A 'free' press? Three families control 68% of the British media but nobody tells journalists what to say, you see...

The Daily Mail's Lord Rothermere alone controls a third of newspaper circulation.

The Arifs, the Brindles, the Walkers, the Adams… There are more crime families in London alone than there are major media owners in Britain. Just three families — the Rothermeres, the Murdochs, and the Barclays — control 68% of newspaper circulation.

A fourth family, the Lebedevs (with 7.9% of the market) was recently gifted a seat in the House of Lords by Boris Johnson’s government, making Evgeny Lebedev into Baron Lebedev, of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond on Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation.

Reach, formerly Trinity Mirror, and owned primarily by investment funds, is the other big player in the British media. It publishes 240 local papers as well as 10 national titles — The Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror, The Sunday People, The Daily Express, The Sunday Express, The Daily Star, The Daily Star Sunday, The Scottish Daily Record and The Sunday Mail. With that group of publications, Reach controls about 20% of newspaper circulation and draws even more web traffic than the BBC, itself a behemoth in news due to its unique funding structure and position within national life.

In a Comscore study from September 2020, the Top 5 UK news publishers by web traffic were:

  1. Reach | 42 million visitors

  2. BBC | 39 million visitors

  3. DMG Media (MailOnline et al.) | 38 million visitors

  4. The Sun Online (News UK) | 38 million visitors

  5. Independent & Evening Standard | 25 million visitors

Now, one way you could look at all this is that circulation for newspapers is still declining and that the digital world offers a more diverse set of outlets. But that’s wildly optimistic. What the newspapers lead with and how they frame stories has a huge influence on the rest of the British media.

The front pages are dissected on the Today programme, BBC Breakfast, Good Morning Britain, Ridge On Sunday, and The Andrew Marr Show among others, while the contents of the papers drive the broadcasting agenda on Times Radio — obviously — LBC and talkRadio. In turn, when those TV and radio shows get obsessed with a particular story, it then bounces back into the papers. The British media is like a complicated root system and that’s part of why it’s so difficult to unpick and ultimately to reform.

Consider how people move through the British media — shifting from apparently unbiased positions at the BBC to red in tooth and claw right-wing publications like The Daily Mail (people like Rod Liddle, a former Today editor, and John Humphrys, the long time Today presenter) or going in reverse (Sarah Sands jumping — without previous broadcast experience — from the editor’s office at The Evening Standard to control of the Today programme). Elsewhere, Piers Morgan’s career at The Sun, News of the World, and Daily Mirror set him up for a second life in television that has spanned the Atlantic with stints at CNN and his current home on Good Morning Britain.

There is neither a plurality of ownership in British media nor a plurality of views. It’s a shallow pond and the conditions of that habitat tend to suit a certain kind of creature; thick-skinned and adaptable, willing to change the sound of their croaks to fit the demands of whichever big toad is paying their wages and setting the agenda. No one tells them explicitly what to write or broadcast because they don’t have to do that. When there is such a narrow range of owners, you know what they think and what they will accept in the pages of their newspapers or broadcast on their talk radio stations.

There’s a reason why News UK — the UK arm of Rupert Murdoch’s ongoing mission to dominate all media — is shifting heavily towards talk radio and on the cusp of launching a Fox-style news channel in Britain. Murdoch Snr. and his most likely successor, his son Lachlan Murdoch, know their papers still have influence but that it is waning over time.

The talk radio stations — talkRadio, talkSport and Times Radio — not only give Murdoch a slice of another form of media consumption but also act as content farms pumping out video clips on YouTube. The arrival of the news channel will up Murdoch’s media firepower substantially and it’ll get free publicity as the BBC and others will feel obliged to report on its launch.

DMG — controlled by Lord Rothermere — has a significant set of publications. Along with The Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday, and MailOnline, three horsemen of the Apocalypse so malevolent that they don’t need a fourth, DMG owns Metro — the free newspaper whose print distribution in normal times makes it the third biggest title in the country — Metro.co.uk, the i newspaper, Mail Plus (a subscription service), Mail Travel, deals site Wowcher, the jobs portal Jobsite, the financial news website This Is Money, and three Irish sites — Evoke.ie (for gossip), Extra.ie (for news), and Rollercoaster.ie (which focuses on parenting content).

DMG’s strategy is clear: It wants to own the entire set of concerns that its readers — most importantly affluent women — have, from news and gossip to jobs, parenting, shopping and money. The newspaper and its online evil twin can make you worried about how you’re looking or what you’re earning and the group’s sister companies can sell you a deal on the solution. While DMG doesn’t have a TV channel or a radio station yet, I can see that development in its future. It’s been experimenting with longer-form video content through Mail Plus and taking that further wouldn’t be a stretch. If DMG sees an opportunity in TV or radio, it will take it. In the US, its partnership with CBS has been producing DailyMailTV — an Emmy award-winning (yes, really) magazine show which draws on stories from MailOnline — since 2017.

Another reason I made the comparison at the top between crime families and the media owners is because there are obvious comparisons between the two. The Murdochs, Rothmeres, Barclays, and Lebedevs expect loyalty, are ruthless in their dealings and are comfortable with being immoral while banging on about family honour and ‘respect’. And, like crime families, the media owners both despise each other and unite whenever their overall businesses are threatened.

There was a minuscule chance that things might have changed in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry (which considered the culture, practices, and ethics of the press), but the Conservative government kicked Leveson II — which was intended to delve into the relationship between the press and police as well as wider governance failures — into the long grass. The media owners — I’ve avoided calling them ‘barons’ because it makes them sound cooler than they are, despite Lebedev literally being a ‘Baron’ now — made a lot of noise about how they were going to change but have snapped back to their old ways faster than a Stretch Armstrong doll.

Though Murdoch iced The News of the World, like a Mafia boss doing away with an inconvenient stooge, and blubbed before a UK parliamentary committee about “the most humble day of my life”, nothing has changed at his papers. If anything The Times and Sunday Times have simply started to be as nakedly brutal as The Sun. As for The Daily Mail titles? They never even pretended to have changed their ways.