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The stage is set. Labour should now commit to media ownership reform

Originally published on LabourList 15/10/13

With a Royal Charter on Press Regulation hurtling ever closer, it is wise to note the caveats from Ed Miliband’s conflict with The Daily Mail. We mustn’t abuse events like these to cut back on press freedom. In one of the first interviews he gave on the issue, Miliband declared that, “this is not about regulation, it’s about right and wrong”. We should applaud him for not falling into Paul Dacre’s cynical trap, which he clumsily tried to spring as he blustered about the “chilling effects” of Miliband’s right to reply.

However, letting yet another case of press malpractice slide as a one-off would be a foolish mistake. There is an underlying rot to the British press, not caused by malign editors or rogue journalists, but by hugely unbalanced media ownership. With 70% of all British media outlets owned by just seven companies, it is easy to see how a culture of smears, accusations and delusions of invincibility has grown in a climate of such impunity.

We should all stand robustly for a free press, and papers should always resist any pressure that tries to tell them what to say. Yet, conflating these principles with the ruthless nature of corporate competition has allowed a horridly unequal system to ossify. Instead of holding truth to power or reporting in the public interest, Britain’s media is dominated by backroom deals, commercial influence, and twisted ideology.

In the past, Labour has made promising steps towards shifting the focus from dreaded regulation of the press to ownership reform. Harriet Harman has always made clear her intentions to make ownership reform Labour’s next big media policy, and our Shadow DCMS team, along with numerous campaign groups, have argued for caps on market share. No company would be allowed to control more than, let’s say, 30% of newspapers or commercial broadcasters. Such measures would give greater opportunities for locally owned and independent media to provide for wider audiences where the tycoons have failed.

Sadly, this issue is often shoved away from the policy spotlight and left to gather dust, when it can and should be seen as a major component of Labour’s One Nation message. Our commitment to breaking apart the big energy firms will bring fair competition back into how people heat and light their homes. Similarly, splitting casino banking from its retail counterpart will protect the savings of millions from high-risk investment operations. Reining in the media empires and fostering a more plural press is vital if Labour is going to deliver a democracy that works for everyone.

We’re used to hearing from press barons and their loyal editors that they alone (professional journalists are rarely credited) are the champions of press freedom. But there cannot be a free press while so much of our media is held in so few hands.

Whether the curtains close on a Royal Charter or not, Labour shouldn’t let the audience leave so soon. Give ownership reform an act of its own, and tackle the problems in our press without sacrificing hard won liberties.

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