The Leveson Inquiry, Corporate Journalism, and Elite Collusion

Advertising revenue is almost the life-blood of the press. Although the figure has fallen in recent years, today it constitutes around 60 per cent of newspapers’ total income, including ‘quality’ titles like the Guardian and the Independent.

This obviously has profound implications for media performance, as even the corporate media are sometimes willing to accept. Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson notes in the Financial Times: ‘Behind their journalistic missions, most news organisations have always been commercial operations that sell audiences to advertisers.’ (( ‘News industry can survive in the digital age,’ Financial Times, March 21, 2012.))

Media corporations are also typically owned by wealthy individuals or giant conglomerates, and are legally obliged to subordinate human and environmental welfare to maximised revenues for shareholders. ((See Joel Bakan, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, Constable, 2004.))

The consequences for democracy are normally ignored. But again, the truth sometimes pops up. After giving evidence to the Leveson inquiry in April 2012, the owner of the Independent, Evgeny Lebedev, tweeted: ‘Forgot to tell #Leveson that it’s unreasonable to expect individuals to spend £millions on newspapers and not have access to politicians.’

Even a Guardian report had to note: ‘It was a funny and refreshingly honest message after all the recent humbug and hypocrisy from media magnates about not wanting to influence the political class.’

A less refreshingly honest morsel was served up by Brian Leveson himself when he said: ‘The majority of journalism is people doing their job honourably with dedication, fearlessly and entirely in the public interest.’ (our emphasis)

Imagine if Leveson had noted that the majority of journalism is fearlessly doing its job ‘in the corporate interest’. It would have elicited mayhem among the politico-media classes.

Perhaps we’re being a tad unfair to Leveson, given that he appeared to let slip that he supports media activism. He said that internet-based scrutiny is ‘leading to greater accountability for journalists. People will study them, and I think there’s no reporter — no decent reporter — in the land who would not welcome this extra scrutiny.’

Or so one would like to think. Alas, it is not quite our experience over the last eleven years of being blanked, blocked, abused and dumped beyond the pale of media ‘respectability’; even by people who very much like what we’re doing but who would rather not be tarred with the same brush.

The Thumb-Sucking 5-10 Per Cent Rule

The Leveson inquiry has exposed the profound influence of corporate owners on media reporting. The Guardian’s Nick Davies, whose reporting of the Milly Dowler phone-hacking scandal has been justly praised, claimed in his book, Flat Earth News, that the cumulative effect of owners and advertising was no more than 5-10 per cent:

‘Journalists with whom I have discussed this [i.e. what Davies calls “the retreat from truth-telling journalism”] agree that if you could quantify it, you could attribute only 5% or 10% of the problem to the total impact of these two forms of interference.’ ((Flat Earth News, Chattus & Windus, 2008, p. 22.))

As we have pointed out, these numbers are contradicted even by the fact that so many aspects of the modern newspaper have evolved in response to the demands of advertisers and corporate owners.

Jonathan Cook, a former Guardian journalist, has been keeping a beady eye on the Leveson inquiry evidence challenging Davies’ 5-10 per cent claim. For example, Harold Evans, a former Rupert Murdoch editor at the Sunday Times, described to Leveson how, in 1981, Murdoch rebuked him for reporting gloomy economic news and ‘not doing what he [Murdoch] wants, in political terms’. Evans says that Murdoch came to his home and the two ‘almost ended up in fisticuffs over a piece on the economy.’

Evans added:

Murdoch would also haul in senior staff for meetings to tell them to alter their coverage, including the editorial line of the leader columns and telling the foreign editor to “attack the Russians more”.

No wonder former Sun editor David Yelland described how editors ‘go on a journey where they end up agreeing with everything Murdoch says … “What would Rupert think about this?” is like a mantra inside your head’.

Cook also pointed out two articles ‘that as good as admit the obvious: that Murdoch decided what parties his papers would back in return, of course, for political support for his business interests.’

The first described how, in 2009, James Murdoch, deputy chief operating officer of News Corp, had told David Cameron, then Tory leader of the Opposition, that the Sun would switch its support in the upcoming general election from Labour to the Conservatives. This announcement was made shortly after Jeremy Hunt, then the Tory’s shadow culture secretary, had visited News Corp offices in the US.

A second article reported that Murdoch was ‘attracted by the idea’ of Scottish independence and thought that Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister, was a ‘nice guy’. Murdoch ‘cleared the way’ for the Scottish edition of the Sun to endorse Salmond’s Scottish National Party at the Scottish elections in spring 2011, ‘just as [Salmond] was promising to lobby for News Corporation to take control of BSkyB.’ The SNP won a landslide victory in the Scottish parliamentary elections on May 5. Salmond admitted that he had been ‘happy’ to make a direct call to culture secretary Jeremy Hunt to support Murdoch’s controversial attempt to take complete control of the satellite broadcaster.

But this wasn’t just a one-off; it was — and remains — a crucial part of the political process. As Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin told Leveson, News International bosses ‘could be very demanding’. Referring to then Sun editor Rebekah Brooks, charged last week with conspiracy to pervert the cause of justice: ‘If you are on the same side as her, you have to see her every week. This was how it worked.’

Letwin added: ‘The realpolitik is that you have to get on with people who run newspapers. Labour did the same.’

Indeed, in 1995, opposition leader Tony Blair flew halfway round the world to curry favour with Rupert Murdoch at the luxury Hayman Island resort in Queensland, Australia. Addressing senior News Corporation executives, the Labour leader pledged an end to the ‘rigid economic planning and state controls’ of the ‘Old Left’ and declared that ‘the battle between market and public sector is over.’ Two years later, after 18 years of supporting the Tories, Murdoch used the Sun to officially endorse Blair and New Labour who then won a landslide victory at the 1997 general election. In 2011, Blair even became godfather to Murdoch’s youngest child.

And Murdoch isn’t alone in casting a shadow over the political process. Prime Minister David Cameron admitted that ‘he and other politicians became too close to too many newspaper proprietors and executives.’ So politicians have been bending to the will of media owners, and media owners have been influencing, and even directing, what their own editors and journalists do.

Jonathan Cook told us why he believes it’s important to document examples of senior journalists revealing the extent of proprietorial interference:

‘Davies’ book [‘Flat Earth News’] was so influential, especially with other journalists, because it propped up the lie journalists like to tell themselves and others that the problem of the “profession” is essentially a lack of funding and proper care from media owners. They prefer that assessment for two obvious reasons: first, journalists want more money invested in their papers because they hope it means promotions and wage rises; and second, it helps to avert their gaze from the reality that editorial independence is, and always was, a myth. ((Email, April 26, 2012.))

Cook also told us:

It’s really about time Davies retracted that bit of nonsense from his book. The problem is that, were he to do so, he could no longer justify his argument that media failure is the result chiefly of economic pressures rather than structural flaws. ((Email, April 25, 2012.))

A Private Conversation Between Elite Groups

Peter Oborne, chief political commentator at the Daily Telegraph, is no raving leftie. But as a political conservative, he had some astute observations to make to Leveson on the corrupt state of politics and media in this country.

Oborne said that when he arrived on the political reporting ‘scene’ he was ‘staggered’ by the closeness of politicians and journalists:

It was ceasing to be a conversation between activists and politicians but between the media and the politicians. The News International annual party at the Tory and Labour conference was an extraordinary power event to which people were excluded. Unfortunately I never got in, but you got the entire cabinet and all the influence brokers and the senior members of the media class, and it was a very important statement I felt about how Britain was being governed.

He continued:

And then you got the astonishing business of the senior News International people sitting just behind the Cabinet. They were the VIPs in the chamber, I believe really important media types were there as well, they were brought into the inner sanctum. I felt this was a perversion of our democracy, it was starting to become a private conversation between elite groups rather than a proper popular engagement.

He described the politico-journalism collusion as a ‘conspiracy against their [newspapers’] readers’. When challenged by Leveson to justify such a blunt assertion, Oborne responded:

That’s exactly what was going on. […] In order to report during that time you had to get close to the people who ran new Labour, there were very few of them. […] People who tried to report objectively and fairly were bullied and victimised and not given access to information. People who were part of the circle were favoured and of course there was a price for that. Very hard to be an independent observer, to keep your integrity in those circumstances.

Political reporting, he said, had become ‘private deals, private arrangements, between media and politicians.’ Collusion between politicians and the media helped to explain why the public was so ‘grievously misinformed’ about Iraq in the run-up to war. And we would add that it also helps explain why the public has been grievously misinformed about the post-invasion death toll in Iraq which likely exceeds one million, with four million refugees, in a country that has been utterly devastated.

Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. The most recent Media Lens book, Propaganda Blitz by David Edwards and David Cromwell, was published in 2018 by Pluto Press. Read other articles by Media Lens, or visit Media Lens's website.