level [of cross-media ownership]. The government has not even begun that discussion to reach a consensus. We want to open up the debate”.
Labour’s plan also highlights issues the government needs to address including the impact on consumers of the rise in power of tech giants such as Facebook and Google, a focus on universal broadband rollout over upping internet speeds and pushing forward with a promised crackdown on digital piracy.
says the communications sector has become “highly concentrated and monopolistic”, with a number of the technology and telecoms players becoming “very rich and very aggressive”.
“The government must not leave consumers at the mercy of big companies,” she says. “We want the government to be looking at a framework to be sure we don’t have the problem of invincibility that comes with size. Look at what happened with News of the World and the big energy companies. The government stands back and wrings its hands.”
Last week John Whittingdale, chairman of the culture, media and sport select committee, said the government was no nearer to producing a blueprint for a long-overdue communications bill.
“We want a sense of strategy and momentum, it has stalled,” said Harman, pointing out that former culture secretary Jeremy Hunt first started talking about a bill before the 2010 general election.
“The government might have good intentions on this and would be happy to back them, there are a whole range of issues we might agree on, but they aren’t doing anything … We actually need some action.”