As you approach a level crossing in France, there is a sign that warns you: "Un train peut en cacher un autre" – "One train can hide another". That is how I feel about the outcome of the Government's scrutiny of Rupert Murdoch's bid for the 60.9 per cent of BSkyB he does not already own. The media regulator, Ofcom, and the Office of Fair Trading have had a look and written reports. The Secretary of State for Culture, Jeremy Hunt, has been ruminating, and shortly we shall probably learn that, yes, the takeover can go ahead subject to certain restrictions.
One train, however, can hide another. A more serious state of affairs is obscured by the BSkyB deal. For since Mr Murdoch acquired The Times and The Sunday Times 30 years ago, the combined circulation of the Murdoch papers (including also The Sun and the News of the World) has substantially exceeded the 25 per cent share of the market that can trigger an inquiry into whether such dominance is against the public interest. In fact, the Murdoch share of the combined daily and Sunday circulation of national newspapers is currently around 35 per cent. The Daily Mail group is in second place with a 20 per cent market share. So Mr Murdoch is well ahead. But there has been no inquiry. In no other industry would the matter have been left unexamined for so long.
One reason for this neglect must be the plight of the national newspaper industry itself. In 1950, their average daily circulation was about 21 million. By 2010, this figure was down to 10.1 million. For the past decade, the number of people reading a daily title has been falling by 3 per cent per annum, while Sunday readership has declined by 5 per cent per annum.
This is part of a global trend. Once the dominant source of news, newspapers are so no longer. Four out of five adults use TV as their provider whereas somewhat less than half turn to newspapers. One third of adults listens to radio news, while one quarter go online to catch up. Many people use more than one medium. But suppose that, instead of measuring market shares in the supply of news, we tried to estimate which media dominate in the formation of public opinion.
For what chiefly distinguishes national newspapers from the other media is that they are opinionated. For the most part, the notion of observing some sort of political balance is not how they go about things. Nor does media regulation require it. Newspapers are entirely free to be seriously prejudiced – even obsessively so if they wish. In this they need observe few restraints and have no rival in other media. Of course, there are discussions on TV and on radio, and online there are forcefully argued blogs. But it is not the same thing at all.
With this in mind, let us go back to the statistics. The precise proportion of people currently turning to newspapers as a source of news is 44 per cent. Much diminished as this measure may be, it is still a large figure. Moreover, the economic weakness of newspapers isn't visible to readers. All they see is a vigorous set of publications self-confidently pushing their views. And all that the politicians see are powerful newspapers that can make or break political reputations and determine the outcomes of general elections. Moreover, politicians recognise one individual as more important than all the rest put together – Rupert Murdoch. For not only do his newspapers account for just over a third of the market, he also influences editorial decisions.
Take the account given by Andrew Neil, the former editor of The Sunday Times, to a House of Lords committee in January 2008. Mr Neil said: "Rupert Murdoch does act as editor-in-chief of The Sun ... although Murdoch is not named as editor-in-chief of The Sun and the News of the World, that is in reality what he is ... He doesn't regard himself as editor-in-chief of the The Times and The Sunday Times, but he does regard himself as someone who should have more influence on these papers than anyone else."
What is beyond doubt is that Mr Murdoch's supposed influence on the editorial lines taken by his papers has been distorting decision-making by successive governments of the day since the early 1990s. Mr Blair's deputy director of communications, Lance Price, called Murdoch the 24th member of the Cabinet. "His presence was always felt," he wrote. "No big decision could ever be made inside Number 10 without taking account of the likely reaction of three men – Gordon Brown, John Prescott and Rupert Murdoch. On all the really big decisions, anybody else could safely be ignored." It was no different in John Major's time, nor in Mr Brown's, nor is it today with David Cameron in residence.
This is a bigger issue than the bid for BSkyB. Prime ministers have never liked bowing the knee to Mr Murdoch in order to earn his newspapers' support at election time. In his political diaries, A View from the Foothills, the former MP Chris Mullin tells how Mr Blair was complaining about the wickedness of the media and interference by Mr Murdoch. "I mention that John Major once thought seriously about breaking up the empires – one daily, one Sunday, everything else on the market – but dropped the idea because those queuing to buy whatever came on the market are at least as unsavoury as existing owners. 'Oh, I don't know,' says Mr Blair. 'There are Germans and other Europeans who would be much better'. I press the point: 'You would have to strike with deadly force, a week after we win a third term'."
But there never has been a strike with deadly force. Through their inaction, prime ministers have condemned themselves to kneel and touch the forehead to the ground in expression of deep respect, worship and submission, not understanding that their obeisance is probably futile. For the preponderance of a Tory-supporting press – in terms of both numbers of titles and size of readerships – has not prevented Labour from securing wins in nine of the 18 general elections since 1945. Readers, thankfully, are more independent than prime ministers believe.