Earlier this week, Britain woke up to the news that media mogul Paul Dacre, the man who “speaks for England”, is to step down as editor of the Daily Mail after 26 years. The news delighted and saddened in equal measure – on a scale of such magnitude that surely proves him to be one of the most vilified figures of his generation.

Regardless of where you stand on Paul Dacre, it would be naïve to disregard his influence on British politics over the last few decades – and the Daily Mail is still the third most widely circulated paper in the UK.

It is the reach of Dacre and the influence he has had on Westminster that means his resignation will inspire debate. Inevitably, conversation first focused on who was to replace the giant of tabloid news, signalling the Mail’s new direction.

I think the conversation should be wider. In a country where now almost three quarters of print media is owned by three men, is it time to start thinking about the effect of media monopolies on our society?

I’m one of those Conservatives that thinks big government is bad, but I don’t believe that means we should give big business a free ride. That’s particularly prescient when their product is relevant to the public interest. I think we have a real danger of accepting monopolies as a side effect of the free market simply because we’re wary of government intervention in the economy — when the truth is that monopolies nullify many of the benefits of business competition.

Innovation, consumer satisfaction, corporate responsibility, enterprising activity — these things are all lost when big corporations cease to need to compete. If we oppose the concept of government controlling such a large portion of an industry, why is it okay for Rupert Murdoch to do so?

When I’ve raised this argument before, a lot of people have told me it’s a ‘non-issue.’ Apparently, nobody reads print newspapers anymore. For one thing, that’s fundamentally false — nearly half of Scottish people still read printed papers daily, and in 2017, figures suggested that 89% of newspaper reading is still in print.

If we account for those who read national papers online, it’s clear that while the power of the printed press may be declining, the power is simply replicated as readers move to a newer platform.

Recently, the fight for a free press has been very much in the news with the Leveson Inquiry rightly batted down despite the best attempts of the failing House of Lords. But while the press absolutely must be free in the sense that it must be independent from government in its voice, it must also be fair in the sense that it should represent different sides of the argument, be a voice for local communities, and not exercise its strength without being held to account.

The rise of the media monopoly has been the death knell for local news outlets, and is responsible for the rise of the partisan press which has done so much to entrench political divisions.

By first ensuring that a stricter cap on media ownership is adhered to, and then incentivising greater plurality in the ownership of print media, we can inject competition back into a flagging field and encourage the press giants to adapt to the modern age.

The dawn of social media has revolutionised reporting and means politicos and news junkies can get the information they need while scrolling through Twitter. In order to improve a market which still serves millions of Britons, we need to legislate to ensure innovation, competition, and fairness.

 

Written by Matt Gillow

Matt Gillow is Founder and Head of Public Affairs at 1828.