Michael Foot and reform of the press

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“London ownership has invaded the provinces… and there is a steady growth of the syndicated leading article, the foulest abortion in journalism” [1]

Not the words of a contemporary New Labour ideologue but of the English journalist, politician and radical Michael Foot, who died yesterday aged 96, speaking in the 1940s. Foot spoke with benefit of experience, having already had well over a decade’s experience as a writer, an editor and a pamphleteer before taking his seat in the House in 1945.

Soon after joining parliament Foot lamented the consolidation of the local press under corporate ownership, having seen the number of newspapers shrink by almost a quarter since 1921 (from 169 in 1921 to 128 in 1948). “The process of monopoly is not receding. It is getting worse” he told the House.

One wonders what language he would have used today, when four newspaper groups control three quarters of the local press (Trinity Mirror, Johnston Press, Newsquest and DMGT).

And given that the Conservatives have made clear their desire to allow more consolidation, it is odd that Michael Foot has no parliamentary successor to rage against the centralisation and corporatisation of local news.

Nor did Foot simply rail from the back benches. So concerned was he at the state of the press that, in 1946, he seconded a motion for a Royal Commission on the Press, to look into the growth of monopolistic tendencies in the control of the newspapers and constrain the influence of proprietors in defence of journalistic freedom (echoes of the 2008 House of Lords report on ownership of news?).

A Royal Commission was then set up in 1947 and its recommendations – made in 1949 – eventually led to the establishment of the General Council of the Press, the precursor to today’s Press Complaints Commission.

Foot’s subsequent relationship with the press was, it has to be said, mixed. He was attacked and lampooned continuously as leader of the Labour party, particularly for his appearance (earning him the nickname ‘Worzel Gummidge’ after the fictional scarecrow of that name). He won a libel case against the Sunday Times, of which he gave part of the proceeds to the Tribune newspaper (which he had previously edited). Yet his heart was, his wife Jill Craigie said, ‘really in newspapers and writing’.

Perhaps he would have had a wry smile as certain newspapers, that previously excoriated him, today hail him as ‘the last link to a more heroic political age’ (The Daily Telegraph) and ‘one of the last great political figures of the wartime generation’ (The Daily Mail).

He was certainly one of those rare things, a journalist who could do politics and a politician who could do journalism.

[1] From Mervyn Jones’ biography of Michael Foot, p.150-151

Written by Martin Moore

March 4th, 2010 at 9:12 am

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