Politics

Britain's Tory-sympathising press is 'terrible' for democracy, experts warn

The UK news landscape is tightly controlled by a handful of corporate moguls, new analysis by the Media Reform Coalition suggests

The UK news landscape is tightly controlled by a handful of corporate moguls, new analysis by the Media Reform Coalition suggests.

A free press is one of the pillars of a democracy. But Britain’s Tory-sympathising media “isn’t truly free”, experts have warned.

The UK news landscape is tightly controlled by a handful of corporate moguls, new analysis by the Media Reform Coalition suggests.

Just three companies – DMG Media, Rupert Murdoch’s News UK and Reach – dominate 90% of the UK’s national newspaper market. The same three organisations account for more than 40% of the total audience reach of the UK’s top 50 online news brands.

This concentrated ownership is “terrible” for democracy, warns Des Freedman, a founding member of the MRC.

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“I don’t believe a media can be truly free when it is dominated by so few voices, and in the service of profit-making more than genuine public service,” he said.

“A few giant corporations dominate the public conversation. And they are constantly pushing mainstream opinion to the right.”

How concentrated is UK media?

The UK has plenty of newspapers. But most of them are owned by a handful of powerful men.

Jonathan Harmsworth, Viscount Rothermere, controls 40% of the UK’s national newspaper market through the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The i and Metro.

Multi-billionaire Rupert Murdoch has been a dominant force in British politics for decades. Publishers of The Sun and The Times, Murdoch’s News UK controls one-third of the national newspaper market.

Reach PLC – which owns the The Mirror, the Express, the Daily Star, and Daily Record – accounts for a further 15% of circulation.

These organisations have continued to expand their dominant market positions through mergers and takeovers, a trend that is particularly severe in local news.

As a result of decades of corporate cuts, closures and consolidations in the local press industry, an estimated 4.1 million people live in news ‘deserts’, with no local paper.

The situation is similarly bleak online. DMG Media, Reach and News UK account for more than two-thirds of the combined online reach of all of the UK’s ‘newsbrands.’  

This is partly due to “opaque” algorithms that privilege already-dominant publishers, the report warns. 10 of the top 15 online platforms used to access news in the UK are owned by Meta, Google and X Corp (owners of X/Twitter), meaning these tech giants have huge sway over how news is consumed.

What does high media concentration mean for politics?

Intense media concentration pushes public debate to the right, Freedman warns – and politicians follow suit.

“It contributes to a nasty kind of politics that victimizes marginalised populations, and penalises the most vulnerable,” he says.

DMG and Murdoch-owned papers lean heavily Conservative. After Labour were smashed at the polls in 1992, the Murdoch-owned Sun – which had run a series of vicious articles about Labour – claimed “it’s The Sun wot won it”.  In recent years, they’ve lavished praise on Boris Johnson and “heaped criticism” on Labour, Loughborough University research suggests.

This bias encourages ”dog whistle” politics on issues like immigration and prevents the Labour party from taking radical stances, Freedman said.

“It keeps politics in this narrow, neoliberal box,” he warned. “Politicians who stand up to vested interests get attacked. So they will be playing to what they perceive as the audience preferences, or rather, the proprietor and the editor preferences of these major news organizations. It’s a real disincentive to say things that editors are likely to jump on.”

The Daily Mail, for example, has regularly run editorials supporting the government’s ‘Stop the Boats’ manifesto pledge.

How can we save Britain’s free press from Tory media moguls?

Ofcom, parliament and government must act to break up the dominant media companies, and regulate the tech companies that profit off of UK audiences, report author Tom Chivers said.

“As an election year looms, which political party will be brave enough put genuine democratic media reform at the heart of its manifesto?” he asked.

Subsidies and support for independent media organisations public interest journalism are also crucial. Independent outlets like the Big Issue have an outsized role to play, Freedman says.

“Organisations like yours are able to actually ask tough questions, assume unpopular positions where necessary, and represent voices that are all too often ignored by bigger organisations,” he said.

“The independent media sector are crucial to extending the diversity of views and perspectives that would otherwise be largely shut out.”

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