12th May 2017 The problem of the press

Not enough people buy newspapers anymore. As an economic model, they are bust. Reader numbers and advertising revenue have been falling through the floor; most of us read our news, for free, on our screens. That’s why Murdoch has paywalls and it’s why the Guardian has membership: income must be found somewhere. But that doesn’t stop wealthy individuals from wanting to own newspapers. Because owning newspapers means setting the agenda.

Each day the broadcast media report the newspaper headlines. First thing in the morning, on the Today programme, on BBC Breakfast, on the ITV morning sofas with the ghastly Piers Morgan, the headlines are read out uncritically. Even if you haven’t bought a copy that day, you will know what the Daily Mail thinks (or wants you to think). Late in the evening the next day’s headlines are discussed on the BBC news channel and on Sky. At least here there is debate but it is rare to find two people who are diametrically opposed in view discussing them. What’s most important is that the day’s news agenda is set first thing in the morning by the headlines of our daily newspapers.

So all today’s headlines except one, the Guardian, call Labour’s manifesto leak shambolic and its contents a throwback to the 1970s. In the Sun and the Mail’s case they also find a way to blame Corbyn for his security service driver squashing the foot of a BBC camera operator who got too close to the front wheel of his car.

Rupert Murdoch supported new Labour in 1997 because he saw that the country had entirely turned against the weary Tories and he wanted to stay on the same side as his readers. But he extracted a promise from Blair in exchange: don’t do anything that would harm my business interests. Blair gave his word and the Sun supported Labour all the way into office. No party since 1962 has won a British General Election without the support of the Sun newspaper.

Now, of course, we also have the Daily Mail and its five million website visitors per month. Paul Dacre lunches privately with Theresa May and she dances to his tune. When the rise in NICs was proposed by the Chancellor at the last budget, the negative reaction of the Daily Mail secured the government’s u-turn.

Murdoch supports leaving the EU because they do not listen to him. He has no influence there. Here, he has plenty. And that’s why we’ll never see Leveson II challenging corporate media ownership and behaviour if Theresa May returns to Number Ten on the 9th June. We can also expect to see Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox taking ownership of Sky once more.

So here we are. Our public discourse is framed by billionaires who are determined to protect their business and political interests, attacking policies or opponents they dislike and cheerleading for those they do. At the same time they maintain a culture of discourse that really hasn’t moved in forty years, from depictions of the left as stalinist unionisers determined to overthrow capitalism, to crosissant-eating eurocrats who want to rule you from afar while taking your money. It’s childish, it’s flippant and it’s very, very effective.