Opinion

Phone hacking scandal is part of the slow death of print media

10.08.11 @ 09:41

  1. By Benjamin Fox

The summer of 2011 will be remembered not only for the existential crisis facing the euro but also for phone hacking and the downfall of much of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire in the UK, dragging with it top-ranked policemen and politicians.

  • Printed news papers have been particularly hit by online news and political blogs (Photo: respres)

The list of resignations is already a long one, including the chief executive of Murdoch’s UK subsidiary News International, the commissioner and assistant commissioner of London’s Metropolitan police, while David Cameron’s former press advisor, Andy Coulson, has been among those arrested.

But while the phone-hacking story is currently being played out as a scandal involving criminal activity in the press, with the complicity of the political class and police corruption as an added extra, it is also symptomatic of the slow death of the printed press.

Newspaper circulation across Europe has been declining for decades, but papers have been particularly hit in recent years by online news and political blogs. Titles with venerable reputations such as Le Monde and The Times give away more copies than they sell and, despite making heavy financial losses, are kept afloat because of their prestige. The Times, for example, has made operating losses of over £200 million during the past five years, while Le Monde and Liberation sell fewer than 500,000 copies between them.

Declining readership has naturally led to circulation wars in the UK media between the quality titles and between the tabloids, particularly the News Corporation owned Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror. With a shrinking readership pool, the traditional dark arts of the press have become darker. But despite the justified public outrage that the phones of murder victims had been hacked to get stories, it was an open and dirty secret known by most of the political class that journalists at the News of the World and other papers had hacked into the voicemail of celebrities' phones.

So why did they do it? The advantage for news websites and blogs is that they are usually free and the speed of the internet and plethora of news sites allows people to consume the information they want when they want it. They can also break stories more quickly, and are much less constrained by libel and defamation law than newspapers. To counter this, newspapers have hired private detectives, investigators and phone hackers in a bid to get scoops that online media cannot afford to pay for. The News of the World is unlikely to have been acting alone, and there are numerous allegations that the Daily Mirror and other papers have also used phone hacking.

But while printed news is losing out to digital news, it is also losing out to television. Indeed, almost forgotten in the furore about phone hacking has been the collapse of News Corporation’s bid to own the remaining 61 percent of satellite TV network BskyB. This bid had been nodded through by the UK government and by the European Commission on the somewhat spurious grounds that it would not reduce media competition. While print media and particularly online media have a very high level of pluralism, the same cannot really be said for television.

Had the phone-hacking scandal not happened and News Corp acquired the 61 percent of Sky it did not already own, this would have created a multibillion-pound media giant that dwarfed its commercial competitors. Although Sky's pay TV is available in most of Europe, it has commercial rivals in most countries. In the UK pay TV market, it has none.

The problem of media monopolies is not one that exists solely in the UK. In October 2009, the European Parliament held a fractious debate on media freedom following allegations of political coercion in Italy and after the civil liberties NGO Freedom House categorised three EU countries as having only "partially free" media.

Many MEPs called for new EU legislation to guarantee media plurality after Viviane Reding, then the Media Commissioner, told the parliament that EU competition law related to the media only with regard to the functioning of the internal market. However, one would think that the emergence of a media monopoly in an EU country that limited the access of domestic and other European media companies would breach competition law. The role of competition law vis a vis the media is something the EU institutions should examine.

At first sight the phone-hacking scandal is yet another political scandal, but this time one that destroys public confidence in the press and the police force as well as in politicians. It is certainly true that the scandal has highlighted the dangers of allowing media empires to become all-powerful – until a few weeks ago most people thought Rupert Murdoch was more powerful than many governments – and with other media moguls in Europe having too much power in news provision and public life there is a need to look at how to ensure a free, accessible and pluralist press.

But the hacking itself was driven by a compulsion to get news stories and celebrity gossip before anyone else. It is an ugly chapter in the gradual demise of newspapers.

The writer is a political adviser to the Socialists and Democrats group in the European Parliament. He is writing in a personal capacity.