In early September, climate activist group Extinction Rebellion significantly disrupted the distribution of several leading UK newspapers. Participants chained themselves to structures and used vehicles to block access to printing plants resulting in 77 arrests. The protest was prompted by the media’s failure to provide adequate and unbiased coverage of the climate change crisis and wider societal issues, with XR members arguing that the UK’s publications are ‘polluting national debate’ and increasing division. The group’s moves were branded as ‘undemocratic’ and an assault on the UK’s ‘free press’ by many, including the prime minister himself.
Although opposition to XR’s protest has been profound, the resistance has failed to hold the UK press to account for its divisive rhetoric. The notion of a ‘free press’ is important to any society, yet here in the UK, many leading newspapers have been swept off course and become entwined with the promotion of corporate interests, sowing division, bias and hatred amongst readers. Publications meant to inform and entertain have become tools for influencing public opinion and even general election results.
To understand the UK media’s lack of impartiality, it’s important to understand that the ownership of the countries leading publications is heavily concentrated. In fact, just six billionaires own, or hold a majority of voting shares, in the UK’s national newspapers. Although many of us would like to believe that despite this concentrated ownership, the content of these tabloids remains free and independent, this is often not the case. For example, during the Leveson inquiry Harold Evans, a former editor of the Sunday Times, stated that Rupert Murdoch often interfered with the content of the newspaper, penalising staff for not “doing what he [Murdoch] wants in political terms”.
Additionally, research from YouGov has revealed that the British media is the ‘most right-wing’ in Europe and more than half of respondents felt that the media’s coverage of refugees/asylum seekers, ethnic minorities and immigrants is fairly to very inaccurate.‘A decade of immigration in the British Press, a report by the UK’s migration observatory, discovered “an apparent change in how immigration is discussed” in leading publications, with migrants often blamed for the scale of EU immigration. A sharp increase has also been reported in the volume of coverage on immigration since the Conservatives election win in 2010.
Although the Leveson Inquiry of 2012 unearthed significant interference in the British press, as well as collusion between senior politicians and media tycoons, eight years on, little has changed. Corporate interests have a significant hold over some of Britain’s leading publications, with their advertising accounting for a whopping 50% of the media’s total revenue. Journalist Peter Osbourne spoke out about this invisible hand, exposing how the Telegraph refused to cover the HSBC scandal in order to protect its advertising revenues. With the interests of the financial sector and other big businesses so closely entwined with the media, we have to ask ourselves, how ‘free’ is the free press?
Despite resounding opposition to their protests, Extinction Rebellion shone the light on a very serious and frequently overlooked issue. Unless radically reformed, Britain’s largest publications can never fit the definition of a ‘free press’. It is hard to see how there can be anything remotely free (or democratic) about billionaires with hidden agendas, or shady corporate interests, pulling the strings on the content of our leading tabloids.
Extinction Rebellions discussion surrounding the lack of impartial coverage on climate change is a great example of this. Rupert Murdoch’s younger son James recently spoke out to condemn his family’s involvement in the spread of climate change denial. Despite his father’s assurances to shareholders that “there are no climate change deniers” surrounding his business, Rupert Murdoch has labelled himself a “climate change skeptic”and his News Corps papers have helped significantly shape the climate debate in Australia.
News Corps newspapers account for around 60% of sales in Australia giving them a huge influence on public opinion. Susan Forde, professor at Griffith University in Brisbane, has said that News Corp have always been “very conservative on climate change” which makes the nature of their influence questionable, and alarming, when we consider the long-term impacts that this scepticism can have on wider society and the preservation of the planet. The “Murdochracy”, as it has been branded, also has a similar influence here in the UK. The Advertising Action on Climate Project discovered that the UK’s four right-wing newspaper chains are “the single biggest blockage to the urgent climate action that the UK needs”.
Although critics of Extinction Rebellion’s protests have branded their actions an assault on the ‘free press’, scandals, inquiries, research papers, corporate interests and the very headlines we are greeted with each day, paint a very different picture of the British Media. Behind every story is a hidden agenda which poses a far greater threat to democracy than the disruption of the printing press.