Is press freedom at risk from commercial interests?

Readers of The Daily Telegraph will have awoken this morning to find that their chief political journalist Peter Oborne has resigned in protest at what he regards as editorial subservience to commercial interest and to the owners, the Barclay Brothers, over under-reporting of the Swiss HSBC scandal. He says that there was a concern that the paper would lose vital advertising revenue and thus journalistic freedom, the truth and press freedom itself were being sacrificed on the altar of commercial interest.HSBC Swiss bank

“The coverage of HSBC in Britain’s Telegraph is a fraud on its readers. If major newspapers allow corporations to influence their content for fear of losing advertising revenue, democracy itself is in peril.” (post in “Open Democracy“, 18 February 2015)

It should be said that The Daily Telegraph denied his allegations.

Falling revenues exposes the Press to its commercial backers

This episode illustrates nicely the problem for journalism of being dependent on financial support from wealthy and powerful owners and from their advertising revenue, and yet still aspiring to report freely what they feel is newsworthy. At stake in all this, many would say, is press freedom, the “Fourth Branch of Government” as it is known in the USA. Democracies need a free press as one means to publish what is happening, to alert people to misdeeds, to hold the executive and politicians generally to account, and to in effect say what’s not being said. We have only recently had this issue tested, in different circumstances, when Islamic terrorists attacked the offices and staff of Charlie Hebdo for publishing as they saw it material that offended Islam. As Voltaire allegedly said, “I hate what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

The background, as Oborne points out, is that sales are falling as the internet erodes sales of hard copy versions. Thus papers are becoming ever more dependent on advertising, and thus need to be careful in how they report not to upset these backers. It is analagous in some ways to the plight of political parties, who too are losing fee-paying members and thus become ever-more reliant on “fat cat” donations from wealthy individuals and thus potentially to the strings they pull.

The Press and their owners

Allied to this is the on-going reality of the phenomenon of the press baron, the wealthy owner who dictates the editorial line of the paper. The classic example is that of Rupert Murdoch and his media empire at News Corp. Murdoch has built a global media empire and thus very considerable power, such that politicians devote lots of time to cultivating his support. It was his newspaper, the Sun, that claimed after the Conservative victory of 1992, “It’s the Sun wot won it”. Murdoch has strong neo-liberal leanings and his channel in the US, Fox News, is considered to be very right wing. Such an orientation didn’t stop him switch to Tony Blair’s very business-friendly New Labour in 1997 before Blair went on to win. However Murdoch’s paper The News of the World was later embroiled in the phone hacking scandal resulting in the imprisonment of journalists. The trials of 2013-14 revealed how law-breaking in pursuit of stories and thus circulation had corrupted journalistic standards in the tabloids. Other papers have since been found to have engaged in hacking.

In the past such people have been almost political kingmakers. Northcliffe, owner of The Daily Mail, was a key Conservative dignitary and Beaverbrook, owner of The Daily Express, even more so. On the other side of the spectrum, the Daily Mirror‘s Robert Maxwell was an MP. Today, the Independent is owned by a Russian billionaire Lebedev. Today few papers are free of such situations, an example being The Guardian is run by a trust, the Scott Trust – and also it should be said often at a loss.

The political slant of a paper, and/or an online version today, is important. In the UK, most newspapers support the right, and thus have a powerful influence on opinion-formation. It is a moot point however whether that influence really impacts an election in terms of influencing how people vote. Political scientists dispute such influence, although there is a view that the way they might highlight an issue could tilt the balance of forces. Thus it was noticeable how papers like the Daily Mail made much of “benefit scroungers” and this interacted with a broader reaction against marginal groups and state spending during the cutbacks of the Great Recession.

“Publish and be dammed”

In all, there is a lot at stake when journalists seek to publish news that affects powerful interests. The press is a bulwark of today’s democracy and it relies on a freedom to publish what it sees as worthy of note. “Publish and be dammed” is a well-known phrase. As politics moves towards diminished popular participation, it opens the door for powerful interests to manipulate affairs to suit themselves and their particular beliefs. A healthy democracy needs to have check and balances therefore, not just to limit the executive but also the interests that seek to influence them. This is what an open society needs to be about.

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