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Biased Tory press undermines democracy

OPINION: This election fails the most basic test of democratic integrity by denying voters the diverse and independent media they need to make informed decisions at the ballot box, warns Justin Schlosberg

19 May, 2017 — By Justin Schlosberg

Tory-leaning press has ‘exerted influence over the agenda of television news’ at election time

THIS snap election is the third national poll in successive years and comes at a time of unprecedented political upheaval and uncertainty. Little wonder that the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe last month sent a fact-finding mission to the UK to assess the case for international monitoring.

But there are particular reasons why this election – more than any other in recent memory – fails on the most basic test of democratic integrity: whether citizens are sufficiently exposed to diverse and independent media in order to make informed decisions at the ballot box.

For a start, we know that Rupert Murdoch and his senior News Corp executives – owners of The Sun and Times newspapers – continue to meet the Prime Minister and Chancellor at a rate that dwarfs any other individual or organisation. This is in spite of widespread criminality and corruption exposed within Murdoch’s newsrooms since the phone hacking scandal erupted in 2011. At that time, News Corp was attempting to buy out BSkyB – Britain’s monopoly satellite platform – but withdrew the bid after the scale of the crisis became clear.

Five years later and four months prior to Theresa May’s election call, Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox announced its intention to buy out Sky. Whether by accident or design, this announcement coincided with a government consultation on whether or not to carry out part two of the Leveson Inquiry, which was established in the aftermath of the phone hacking scandal and intended to get to the bottom of corruption between Murdoch’s newspapers and elements of the Metropolitan Police. The government was also consulting on whether or not to fully implement the proposals for press regulation recommended by Leveson and codified in a subsequent Royal Charter with cross-party support.

Justin Schlosberg

The Conservatives are the only major party to have signalled a willingness to renege on this agreement, while Labour and the Liberal Democrats have voiced significant concern regarding Rupert Murdoch’s renewed bid to buy out Sky via 21st Century Fox.

By any measure then, the press as a whole has an unprecedented vested interest in securing the re-election of the Conservatives. But this is not just about newspapers. According to a recent study conducted by Cardiff University, the UK’s predominantly Conservative-leaning national press exerted considerable influence over the agenda of television news in the 2015 general election, including the BBC’s.

And if anything, the press has moved further to the right since 2015 as reflected by the recent appointment of George Osborne (Conservative MP and former Chancellor) to the role of editor-in-chief of the Evening Standard.

On top of that, the current election coincides with ongoing investigations by the Information Commissioner (ICO) and the Electoral Commission into allegations of foreign interference and campaign finance abuse.

There are especially grave concerns regarding the opaque ways in which political advertising via social media can be financed, and the potential to target voters with highly emotive and individually-crafted messages.

Against this backdrop we might legitimately ask the question: what kind of democracy is this? What kind of democracy enables
an incumbent government to call a snap election at a time of its choosing (despite having introduced legislation intended to avoid just that), with the compliance of an already favourable press and a record lead in the opinion polls?

What kind of democracy allows a sitting Prime Minister to refuse to debate publicly with any of the opposition and yet still get away with calling it an election about “leadership”?

Whatever the result, these are the kinds of questions that must be addressed if we are to stem the brewing crisis of legitimacy and public trust in our political system.

Justin Schlosberg is a media activist, lecturer at Birkbeck College and a member of the Media Reform Coalition.


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