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Harman's Move on Murdoch Looks Like Partisanship - But it's a Democratic Necessity

17/06/2013 14:52 BST | Updated 14/08/2013 10:12 BST

If there is one phrase likely to startle even the most passive of armchair commentators on the liberal-left, it's 'media reform'. 'What do you mean, intervene in our free press?' they all cry.

Just take the reactions to the Leveson report. Accepted, the recommendations were heavy-handed and the legislation botched and ill-thought out - with everyone left unclear as to whether blogs would be included until the eleventh hour. But the fact that Finland, one of the world's most free countries in terms of freedom of expression, had a state regulator of the press, seemed to escape everyone.

So too did the truth that the law already prevents our press from publishing a whole myriad of information, such as a defendant's previous convictions during a trial, outright libellous statements, and if there is no good cause, then private matters of an individual. All have a sound, rational basis for limiting free expression, and that is the precedent we must work with.

Now the same reaction will follow Harriet Harman's announcement, at the Charles Wheeler Lecture on journalism at the University of Westminster, that Labour may limit media ownership to 15% of market share, with a 30% cap on newspapers. Rightly so, this is seen as a spear thrown at the heart of Rupert Murdoch's News International. Far from being merely a partisan anti-Tory move, it is absolute necessary in the interests of democracy.

"Media monopoly matters in a democracy. The concentration of unaccountable media power distorts the political system." Not the words of some Marxist philosopher, but Labour's deputy leader. Harman went on to say, "Too much power in too few hands hinders proper debate. Plurality ensures that no media owner can exert such a damaging influence on public opinion and on policy makers."

Murdoch currently controls 34% of the UK's newspaper industry through The Sun and The Times, which have readerships of 2.4m and 0.4m respectively, as well as The Sun on Sunday and The Sunday Times. Murdoch's News Corp also owns 39% of BSkyB, and might have owned all of it had the phone-hacking scandal not derailed him.

The effects of media oligarchy on journalism are well-rehearsed. Murdoch's papers and broadcast media help define 'the limits of acceptable debate'. Noam Chomsky has written much about this in Manufacturing Consent and Media Control. The corporate press sets these limits and any radical, anti-corporate or anti-capitalist dialogue is considered beyond the pale. Flak from advertisers and a reactionary, populist public play its part, but the ownership of a media outlet by one man means that the dogmatic propaganda of its outlets must conform to the interests of that man. Who is a multi-billionaire member of the global super-rich, I might add.

Should it come as any surprise that The Sun regularly fishes out scare stories of 'benefit scroungers' soaking up the hard-earned taxes of George Osbourne's 'strivers'? Or that The Times regularly carries columns praising Barack Obama's murderous drone strikes, which mean oh so many profits for the 'defence' industry?

Meanwhile stories about the widening chasm of inequality, the trebling of food banks under the coalition, the hundreds of thousands of children David Cameron is plunging into poverty, all these stories rarely get a mention. The neoliberalism of Cameron and his mini-me impersonators in the Labour Party's current austerity leadership represent a huge threat to society, the environment and with impending legal aid cuts, even that conservative panacea of the 'strong rule of law' looks shaky.

Put simply, whilst the coalition is bad news for most of the readership of The Sun, Murdoch's media empire will do all it can to prevent that bad news becoming his news, because austerity for many means boom time for the rich.

How did this sorry state of affairs come about? There used to be a time when conservative politicians wouldn't dream of privatising prisons, railways and police services, while the idea of Labour introducing market economics to the NHS would sound like folly. Keynesian Tory Harold Macmillan built more council houses as housing minister than Labour-left hero Nye Bevan. But the financialization of the world economy with the profits from the petrodollar in the 1970s unleashed the Reaganite and Thatcherite 'big bang' of deregulation in the 1980s, and has given us a new super-rich elite, with Cameron as triggerman and Murdoch as their messenger boy.

The rise in the belief in 'the free market', that all could and should be run for profit, including schools, hospitals and even justice, is hard to understand without analysing how the public have been softened up for it by the media barons. But that is for another time.

When Margaret Thatcher passed away earlier this year, the triumphalist victory parade of neoliberalism that was her state-funded non-state funeral saw the rich caught gloating. She was their heroine because of her conviction and courage to smash her opposition. Thatcher openly stated her aim to weaken the trade union movement, such that her successor and, in her own words, finest legacy Tony Blair could boast Britain had 'the most restrictive union laws in Western Europe'. Thatcher's destruction of industry and forcing millions onto the dole was part of a calculated attempt to break the labour, union and working-class movements.

The Left should take up Harriet Harman's plan to limit media ownership and pursue it in, if you'll forgive me, Thatcherite fashion. Politics is primarily about power and political victory over Thatcherism will require taking power from the conservative base. That means clamping down on tax havens, on the influence the super-rich have over politics, and limiting their corporate propaganda.

I sense some will not have the stomach for this kind of confrontational, take-no-prisoners politics, but leftist division and passivity during the 1980s was precisely what gave rise to Thatcher and allowed her to unleash her 'anarchy of the ruling classes' on us all.

We can hardly afford to be squeamish with resisting. With legal aid no longer a foregone conclusion, half a million Britons living off food banks as if we were a crisis-stricken developing nation, and the expectation that half of children will be in poverty by 2015, we cannot afford to let Thatcherism and austerity reign any longer.

Shouldn't that make the news? That might be the wrong question. It's more like, who should make the news?