Media news over recent weeks has been dominated by news emerging from the Leveson Inquiry into the Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press. With so much being written about the relationship between the press and politicians – not to mention the broader relationship with the public – it seems fitting to consider the findings of an earlier inquiry that shared Leveson’s motivation.
Sixty-five years ago, the 1947-9 Royal Commission on the Press was set up to examine the finance, control, management and ownership of the press. Like Leveson, it was the product of a general feeling of unease about the role of the media within modern society. According to the authors of its final report, the Commission had been founded in the midst of public concern that a ‘growth of monopolistic tendencies in control of the Press’ was damaging the ‘free expression of opinion’ and leading to factual inaccuracies. Interestingly, many of these concerns had been raised by journalists themselves. There had been, according to the National Union of Journalists, ‘a progressive decline in the calibre of editors and in the quality of British journalism’.
Meeting for the first time on 30 April 1947, the Royal Commission would eventually consider the evidence of 182 witnesses and responses to a series of questionnaires. It called on 37 individuals, representatives of 432 newspapers, three news agencies, 106 proprietors and the Treasury. This evidence was eventually drawn into a 363 page report (HMSO, Cmd. 7700) and much was published in series of verbatim testimonies released as official papers throughout 1949. It was a serious undertaking, and one that cost £21,442 to complete (a figure that was 47 times higher than 1948′s average wage of £455.77 pa).
Its findings also set in place a system of self-regulation that continues to this day.
The Commission’s report agreed that the presentation of news often left much to be desired. It also noted that there was an inherent partisanship and political bias within much reporting. And, it was particularly critical of newspaper owners for offering an overly simplistic account of events rather than trying to educate their readers. But it found no real evidence of monopoly and rejected the idea that weaknesses could be resolved by greater state intervention. There were no easy answers. The papers may not have been perfect, but they were seen to reflect the society that they served.
The Commission’s main recommendation was, instead, that a ‘General Council’ should be set up to promote best practice and encourage a spirit of responsibility. This was put into practice in 1953 with the foundation of the Press Council.
What is most striking about the Commission, however, is the extent to which it highlights developments since that date. In 1949, its report described a media environment that was made up of over 4,000 publications; that included 112 daily newspapers; local weeklies published in 746 towns; and nine nationals with a combined circulation of 28.5m copies per day. With a population of only about 48.6m, this would have been enough to cover most adults in the UK. It was in light of such figures that the Commission concluded that a concentration of ownership in some areas could not be described in terms of monopoly (even though newspapers were still a principle outlet for news and comment in the years before mass television ownership).
The situation in 2012 is much changed: the print media has become much more concentrated, its circulation has dropped (to c.9.3m per day in a population of over 70m) and other mediums – like this one – are obviously much more important. These shifts make Leveson’s job much harder. But they also underscore that the relationship between the press, politicians and the public is always likely to be contentious – whatever power the owners actually hold. In 2012, as in 1947, the issue is one of perception. As a result, it is equally unlikely that there are any easy answers to be found.
This post originally appeared on Henry Irving’s Pastpolitics blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks.
This post has also been turned into a Wikihistory which also deals with the Second and Third Royal Commissions on the Press (1961-2 and 1974-77)