Inside the News with Peter Mansbridge

Last Updated: Aug 8, 2013 11:16 AM ET

Media owners matter

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A protestor depicts Rupert Murdoch burning the Leveson report that calls on MPs to back reform legislation to stop any one media organisation developing a stranglehold over the British media. (Sang Tan/Associated Press)

By Mark Bulgutch and Peter Mansbridge

Over the last few years, Great Britain has been swamped with stories of outrageous conduct by newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch. If you've followed any of it you're probably familiar with some of the sordid highlights. The most widely covered offense was telephone hacking.

Murdoch's reporters routinely listened to the voice mail messages of celebrities and members of the royal family. They even hacked the voice mail of relatives of people killed in the London bombings of July 2005, the parents of murdered children, and most famously (or infamously) they hacked the phone of a girl who was missing and later found murdered.

Because we have the Atlantic Ocean between us and them, the daily barrage of information in the scandal didn't always reach us. We learned there was a determined cover-up at first, then Murdoch shut down the worst offender, his Sunday tabloid, News of the World.

But if you're like me, you probably didn't follow every twist and turn. And that means we missed a great deal.

I've caught up now by reading a book, Dial M for Murdoch. It's written by a British MP, Tom Watson, and a journalist, Martin Hickman. The scandal is laid out in full. Murdoch's newspapers (the umbrella company that owns them is News Corporation) were involved in a relentless, ruthless, shameful, underhanded, illegal, immoral series of practices.

They looked for dirt on anyone who dared raise questions about their ethics, going so far as to have private detectives follow them. They paid police officers to give them what should have been confidential information. A former cabinet minister said News Corp's record of wrongdoing would bar it from getting a mini-cab licence.

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News Corporation CEO Rupert Murdoch, speaks during a forum on The Economics and Politics of Immigration in Boston on Aug. 14, 2012. (Josh Reynolds/Associated Press)

Yet even as all of this was going on, maybe because all of this was going on, Rupert Murdoch had vast political power. He had the power to use his newspapers to tilt election results. As Dial M for Murdoch puts it, politicians looked at Murdoch with fear. "Fear of public humiliation for an indiscretion, fear of not winning that glowing endorsement. Five successive governments courted his support. All prime ministers from Margaret Thatcher to David Cameron turned a blind eye when they should have intervened, and allowed his dominance to rise, deal by deal, election by election."

In the first 14 months after becoming Prime Minister, David Cameron met with News Corp executives or editors 15 times. He also attended five events and three parties organized by the company. He had never met with any other group of editors more than four times. He had never met at all with the director general of the BBC.

When Murdoch tried to take over BSkyB, the largest pay-TV network in Britain, it seemed like a sure thing until the scandal broke wide open. Only one MP asked the country's communications regulator to look into whether the acquisition would give Murdoch too much power.

Which brings us back home. There is no Rupert Murdoch figure in Canada; no single dominating owner. Instead, there are several big players. And over the years, attention has been drawn to the potential problems of one owner controlling too many outlets.

Way back in 1969, a committee of the senate chaired by Keith Davey into the concentration of media ownership concluded that, "this country should no longer tolerate a situation where the public interest in so vital a field as information is dependent on the greed or the goodwill of an extremely privileged group of businessmen."

In 1981, a Royal Commission chaired by Tom Kent was even more emphatic. "Industrial conglomerates produce poor newspapers. This is the basic conclusion of our inquiry. The conglomerates should be kept out of newsrooms."

Kent recommended that no company or individual be allowed to own a newspaper if they already owned something that was worth more. He said no one should be allowed to own more than five newspapers, and no two papers within 500 kilometres of each other.

None of his recommendations was adopted.

Today, Canada's regulator of broadcasting, the CRTC, doesn't allow a company or individual to control a newspaper, a TV station, and a radio station in the same market. Two out of three is fine, but not all three. It also says no one entity can control more than 45 per cent of the total TV audience.

All this regulation may seem like red tape, and needless bureaucracy. But the British experience should serve as a clear warning that concentrating media power in too few hands, could lead to ugly consequences. Ugly for people who depend on even-handed news. Not ugly at all for the owners.

Despite all the notoriety Murdoch attracted, despite several of his employees going to prison, despite several trials of senior editors still to come, despite spending $250 million on legal fees and $25 million on out-of-court settlements, Businessweek magazine reports that the value of Murdoch's share of News Corp has gone up 87 per cent since he appeared at a British parliamentary committee ("the most humble day of my life" he said) in June 2011.

He's worth $9.5 billion.

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