The humbling of Murdoch and the Fourth Estate

Well Rupert Murdoch said that his appearance to answer questions in Parliament was the most humble day of his life.  But has there really been a shift in power within the Westminster Village? And what next for the “fourth estate”?

It was Bristol’s most famous MP, Edmund Burke, who coined the phrase “fourth estate”.  He was pointing out that Parliament had three elements, the Lords, the Bishops and the Commons. But the press gallery were a fourth estate, reporting what happened in Parliament but arguably more powerful in their own right as the filter of opinion.  What was true in the late 18th century holds now, perhaps even more so as print journalism contains more views than news.  The internet is our modern version of the paper “broadsides” of Hanoverian Britain, lampooning Monarch, Parliament and anyone regarded great and good.

Parliamentarians have experienced much reform since Burke.  The Commons is accountable to a mass electorate.  The sayings and doings of MPs are open to microscopic levels of scrutiny bringing about transparency and change.  Some but by no means all of this has come about because of pressure from the press.

But the press itself remains remarkably unchanged.  A tiny number of men still own or control most of our national newspapers.  They regulate themselves. They don’t have to pay taxes here.  They don’t even have to live here or carry a British passport.

But are the members of the fourth estate about to experience the wind of change blasting through them?  No, if left to their own devices.  We have after all been here before.  There was widespread revulsion against tabloid press practices after the death of Princess Diana.  Change will need to be forced upon them.  The humbling of Rupert may be satisfying but futile unless his business practices and levels of control are changed.

So what could we do?  Here are some ideas:

  • Ownership – in a free market we would get worried if any supermarket or bank held more than a quarter market share.  Surely no individual or company should have a dominant position in order to influence our opinions.  And press barons should not also dominate the airwaves.  Plurality of ownership is more likely to lead to diverse opinion.
  • Personality – Murdoch snr is an Aussie carrying a US passport.  The land of the free doesn’t allow foreign nationals to influence the opinions of American voters.  I believe in open markets.  British companies operate all over the world.  So I wouldn’t favour a pure nationality test but we should have a wider “fit and proper person” test for media ownership and effective control.
  • Regulation – the Press Complaints Commission has to go.  A cabal of editors can no more be trusted to police themselves than MPs set proper expenses rules or the Catholic Church throw out errant priests.  An independent regulator of the print media has to have the power to set a code of practice and to fine transgressions.  Is journalism a trade or a profession?  Dodgy gas fitters and negligent doctors soon find themselves out of work.
  • Transparency – sunshine is a great cleanser and the press desperately need a bright light on their shadier activities.  Phone hacking is not much worse than “good old  fashioned journalism that we hear about, such as nicking letters, rummaging through bins or cash in envelopes to sources.  Other businesses have to keep proper records so their claims can be verified.  So in a kiss and tell story which has been literally sexed up for our titillation, why not disclose that Miss Tracey  Slapper has been paid £1,000 for her contribution to the story?

Back to Parliament.  I think this furore has been good for the reputation of Parliament, giving backbenchers of all parties their day in the sun.  Select Committees do excellent work every day.  It’s taken a major story about the press for the press to report their meetings.  Whenever I show people around Parliament I stand in Central Lobby and explain how people can come and “lobby” their MPs. But the “Lobby” is also the secret garden of Parliamentary reporters, with their “sources close to the Prime Minister” or the anonymous “senior source” being quoted either trashing the reputations of rivals or puffing up the status of acolytes.  More transparency is better than “off the record” if trust is to be re-established and the reputation of all of Burke’s estates enhanced.