The era of press barons and its harmful effects on British's domestic politics.

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Chew Chong Yau Charles (2004)


In a British film, “James Bond: Tomorrow Never Dies”, the villain, Elliot Carver, a press baron wanting to take over the world, declared that

“Words are the new weapons… Caesar had his legions, Napoleon had armies, and I have my division, TV, news, magazines.”

The statement, though made in a fictitious setting, has its roots in reality. In recent decades, the competitive nature of the press industry had seen unprofitable press firms being forced out of business, and an oligopolistic situation emerged with three leading press groups accounting for 75% of newspaper readership in Britain.  This had led to the narrowing of viewpoints presented in the papers and press barons, hungry for profits, pushed the concern for democratic pluralism off their agenda. Pluralists see the press, by disseminating information and safeguarding the rights to speech, as enhancing democracy and acting as checks and balances against state abuses, as they occupy the fourth estate that is free from the Crown, Parliament and the Judiciary.  However, such a view is highly idealistic when economics is the main consideration of the press barons in reality. George Boyce, a revisionist, even commented that the British press with “its head in politics and its feet in commerce” had turned the fourth estate into a sheer “myth” This paper will attempt to argue that in this current age, the press with all its powers, might be abused by press barons and become a threat to both British politics and its liberal democracy.

Norman Angell once slammed the era of press barons as “the worst of all the menaces to modern democracy”. When there is a concentration of press ownership in the case of Britain, the plight of democracy is best summed up by Abbott Joseph Liebling’s famous line: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” It had effectively allowed owners of the press to be in a position where they are able to use their papers as personal loudhailers, and Angell was disturbed that  

what England thinks is largely controlled by a very few men, not by virtue of the direct expression of any opinion of their own but by controlling the distribution of emphasis in the telling of facts: so stressing one group of them and keeping another group in the background so to make a given conclusion inevitable.

One individual providing patent evidence of Angell’s concerns is Robert Maxwell, a former right wing Labour MP, had acquired the Mirror Group in 1984, and began to influence the political reports that were published. He declared that “I certainly have a major say in the political line of the paper (Daily Mirror)”and in another instance, he added that running newspapers had empowered him “to raise issues effectively”. Such exclusive powers to raise (and possibly ignore) issues have violated the democratic notion that the press should act as a platform to air a diversity of opinions and indirectly encourage citizens to participate in politics by setting the political agenda, instead of directly influencing the political agenda.

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Moreover, press barons are, in the words of Colin Seymour-Ure, “often supreme egotists; flamboyant, assertive, idiosyncratic, ostentatious, ruthless” rather intolerant of alternative ideology and may attack politicians or governments not because of their failings, but because of different political orientation or for economic gain. The Sun’s owner Murdoch, a pro-Conservatives used his paper to “campaign  ruthlessly” against Labour and Neil Kinnock and even had a nine page special on polling day in the 1992 elections with the headline “NIGHTMARE ON KINNOCK STREET”.  However, press barons’ political affiliation and ideologies was built on the base of economics, and such relationships proved ...

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