Below is the text of the speech made by Harriet Harman on media ownership at the 2012 TUC Conference held on the 17th March 2012.
Good morning. And it’s great to be here this morning, with so many of you who have long worked in the press and broadcasting, campaigned for press freedom, against media monopoly and for higher press standards. Particularly the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, the NUJ and here at the TUC.
This is an important moment and an opportunity for long overdue change. And your insight into what needs to change and your pressure for that change is going to be vital.
The press and trade unions
The profession of journalism is very much in the dock because of phone hacking and the evidence that has come out of the Leveson Inquiry. But it is important that we all remember that good journalism is vital for democracy and despite the drama round phone hacking most journalists are highly professional doing vital work and sometimes in dangerous conditions to get to the truth. The death of Marie Colvin reminded everyone that without fearless journalists the truth of suffering and oppression will remain hidden from view.
I believe that most journalists – like most politicians – go into the profession because they believe in what they do and to serve the public interest.
So, although journalism feels under attack at present we must not lose sight of the huge professional commitment in journalism and the amazing work that is done.
Pressures on journalists employment rights
But I know that you also have concerns about employment and trade unionism in the media.
Journalists have always worked under pressure – the pressure of deadlines, the pressure of being the first to get the story or the scoop. But now, that pressure is exacerbated by fewer people buying newspapers and instead, getting their news online which creates a very difficult commercial climate.
Employment in the media – particularly in newspapers – has become much harder over the last few years. Jobs have been lost. In just one week this year, 75 jobs went at Trinity Mirror’s national papers, and 30 jobs went at the Telegraph.
The competition for market share in a shrinking market has created pressure on journalistic professional standards – some feel under pressure to cut corners to get a story. And the right to challenge that is undermined by job insecurity. There is a fear that, if you object, then you will be the first out the door and into a world where it’s going to be hard to get another job.
But the fact that newspapers are under pressure does not justify any undermining of employment rights.
And I want to pay a really big tribute to Michelle Stanistreet and the NUJ for standing up for journalists. Michelle, you’re doing a great job and it’s always good to see you on the TV doing a great job.
And the truth is that if journalists, with the backing of the NUJ, had had more power to protect their professional integrity, some of the worst problems that have now come to light might, just might, have been avoided.
So trade unionism is good for the individual in the media and is good for press standards.
Portrayal of trade unionism in the media
We support a free press as a basic human right. And there’s another human right which we support which is freedom of association – trade unionism. We all have the sense that when it comes to news reporting of trade unions, the press is not fair. Depiction of trade unions in the press rarely highlights the life changing work of local representatives – protecting their members from discrimination and unfairness. When did you last see reports of trade unions working patiently on behalf of their members with the management to secure a sustainable future for the business? Instead, the depiction is of extremism and perversity.
Women’s groups have made a submission about stereotyped treatment of women by the press to the Leveson Inquiry.
It’s not right for some sections of the press to abuse their right to free speech in a way that undermines another fundamental right – freedom of association.
And I think it would enhance Lord Justice Leveson’s work if evidence on that was presented to him.
This conference comes at an historic time – with the media under scrutiny like never before.
The central issue is that we all want a free press which is able to report without fear or favour, but we have all been revolted at the unfairness and corruption exposed at the Leveson Inquiry. And we all want change. Business as usual is not an option.
Invincibility and impunity
Like all of you, I’ve thought long and hard about how we ended up in this position and I think there are two deep-rooted problems which led us into this mess and which we must confront: the concentration of media ownership and the lack of redress for press complaints.
Because of the evidence at the Leveson inquiry – and the harrowing testimony of the victims such as the Dowlers – most of the discussion about change has focused on press complaints.
But the wrongdoing in the Murdoch empire was due not only to the absence of any proper complaints system which led to a sense of impunity. But also from too great a concentration of power which led to a sense of invincibility. And it is this combination of impunity and invincibility which lies at the heart of the problem and must be addressed
Let me start with that concentration of media ownership.
The malpractice and illegality exposed by the Leveson inquiry was never just “one rogue reporter” and a few bent policemen. It is a symptom of an underlying structural problem.
Murdoch owns too many newspapers. 37% of national circulation before the News of the World closed – owning two of our most influential dailies and two of our most influential Sunday papers, was too much. And had it not been for the hacking scandal and Murdoch dropping his bid, the Government would have waved through his bid for the whole of BSkyB. As well as the culture, media and sport select committee, both Ofcom and Leveson are looking at ownership, and it is clear that there needs to be change.
Ownership: Opportunity for change
We must make sure that opportunity is not wasted.
There needs to be agreement on a trigger for intervention – action cannot be confined just to an event such as a takeover.
There needs to be agreement on the maximum percentage of ownership permitted.
We need to agree a methodology for how ownership is measured.
We need to agree the mechanisms for enforcing – for example, divesting.
And there needs to be agreement on a strong Ofcom, which must be powerful in practice as well as on paper.
And the issue is not just ownership across newspapers, broadcasting and other media but also how we address monopolistic ownership within those sectors.
Ownership: changes we can make now to the Enterprise Act
Of course substantive change will need to be informed by the outcome of the Leveson Inquiry and the Ofcom review. But there are things the government can and should do now to strengthen the law which was clearly revealed as inadequate by the Murdoch/BSkyB bid.
Over the course of that bid, it became clear that it was not only political unwillingness of the government to act, but legal inhibitions on action too.
We are proposing that the law be changed so that in cross media cases like this.
- First, the person making the application must prove to Ofcom that they are a “fit and proper person” at the start of the process – before the applicant notifies the European Commission that they intend to buy another company. As a precondition of entering the process.
- Secondly, that the “fit and proper person” test should be broadened to include not just criminal convictions but also any previous history of impropriety, failure in good governance, or investigation or prosecution for tax fraud.
- Thirdly, if it’s discovered that they not have been open and transparent in the information they have given in showing they are a “fit and proper” person the application should be struck out.
- Fourthly, that an applicant would have to accept the jurisdiction of the UK court. That if your bid is successful, and your company is subsequently involved in a court case, you can’t avoid a court summons by being abroad.
Why change in the Enterprise Act is necessary
The BSkyB bid stress tested the existing legal framework and showed clearly where the cracks were.
Despite widespread and serious concern about Murdoch’s business practices, Ofcom did not initiate the “fit and proper person” test until after the Milly Dowler hacking revelations.
Under the changes we propose Murdoch would have to have full disclosure and had to prove himself a fit and proper person before he was able even to formally start the process of the takeover.
We don’t have to wait to change the law on this. My colleague in the Lords, Baroness Scotland, former attorney-general, has been telling the government since last July that they can change the law under the powers that they already have in the Enterprise Act, to do all the things I’ve talked about. And they should do this now, without waiting for the select committee, Ofcom or Leveson.
Ownership: Different priorities at local level
The situation is different for local newspapers. And the biggest danger at local level is not having a newspaper at all.
Revenue is declining as fewer people are buying local newspapers and classified advertising is moving online. Local newspapers are closing or moving to regional hubs, with the loss of local news reporting and the loss of journalists’ jobs. Claire Enders estimates that 40% of jobs in the regional press have been lost in the last 5 years.
Local newspapers are important to local communities.
They also provide a route for journalists, especially those outside London, into the national media.
So we should take the particular situation in local newspapers into account when framing protection against monopoly in the future.
Standards: The problem of impunity
As well as preventing monopoly and promoting plurality, we need to give members of the public redress where journalistic professional standards are breached.
The financial pressures which have intensified competition between papers and left some feeling that they are fighting for their lives can never justify intrusion and illegality, the terrible stories that we’ve all heard at the Leveson Inquiry.
Lord Justice Leveson has presided over a fearless and forensic process, and an emotional one, too. It has been a decisive moment for free speech – that is, the free speech of the victims of the press often heard for the first time. Even before Leveson has finished hearing the evidence and started writing his report, the Inquiry is emphatically demonstrating the need for change.