Thursday 6 October 2011

A proprietor beats shareholders, says Satchwell

Society of Editors executive director Bob Satchwell has argued that newspapers with a single proprietor have been more successul than those with powerful shareholders.

Satchwell, giving the Tom Olsen Lecture at St. Bride's, Fleet Street, in a reference to Rupert Murdoch, claimed: "Approve of Rupert or not, he did save the News of the World in 1969, transformed the Sun, subsidised Times Newspapers and created a top class satellite broadcaster with a top rate subsidised news service.

"That is no excuse for what happened at Wapping but one of the key issues is who else might follow that example if, in effect, success means a proprietor has to divest himself of part of his empire.

"Over the years those papers with a single proprietor or a dominant chief executive have tended to fare best. As we see now those with powerful shareholders – as opposed to owners with big shareholdings – can be starved of investment in journalism in the pursuit of share value. That is a danger in itself."

On phone hacking, Satchwell said: "With the benefit of high and understandable emotion about Milly Dowler the vultures gathered to misinform, mislead and, above all, baffle the public and suggest that weakened, subdued, even controlled newspapers would be good for them.

"I say tell that to the French, let alone the people of Zimbabwe. The French appeared genuinely shocked by revelations about Dominique Strauss Kahn. So much for a media that thinks there is never justification for straying into private lives or that it is fine for politicians to mislead the people who elect them and pay taxes for them to squander.

"But lest you think I excuse law breaking or bad behaviour in the media let me make this absolutely clear: It is perfectly acceptable and indeed proper for one part of the media to hold to account another part of the media."

He added: "The original much–criticised police inquiry that sent two people to jail had the unsurprising outcome of stopping the crime several years ago – unless you know better. After that any journalist who carried on hacking would have deserved to be locked up somewhere safe, by men in white coats, let alone in jail.

"Similarly, concerns raised by the information commissioner about breaches of the Data Protection Act on behalf of the media, were dealt with by newspapers to the commissioner’s satisfaction.

"Self-regulation has largely been blamed for the debacle – even though it was a failure of the police and the investigatory powers of the legal system, not to mention the special powers of the Prime Minister’s office – rather than the PCC.

" I do not seek to excuse failures within the press but the media has become the most inquired into institution of public life in history. In fiction we simply would not believe the number of investigations currently underway. Indeed there are inquiries into the inquiries."

Speaking up for self-regulation, Satchwell argued: "It must be the industry’s system not one imposed by the whims and vested interests of politicians, lawyers or discredited actors. If journalists and their publications became 'licensed' even in what might appear to be a benign form, that would be a serious and dangerous infringement of freedom of expression.

"If public money is expended on a new system it will not come without strings and, however well intentioned, it will be the first step to censorship and state control. Don’t let anyone persuade us to start down this dark tunnel."

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