In the Guardian:
David Cameron has signalled that media ownership rules could be changed to prevent any single organisation holding too much power as a result of the judicial inquiry into phone hacking.
The prime minister, speaking in the Commons debate on phone hacking on Wednesday after he had unveiled further details of the judicial inquiry, said “never again should we let a media group get too powerful”, referring in particular to News Corporation and the BBC.
“We need competition policy properly enforced. We need a sensible look at the relevance of plurality and cross-media ownership,” he added, after announcing that the inquiry’s remit would cover the practises and ethics of broadcasters and social media, as well as newspapers.
“Above all we need to ensure that no one voice, not News Corporation, not the BBC, becomes too powerful,” Cameron said. “I think we should be frank: I think in this country sometimes the left overestimates the power of Murdoch, the right overdoes the left-leanings of the BBC. But both of them have got a point and never again should we let a media group get too powerful.”
I understand that David Cameron is walking a realpolitik tightrope here, and that he needs to be seen to be Doing Something About All The Problems. But this reaction really makes little rational sense. The problem with the News of the World was not that it “became too powerful,” but that it broke the law. Does anyone seriously believe that, because it was the most successful paper in Britain, those who are being prosecuted will be dealt with leniently? Cameron said as much himself today in the Commons, when he distanced the government from News International and denied that the alleged “power” of the organisation had anything to do with his actions or those of his government.
Moreover, the comparison of News International and the BBC — obviously employed in an attempt to appease the Left and Right and, in doing so, make himself appear above the fray — is a nonsense. The prime minister is comparing apples and oranges. Let us forget politics for a moment and focus on the facts: News International is a private company which grew on its own merits, selling newspapers, television, and new media in a free market by providing what people wanted. Its political bent and whether or not the editorial line happens to be to an individual’s taste is irrelevant to this fact. The BBC, on the other hand, is a government-instituted former monopoly, which forces everyone who owns a television to pay for it whether they use it or not, and collects an additional £293 million annually from government grants. The BBC is the largest media organisation in the world, with a budget of almost £5bn, almost four-fifths of which comes from British taxpayers.
One has to treat the size and power of the two organisations entirely differently, because their success is predicated upon entirely different things. News International will grow if it can provide what people want, and if it can keep its advertisers and consumers happy. The BBC will grow if the government allows it to extract more money from the pockets of taxpayers. And extract money it does: all that is neccessary for one to pay the levy is the ownership of a television, even if one can not receive a signal. (The license collection agency, Capita Group, is notoriously aggressive and underhand, and has been the subject of complaints from a number of MPs, including London mayor Boris Johnson.) This famous sketch by British comedy troupe Not The Nine O’Clock News is funny precisely because it is true.
If the prime minister is genuinely concerned about media ownership, he could start by introducing a motion to abolish the television license and privatize the BBC.