January 14, 2007

The Good, the Bad and the Tabloids

According to the Audit Bureau of Circulation, roughly three quarters of daily newspapers sold in the UK are tabloids. The Sun and News of the World boast the highest sales, both selling an average of three million copies every day. Compare this to the UK’s most popular ‘quality daily’, the Daily Telegraph, which sells just under 900,000 copies, and tabloid sales seem all the more impressive.

These figures will no doubt be of concern to those who disagree with the tabloid approach, typified by sensationalism, irrationality, scaremongering and hate.

But a closer look at the statistics provided by the ABC reveals a much more worrying trend. The two most popular tabloids are both published by News International Ltd., which also publishes The Times – a ‘quality daily’ with a circulation of roughly 600,000. Together, these three publications reach 6.7 million readers every day, a figure that any other news source would find difficult to match.

News International is the UK subsidiary of News Corporation, the Media Empire of Australian billionaire Rupert Murdoch. This empire includes 175 newspapers, magazines, HarperCollins publishers, Sky, the Fox network as well as the recently acquired MySpace.com.

There are no signs that Murdoch’s empire has reached its limit, either. In November, BSkyB acquired just under 20% of ITV shares, which had the result of both ruining Richard Branson’s takeover plans and further boosting Murdoch’s own power and influence in the industry.

The implications of Murdoch’s ownership of such a large chunk of the British (and global) media are not limited to the boardroom. Evidence of his influence is very easy to find. For example, Murdoch has recently ‘converted’ to the cause of environmentalism, backing down from his previously sceptical position to one of concern for the impacts of global warming. Turn on Sky News, and you’ll see the recently added carbon emissions counter. Open a copy of The Times, and you can read an increasing number of sympathetic articles on the subject. Even The Sun is talking about global warming as a serious problem; it has recently boasted of its ‘campaign’ to raise awareness of the issue, and included an exclusive article by Sir Nicholas Stern.

That Murdoch has now woken up to what other commentators and news sources have been saying for a long time is not in itself a problem – and is of course a huge boost to environmental campaigners everywhere. However, what is of concern is that one man should have so much influence over the news agenda. In 1997, The Sun famously claimed that its support for Labour had delivered Number 10 to Mr. Blair – and sure enough Blair had realised its importance (or should that be Alistair Campbell?) and obediently posed for a photo.

Depending on your political outlook, Murdoch’s support for New Labour in 1997 was either a very good thing or a very bad thing, but either way it’s hard to deny that his publications do have a significant impact in forming opinions and attitudes.

Although there is a cause for concern in the UK, the situation is far worse in the United States, where the biased, inaccurate and hateful reporting by Fox News is the subject of a documentary by Robert Greenwald, entitled ‘Outfoxed.’ In response to the film, and almost as if he wanted to prove Greenwald right, Fox News Reporter Eric Shawn responded, “it’s unfair, it’s slanted and it’s a hit job. And I haven’t even seen it yet.”

Frustration with American news channels is often shared by much of the international community. The best example of this is recent creation of France 24 and Al Jazeera English, two international news channels designed to counter what is seen as propaganda coming from the US. In a report for the BBC, Caroline Wyatt wrote that the former was born out of Jacques Chirac’s “intense frustration that France’s voice was not being heard loudly enough.”

Despite challenges from rivals new and old, Murdoch is not prepared to allow his strong position slip away without a fight, as his recent acquisition of ITV shares illustrates. For example, News International has recently created The London Paper – a free paper designed to rival Metro. Why bother with a free paper read on the tube by bored commuters? The answer: Metro is owned by Associated Press, publishers of the Daily Mail – Murdoch’s biggest rivals in the newspaper market.

It is clear that Murdoch has the financial power to seriously damage anyone or anything that becomes a serious challenge to his position. But what is even more worrying is that he has enough political clout to ensure that, for the most part, politicians remain silent on the subject.

Written for Footnote, 14th January 2007 

- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. An excellent blog Simon. I am looking forward to seeing ‘Outfoxed’ quite a lot now. Hope you keep this up, unlike me!

    14 Jan 2007, 11:53

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