In a British film, “James Bond: Tomorrow Never Dies”, the villain, Elliot Carver, a press baron wanting to take over the world, declared that “Words are the new weapons… Caesar had his legions, Napoleon had armies, and I have my division, TV, news, magazines. ” The statement, though made in a fictitious setting, has its roots in reality. In recent decades, the competitive nature of the press industry had seen unprofitable press firms being forced out of business, and an oligopolistic situation emerged with three leading press groups accounting for 75% of newspaper readership in Britain.
1 This had led to the narrowing of viewpoints presented in the papers and press barons, hungry for profits, pushed the concern for democratic pluralism off their agenda. 2 Pluralists see the press, by disseminating information and safeguarding the rights to speech, as enhancing democracy and acting as checks and balances against state abuses, as they occupy the fourth estate that is free from the Crown, Parliament and the Judiciary.
3 However, such a view is highly idealistic when economics is the main consideration of the press barons in reality. George Boyce, a revisionist, even commented that the British press with “its head in politics and its feet in commerce” had turned the fourth estate into a sheer “myth”4 This paper will attempt to argue that in this current age, the press with all its powers, might be abused by press barons and become a threat to both British politics and its liberal democracy.
Norman Angell once slammed the era of press barons as “the worst of all the menaces to modern democracy”. 5 When there is a concentration of press ownership in the case of Britain, the plight of democracy is best summed up by Abbott Joseph Liebling’s famous line: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one. ” It had effectively allowed owners of the press to be in a position where they are able to use their papers as personal loudhailers, and Angell was disturbed that
what England thinks is largely controlled by a very few men, not by virtue of the direct expression of any opinion of their own but by controlling the distribution of emphasis in the telling of facts: so stressing one group of them and keeping another group in the background so to make a given conclusion inevitable. 6 One individual providing patent evidence of Angell’s concerns is Robert Maxwell, a former right wing Labour MP, had acquired the Mirror Group in 1984, and began to influence the political reports that were published.
He declared that “I certainly have a major say in the political line of the paper (Daily Mirror)”and in another instance, he added that running newspapers had empowered him “to raise issues effectively”. 7 Such exclusive powers to raise (and possibly ignore) issues have violated the democratic notion that the press should act as a platform to air a diversity of opinions and indirectly encourage citizens to participate in politics by setting the political agenda8, instead of directly influencing the political agenda.
Moreover, press barons are, in the words of Colin Seymour-Ure, “often supreme egotists; flamboyant, assertive, idiosyncratic, ostentatious, ruthless”9 rather intolerant of alternative ideology and may attack politicians or governments not because of their failings, but because of different political orientation or for economic gain. The Sun’s owner Murdoch, a pro-Conservatives used his paper to “campaign ruthlessly” against Labour and Neil Kinnock and even had a nine page special on polling day in the 1992 elections with the headline “NIGHTMARE ON KINNOCK STREET”.
10 However, press barons’ political affiliation and ideologies was built on the base of economics, and such relationships proved to be transient. The Sun was extremely critical of the Conservatives after Major’s government and its policies had been largely unpopular with the population. 11 Evidently, the press had not applied censure in an objective manner, but based it on prevailing popular beliefs, and the public watchdog became privately owned and barked only at its owner’s bidding.
Furthermore, the exclusive powers held by the press barons have also given them privileged access to politicians leading to policy concessions and gave them unfair economic advantages. For instance, Rupert Murdoch made an implicit deal with Tony Blair in 1995 that the Sun will fully support Labour in the 1997 general elections, in exchange for a non-retaliatory policy when Labour was elected12, leading Jean Seaton to conclude that “Murdoch liked to extract maximum commercial interest from his newspapers’ political power”.
13 This “political clientelism” between proprietors and politicians explained the government’s reluctance to check the growing power of the press within British polity14, and the press barons could further impose their personal political and ideological agenda upon the British public. The main determinant of advertising is circulation and a newspaper’s profitability depends very much on the amount of advertisements it attracts. Ralph Negrine observed that advertising constitutes 40% to 70% of the press’s total revenue.
15 Thus, in a bid for higher readership, the press has a tendency to resort to blatant sensationalism, fabrication of the news, and also intrusive methods of journalism, which invades the private lives of public figures and the Royal family, in order to come up with headlines that grab that general public’s attention or imagination. Some of the well publicized absurdities included: inventing an overnight love tryst between Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer on a lonely railway siding in the royal train.
(Sunday Mirror); Fabricating a fictitious interview with Mrs Marcia Mckay, the widow the Falkland VC hero (Sun); touching up a photograph of Princess Diana to give a hint of nipples in a low cut dress (Sun). 16 Such sensationalism and distortion of the truth, in the long run, may seriously undermine the message credibility of the press and weaken its position as the fourth estate, especially when its readers start to take the stories it presents with a pinch of salt and potential state abuses or important political information are not given due attention.