Thursday 14 March 2013

Why press monopoly is much more dangerous

I remember reading a letter to the Evening Standard in 2007 which highlighted the problem of monopoly.  

The man who wrote it was describing his girlfriend’s flight from Romania to Heathrow by British Airways.  BA (a privatised utility) had changed planes at Romania and had failed to put anyone’s bags on board.  The crew knew this, but still the passengers were allowed to wait hopelessly at the carousel for two hours for their non-existent baggage, which BA staff knew perfectly well was not going to arrive.  It actually took three days to get them.

What do you do about that kind of thing?  Well, you can regulate - and that makes some sense - but what really needs to happen is to look at the structural reasons.  BA is too big.  Heathrow is a nightmare.  The flights from Romania are operated by only one airline.  And so on.

I thought of this listening  to the argument this evening about press regulation.  It isn't that press regulation is unimportant.  It certainly needs to happen.  But it is far less important than tackling the central issue, which is the concentration of media power into only a few hands, which means that regulators get muzzled by frightened politicians.

Because monopoly power is a Liberal issue - neither Conservatives nor Labour politicians really understand its importance - the whole debate tends to surround the relatively irrelevant issue of regulation.

Leveson made recommendations about breaking up media ownership.  Lib Dems have made speeches about it.  But still the core of the debate is elsewhere, which is after all just what Murdoch and Rothermere and all the rest want.

So let's take part in the debate about regulation, but don't let this overshadow the far more important aspect: a good press is a diverse press, owned as widely as possible - which does not allow press barons to collect the media into their hands alone.  Tackle that one and regulation becomes a good deal less fraught.

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