Demise of The Independent

News that The Independent is to close in March, lingering on only as a phantom, digital only, newspaper, should shake any lingering view that we enjoy in the UK a free and independent press. But how significant is this development?

The Independent has long since dropped from its masthead the claim to be “free from party political bias, free from proprietorial influence”. The former claim was always problematical – a free press in this country demands some political bias as a counterweight to that exerted in favour of the Tories by most of our media, including the BBC. The latter claim was clearly unsupportable after the newspaper was acquired in 2010 by the Russian Oligarch Alexander Lebedev who also, by then, owned the London Evening Standard. Although following Lebedev’s acquisition  The Independent never sunk to the level of anti-working class vindictiveness employed by the Standard, it failed to respond to the opportunity presented for progressive politics by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Leader and it has failed to take the lead in opposing the government’s attacks on working class interests such as trade union rights, housing, education and the NHS. With the Guardian mired in Blairite nostalgia, it has been left to the tiny (but perfectly formed)  Morning Star to lead on this. It could therefore be argued that the loss of The Independent doesn’t really matter. There is, however, another way of looking at its pending disappearance.

The Independent has around a 5% share of the readership of printed newspapers. Assuming this is acquired pro-rata by the remaining newspapers, it will leave 73%  controlled by four multi-millionaires: Rupert Murdoch (Sun and Times), Lord Rothermere (Mail and Metro) both with 29% each; Richard Desmond (Express and Daily Star) with 10%; and the Barclay Brothers (Telegraph) with 5%. Of these, only Richard Desmond lives in this country – yet they all exert tremendous influence over the UK government and its social policies and tax regime.

In any other situation where 73% of the market was controlled by four individuals, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), successor to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), would step in and the result would probably be enforced divestment. This would, however, require evidence of exploitation of market power and this is notoriously difficult to prove with newspapers as the benefit of ownership is not in the dividends received. Billionaires, even ones called Rupert, don’t make their billions from owning newspapers, they own newspapers to protect the billions they have made (or, in the case of Lord Rothermere, inherited). Lebedev’s closure of The Independent was not because it has not been yielding him sufficient monetary dividends, it was because it was no longer yielding him enough political dividends.

Regulatory agencies will never intervene to provide the truly free press we need. It can only be provided by government action to require national newspapers to be owned collectively by their readers. If the Morning Star can do it, so can the rest. But such government action will never be forthcoming under a Tory, or even a social democrat government. The remedy, as always, is a socialist government or, best of all, a social revolution led by the communists.

Lessons from the Hacking Trial

Writing in the Guardian this week following the conviction of Andy Coulson and the acquittal of Rebekah Brooks in the News of the World Hacking Trial, Joan Smith, Executive Director of Hacked Off, argued that the real story that has emerged from the trial is the lack of corporate governance in Rupert Murdoch’s press empire. Shareholders, she argues, will wish to know how a criminal conspiracy could flourish for so long at its heart. The remedy, she argues, is an independent regulator as recommended by Leveson, not the grandly named Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) favoured by Murdoch and the other newspaper publishers which is simply the discredited Press Complaints Commission in a new guise.

This is all pie in the sky. Truly independent press regulation might discourage unprincipled journalism but it will do nothing to address the even more serious problem of the gross political bias displayed by our newspapers. Another example of this was provided this week by their failure to report on the Peoples Assembly demonstration in London. The BBC, which is ‘independently’ regulated, was, however, equally remiss on this. Independent regulation of the press and indeed other media will clearly do nothing to restrict the way in which the rich and powerful use the media to promote their own interests. After all, they appoint the regulator. The appropriate remedy for our appalling newspaper industry is to regulate its ownership.

An immediate and short-term remedy would be to outlaw non-residents such as Rupert Murdoch from owning or controlling shares in newspapers published in this county. This is a no-brainer. Non-residents should be neither allowed to vote in our elections nor to influence their outcomes. A more permanent and effective solution would, however, be provided by requiring newspapers, as a condition of publication, to be re-structured as co-operatives owned by their readers, with every shareholder-reader having one vote regardless of the number of shares they own. Impracticable? No – that’s the structure successfully adopted by the Morning Star, the world’s only English language socialist newspaper and the most reliable and objective source of news in the UK.

Two questions need to be addressed: how much compensation should be paid to the present owners? and how to overcome the EU treaty obligations to safeguard property rights above all other interests, including those of labour? The answers are straightforward. Compensation should be based on circulation revenue less operating costs, adjusted for any current exploitation of labour such as sub-living wages paid by the newspaper and its subcontractors. Advertising revenue should be disregarded in this calculation as it arises in the main from the newspaper’s misuse of political influence and exploitation of its monopoly power. Compensation would, as a result, be minimal and would be further reduced if the co-operation of the owners and management over the transfer were opposed or resisted. On the EU treaty obligations to safeguard property rights above all other interests, including labour, the solution is simple: we should leave the EU.

Martin Graham