There is a well-known Soviet-era joke about newspapers. In Moscow, there were two papers. Pravda (Truth), and Izvestia (News). And as the saying goes: if it’s in Izvestia it’s not Truth, and if it’s in Pravda, it’s not News. Like most jokes, it reveals something about the culture it comes from, in this case a healthy distrust for press information in a society with infamously strong state control over newspapers.
In the UK, there is an apparently plurality of information sources, catering to a variety of different views as much as they shape them. We suffer from an apparent plague of trustworthy news sources, all contradicting each other.
There are a couple of stand-out offenders in the “not actually reporting the news” arena: The Daily Mail probably the most infamous. It has a low trust rating, a high level of complaints, and climbing profits because it figured out a hundred years before the internet how to monetize Outrage Clicks interspersed with cute dogs.
We shall take as a given that there is no such thing as unbiased reporting; even the choice to report or not on a subject constitutes a bias, long before we get into issues such as framing, language use, editorialising, speculation, opinion bleed and so on. In order to get a good idea of what biases we can likely expect from a news source, it’s a good idea to find out who and what controls the news.
In places like the former Soviet Union, this was easy. The Party controlled the Press, and the Press reported the truth as they determined it would be. In the UK, with much-vaunted freedom of the press* and litigant-favouring libel laws which in theory keep misinformation in check**, this is much harder.
* However, the UK remained one of the worst-performing countries in Western Europe, and a number of worrying trends continued, particularly in relation to national security, surveillance, and data protection.
** Daily Mail tops the list of Independent Press Standards Organisation Corrections for the third year running
- The Daily Mail is owned by the Daily Mail & General Trust, of which Jonathan Harold Esmond Vere Harmsworth, 4th Viscount Rothermere is the chair and controlling shareholder. Harmsworth is a nom-domiciled citizen.
- The Daily Express, Daily Star and The Mirror, as well as Scotland’s Daily Record, are all owned by Reach, formerly the Trinity Mirror group. The Mirror was originally a Harmsworth Publication, and the Express was previously owned by pornographer Richard Desmond; as part of the Competition & Markets Authority’s requirements for the acquisition of the Express, Reach (then Trinity Mirror) had to leave it as a standalone concern, effectively meaning its editorial policies have not changed. The CEO of Reach is Jim Mullen, and the chair is Nicholas Prettejohn.
- The Barclay brothers, non-domiciled billionaries, currently own the Daily Telegraph, although as of October 26th 2019 it has been rumoured they are placing the title and its Sunday variant up for sale due to declining revenues.
- The Times and The Sun are owned, ultimately, by News Corp. News Corp is run by Australian-born American citizen Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan. Murdoch inherited the beginnings of his media empire from his father, Keith.
- The Independent and the Evening Standard are owned by Russian businessman Alexander Lebedev.
- The Financial Times is owned by the Japanese company Nikkei. Chairman and CEO of the Nikkei group is Tsuneo Kita.
- The Guardian is owned by the Guardian Media Group. The group is wholly owned by Scott Trust Limited, which exists to secure the financial and editorial independence of The Guardian in perpetuity.
- The Morning Star, the UK’s only far-left newspaper of note, has been owned by the People’s Press Printing Society since 1945. The PPPS is a readers’ cooperative.
- The New Statesman, technically a magazine rather than a newspaper although often treated as a newspaper, is owned by Mike Danson, who also owns Globaldata.
It’s not just who owns papers that matters, but how they get their money. The Twitter-based activist collective @StopFundingHate, for example, uses the interests of advertisers to “nudge” newspapers away from publishing racism, homophobia, and other forms of derogatory speech against protected characteristics by contacting the companies whose products or services are placed in juxtaposition with these articles, asking “is this what you want your brand to be associated with?”. In some instances this has led to companies pulling their advertising contracts from the offending newspapers, choking a certain amount of revenue. It is debatable whether this achieves the long-term aims of the group, that of removing the inflammatory use of bigotry to drive traffic to news sites and therefore pollute public discourse with unacceptable and usually fringe viewpoints. However, it is an example of the way in which capitalist structures do not have to solely serve one group of people.
The majority of newspapers draw their revenue from advertising, especially the tabloid press (a group usually comprised from UK nationals: The Mirror, The Daily Mail, the Sun, and the Daily Express, with The Daily Star as a lesser-impact tabloid) and some are supplemented through subscriptions and other sources, which are exclusive to broadsheets and periodicals.
Of the above list, The Morning Star, Times, Telegraph, New Statesman and Financial Times operate on a full subscription access model for their online versions to augment advertising revenues. The Guardian offers a voluntary subscription service modelled after Wikipedia’s donation drives, and the Independent offers a premium subscription with access to additional content.
With the above information, it is easy enough to find–in the public domain and accessible via most good search engines–conflicts of interest that may lead to altered reporting or the suppression of stories. Although it is advisable not to give too much credence to complex sociopolitical explanations for news publishing choices–the primary role of any news media agency is to sell papers (or, online, to drive traffic to its site and keep it there)–following the money can help to make sense of more baffling suppressions of inherently newsworthy stories, especially those wherein there is little-to-no risk of a valid libel suit*. Connections between properties owned or heavily invested-in by newspaper owners or indeed editors are therefore a reasonable starting place for understanding omissions and editorial distortions.
Some of these connections are highly visible: the Times is unlikely to criticise Sky News, another News Corp company; Lebedev’s Evening Standard editor, former chancellor George Osborne, is an indication of interest. However, there are more difficult connections to be sought out. Webs of connections between politicians, newspaper owners, and heavyweight donors may only be traceable by full-time journalists like Carole Cadwalladr; many companies’ true ownership are buried behind a string of shell companies. While these are usually designed for the purpose of limiting the amount of tax due to any given country’s administration, they do have the secondary benefit of concealing interests and promoting the view of specific individuals or news sources as disinterested third parties.
While less centrally financially-controlled publications such as the Guardian may appear to be less dictated by the interests of companies with direct shared ownership to the newspaper, it is worth considering that a the media trust’s investments must be nurtured to provide adequate funding to run the newspaper and pay its staff. Adversely affecting/prejudicing the returns of those investments would be counterproductive to the paper–even before considering the individual biases of editorial staff.
It may therefore be worth triangulating media consumption between economic biases to some degree. To my mind, a reasonable balance can be achieved by reading the Financial Times (biases: largely the making of money in a highly capitalist global society), the Morning Star (biases: Marxist), and a news agency of some kind–for preference Press Association/Associated Press over Thomson Reuters. This will still not necessarily give you an unbiased through line of fact, but it will at least ensure that all your information doesn’t come from the interests of one company.
* To understand what may constitute a libellous story, or one which can feasibly be sued over, I cannot recommend McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists highly enough.
Additional advice: avoid articles which report solely on an emotive reaction to something, or which are simply a reworded press release (“a source says”); be aware that “think tanks” or “pressure groups” are usually funded from uncertain sources and with unknown aims (The Taxpayers Alliance is a very good example of this). A think-tank with a clear mission statement is preferable to one which uses vague terms. Do not neglect local newspapers, but be aware that the majority are owned by one single company. And, where possible, seek out your own confirmation. We live in a golden age for access to journalists. Make the most of it: not all of them are corrupt.
Taken as a whole, the view on the UK’s print media is stark. Many newspapers are owned by individuals (usually via some tax-avoidance strategy boards), and those individuals are rarely, if ever, tax-paying UK citizens. For unbiased information on taxation effects, for example, I would not recommend a reader turning to the Telegraph, Times, or the Independent, even less so any of the tabloids. Connections between political parties and particular press outlets are also vexatious: the original intention of a free press was to hold Parliament and the ruling parties of the country to account. If newspaper owners are allowed to give large donations to specific political parties, it calls into question the lens of reporting from those newspapers. It will, however, be hard to win an election without the support of the major UK publications, particularly on a platform that explicitly threatens the model of donations in secret.
For the sake of remaining informed, rather than misled, I would strongly advise not reading UK newspapers, and concentrating on press agencies instead.