Sunday

23rd Apr 2017

Opinion

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

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

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.

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.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

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.

European press freedom charter launched

In an effort to counter increasing worries about infringement of press freedom by governments in Europe, the editor-in-chief of Germany's weekly Stern magazine, together with EU media commissioner Viviane Reding on Tuesday celebrated the launch of the European Charter on Freedom of the Press.

Column / Brexit Briefing

May's drive for one-party Brexit state

Snap election will kill off attempts to reopen debate on second referendum and inflict further damaged on confused opposition.

Orban’s unpatriotic attack on CEU

Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orban, wants to see the closure of Central European University with recent legislative changes. But his actions are truly difficult to justify when thinking as a patriot.

Column / Brexit Briefing

May's drive for one-party Brexit state

Snap election will kill off attempts to reopen debate on second referendum and inflict further damaged on confused opposition.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersDeveloping Independent Russian-Language Media in the Baltic Countries
  2. Swedish EnterprisesReform of the European Electricity Market: Lessons from the Nordics, Brussels 2 May
  3. Malta EU 2017Green Light Given for New EU Regulation to Bolster External Border Checks
  4. Counter BalanceCall for EU Commission to Withdraw Support of Trans-Adriatic Pipeline
  5. ACCAEconomic Confidence at Highest Since 2015
  6. European Federation of Allergy and Airways60%-90% of Your Life Is Spent Indoors. How Does Poor Indoor Air Quality Affect You?
  7. European Gaming and Betting AssociationCJEU Confirms Obligation for a Transparent Licensing Process
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region and the US: A Time of Warlike Rhetoric and Militarisation?
  9. European Free AllianceEFA MEPs Vote in Favor of European Parliament's Brexit Mandate
  10. Mission of China to the EUXinhua Insight: China to Open up Like Never Before
  11. World VisionViolence Becomes New Normal for Syrian Children
  12. International Partnership for Human RightsTime to Turn the Tide and End Repression of Central Asia's Civil Society

Latest News

  1. France holds nail-biting 'anti-system' vote
  2. Le Pen-Putin friendship goes back a long way
  3. Mogherini should tell Russians their rights matter
  4. Le Pens Freunde aus dem Trump Tower
  5. Sexe et mensonges: l'information russe sur l'UE
  6. Report: Post-Brexit payments, ECJ jurisdiction could last years
  7. Oxford study raises alarm on 'junk' news in France
  8. Thousands to march in defence of science

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Free AllianceAutonomia to Normalnosc - Poland Urged to Re-Grant Autonomy to Silesia
  2. UNICEFHitting Rock Bottom - How 2016 Became the Worst Year for #ChildrenofSyria
  3. Malta EU 2017Green Light Given for New EU Regulation to Bolster External Border Checks
  4. ACCAG20 Citizens Want 'Big Picture' Tax Policymaking, According to Global Survey
  5. Belgrade Security ForumCall for Papers: European Union as a Global Crisis Manager - Deadline 30 April
  6. European Gaming & Betting Association60 Years Rome Treaty – 60 Years Building an Internal Market
  7. Malta EU 2017New EU Rules to Prevent Terrorism and Give More Rights to Victims Approved
  8. European Jewish Congress"Extremists Still Have Ability and Motivation to Murder in Europe" Says EJC President
  9. European Gaming & Betting AssociationAudiovisual Media Services Directive to Exclude Minors from Gambling Ads
  10. ILGA-EuropeTime for a Reality Check on International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
  11. UNICEFHuman Cost to Refugee and Migrant Children Mounts Up One Year After EU-Turkey Deal
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Energy Research: How to Reach 100 Percent Renewable Energy