Things are not looking good for the Murdochs in their latest attempt to buy out Sky via 21st Century Fox. As well as coinciding with a snap election, the merger review is being conducted in the shadow of unfolding allegations and lawsuits, all of which point to a culture of systemic sexism and racism in Murdoch newsrooms on both sides of the Atlantic. But against this backdrop there is a danger that the issue of media concentration – central to the review of the Murdochs’ previous bid for Sky in 2011 – will be overlooked.
The merging parties have attempted to establish a narrative that this issue is no longer relevant, and it is not hard to see why this narrative can so easily take hold. We (that is journalists, academics, and intellectual elites more broadly) inhabit a world where a virtually infinite array of news and information sources is accessible at the click of a mouse. From this vantage point, the reach and influence of a predominantly right-wing national press looks profoundly contained and checked, not least when we consider declining circulations and the recent blooming of a new unashamedly leftist and tabloid online news sector (led by websites such as the Canary and Novarra Media).
But it is nevertheless a grave misconception and what’s missing – as so often is the case with dominant media narratives – is a sober and sincere appraisal of the facts. Despite the seemingly endless array of news sources across the political spectrum, there remain only a very small number that provide the kind of daily, generalist reporting that can have a tangible influence over the mainstream editorial agenda and that can reach across fragmented audiences and groups.
This is especially true at the where, according to Ofcom’s data, most people are relying on just one or two sources for news and fewer than they were in 2011. And it is the wholesale level that matters most for concerns about media concentration. These major news brands – relatively unchanged since the pre-digital era – still play a profound gatekeeping role in defining the stories or issues worthy of salience and newsgathering priorities.
Sky News is particularly significant in this context because it is still the exclusive provider of feeds and pre-scripted bulletins to commercial radio and is a major contributor of content to online aggregators like Yahoo. In a news environment that is becoming increasingly disaggregated and favourable towards audiovisual content, Sky is punching well above its weight on third party platforms. Coupled with the dramatic growth of the Sun online since its paywall was abandoned in 2015, the deal looks set to give the Murdochs unprecedented leverage in the digital news sphere.
There are some who argue that the Murdochs will not have a material influence over Sky News given their minority shareholding in Fox, or that James Murdoch is less of a ‘political animal’ than his father, or that the deal will make no difference to the de facto control over Sky News that the Murdochs already wield, by virtue of Fox’s 39.1% stake in the broadcaster.
But these arguments overlook something critical. In the complex world of relations between media and political elites, perception of dominance matters at least as much as reality. Whether it is true or not, the unprecedented access that the Murdochs have enjoyed to governments around the world is founded on their perceived ability to influence public opinion through their control of news channels, stations and titles.
And it is not just about the tabloid press. We can only assume that Murdoch has long held on to the loss-making and ‘serious’ Times and Sunday Times newspapers because of their opinion-leading readership and perceived agenda setting power. Their editorial line is far more sanguine and less flag-waving than the Sun, but their political influence may be, if anything, greater as a result.
Not surprising then that Rupert Murdoch and his senior News Corp executives with both the Prime Minister and Chancellor at a rate that dwarfs any other individual or organisation. And it is this context that perhaps matters more than any other, and more than ever. Putting yet more of the news under Murdoch control – however indirect or theoretical – can only increase the risk that it will be used to leverage further disproportionate political access and undue influence over policy. And let us not forget that this deal would result in an unprecedented reach across all major platforms (print, radio, television and online), something that not even the BBC enjoys. At a time when public faith in the sanctity of both the news and politics continues to free fall, regulators must act decisively to prevent this.
An earlier version of this article appeared in Issue 19 of NUJ’s Informed.