We all see the favours the corporate newspapers do for the Conservatives because they are written in large type every day – distractions, distortions, plain lies and cynical omissions. While pumping out propaganda in print and online, they can be seen to be routinely shielding chosen ministers from criticism.
Less obvious are the favours our Government bestows upon the press in return.
This corrupt game of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ is continuous, with never a thought given to what best serves the public. Naturally, the newspapers don’t draw attention to their bungs.
So here are some the of favours that recent Conservative governments have done for the corporate press – a list that is by no means exhaustive.
1. Ending Murdoch’s Obligation of Non-Interference
The most recent case in point was Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries ending Rupert Murdoch’s 41-year-old obligation not to interfere editorially in the work of The Times and The Sunday Times.
This wasn’t really about political meddling, of course, because Murdoch has always been allowed to act as if the obligation did not exist. It was a commercial favour, because absolving him of the undertakings he gave when buying the two newspapers in 1981 leaves him free to merge them more closely (in all likelihood, sacking journalists as he does so) and to make more money.
Dorries has no thought here for protecting the diversity of the press – it’s all about pleasing Rupert.
2. Online Disinformation Exemption
The Government is exempting newspapers from the most important effects of the Online Safety Bill, despite their known record of spreading disinformation and hate speech on social media and on the web.
In response to industry lobbying, newspapers have been granted an exclusion from the principal measures intended to protect the public on the spurious grounds that they are already “regulated” – even though the press self-regulator IPSO is a notorious and obvious sham that never investigates, never imposes meaningful sanctions and dismisses most complaints.
3. Attack on the Right of Privacy
The Government intends to reduce our privacy rights in response to the demands of a corporate press furious that it is prevented from intruding more into people’s lives.
Following the legal victory of the Duchess of Sussex over the Mail on Sunday in a privacy and copyright case, Justice Secretary Dominic Raab promised the press that he would “correct” what he called a “drift towards continental-style privacy laws”.
4. Multimillion-Pound COVID Subsidy
Since the Coronavirus crisis began, the Government has been paying a special subsidy to the big newspaper groups. Explicitly identified as “support” for the industry, it takes the form of an advertising deal called ‘All In, All Together’, comprising public service messages and articles more or less labelled as Government-funded.
Neither side will say how much taxpayers’ money this has cost, but the budget was £35 million for the first three months and the campaign has been running for 22 months.
The beneficiaries are almost exclusively wealthy corporations that did not need the money, while independent, innovative local news publishers that are most threatened by the pandemic have received almost nothing.
5. Undermining the BBC
By freezing the BBC’s funding, thus forcing £2 billion in cuts, and by appointing hostile figures to the BBC’s management and board, the Government not only serves its own ideological interests but it also pleases the corporate press.
These newspapers hate the BBC because it is the most popular and most trusted supplier of news in the UK. They believe that it crowds their market and limits their revenues while providing alternative perspectives on the news that they often don’t like.
The more the Government starves it of funds and inhibits its operations, the more the press wins and the public loses.
6. Blocking Effective Press Regulation
Nine years after Leveson’s press regulation reforms were approved overwhelmingly by Parliament, the Government is still refusing to implement them.
Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act would put pressure on newspapers to accept effective, independent, non-political regulation – but this terrifies the press because they would be obliged to observe journalistic standards to which, thanks to IPSO, they currently only pay lip service.
The public loses in at least two ways: on the one hand, decent regulation would give them more trustworthy journalism; and on the other, when they are wronged they have far less chance of a remedy.
7. Shielding Newspapers From Lawsuits
Not content with being effectively unregulated, the corporate press also seeks to be above the law.
It lobbied for years against ‘no-win, no-fee’ arrangements – in practice, the only way that people who are not very wealthy could sue newspapers that breached their privacy or libelled them.
In 2019, the Government duly knocked away an important element of the complex no-win, no-fee structure by ending the recoverability of “success fees” – thus making it even harder for ordinary people to sue.
(The refusal to enact section 40, above, effectively denies the public an alternative path through low-cost arbitration).
8. Blocking Leveson 2
In 2018, Theresa May’s Government did those in charge of the corporate press the greatest favour of all by cancelling part two of the Leveson Inquiry, the principal purpose of which was to investigate the crimes known to have been committed by those organisations.
Many serious offences were involved – phone-hacking, data theft, bribery, perversion of justice, intimidation and more – and only a handful of mostly junior figures were ever held to account for them.
Bosses were undoubtedly involved, either directly or in cover-ups, and the cancellation of Leveson 2 spared them from scrutiny and possibly from prosecution.
9. Ditching the Cairncross Review
The Cairncross Review into the future of journalism, presented by ministers as the forward-looking alternative to addressing past criminality, proposed creating an independent Institute for Public Interest News that would “amplify efforts to ensure the future sustainability of public interest news”.
Though this was genuinely far-seeing, the corporate press was appalled at the idea of an independent public body promoting journalism that might compete with theirs, and so the Conservatives binned the idea.
10. Local Democracy Reporters
The conglomerates Reach, Newsquest and JPI Media have been sacking local journalists and closing titles for decades, yet thanks to the Government they get the services of dozens of journalists for next to nothing.
The so-called local democracy reporters are paid for by syphoning £8 million a year off from the public’s BBC licence fee contributions – even though they don’t work for the BBC.
And when the Cairncross Review said that the scheme should have independent oversight, the Government did nothing to address this.
Greed and Entitlement
There you have it. These are mostly billionaire-owned enterprises, or at least very wealthy corporations, and they publish what in most years ranks as the least trustworthy press in Europe. Yet, in exchange for their usually brazen support, the Government deploys all of its resources to pamper and reward them, at our expense.
Their greed and sense of entitlement are limitless. They demand public money by the shedload, amnesty for past crimes, immunity from prosecution and regulations and the removal of every obstacle to their profit-making. And that, bit by bit, is what they get.
Bear in mind too that, before this period of Conservative rule, they already enjoyed a public subsidy worth hundreds of millions a year thanks to the zero-rating of newspapers for VAT, and that in 2020 the Government extended this to cover their online activities – a boost calculated to be worth another £50 million a year to them.
This is, in plain sight, corruption worthy of Putin’s Russia or Mugabe’s Zimbabwe – for these are not just cronies being rewarded, these are the chief gatekeepers of public information in this country.
Brian Cathcart is Professor of Journalism at Kingston University London and the author of ‘The Case of Stephen Lawrence’ (1999)
This post originally appeared in the Byline Times and is reproduced with permission and thanks