Morality and plurality

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by Mark Irvine 

Public debate around phone hacking is about to shift from the actions of a few ‘bad apples’ at the News of the World to a wider discussion about ethics and accountability in the press and media.

A word that will be become increasingly important in this public debate is ‘plurality’ which means that a mixed economy of views, opinions and representation is an inherently good thing.  This is because plurality is an essential protection against the concentration of power in the hands of one individual or organisation.

So a healthy degree of competition is good for democracy, the body politic, a thriving economy and, of course, in the press and media.  This means that those opposed to Rupert Murdoch and News International being allowed to buy up the rest of BskyB will be shouting about the need for plurality from the rooftops.

Now I should declare an interest, or at least my views before proceeding any further, and my view is that the News International bid for BskyB should not be allowed to succeed.  If it does it will create a dangerous monopoly which is likely over time to reflect the partisan views of just one organisation – News International.

But plurality or the absence of plurality affects many other institutions and thus this is an opportunity for a much wider discussion about public accountability in the UK.

How about the trade unions, for example?

Over recent years trade unions have grown larger and ever more powerful, limiting and restricting the choice of ordinary union members or potential members, through the creation of super unions like Unite.

A merger between Unison and GMB is also on the cards and, of course, these few unions completely dominate the Labour party.  And not just because these big public sector unions are the party’s paymasters these days, providing Labour with over 90% of its funding, but because they are also hugely influential in the selection of Labour candidates and at Labour conference where they still control 50% of the votes.

Plurality is noticeably absent in the big three public sector unions, since they affiliate only to the Labour party, despite knowing full well that most of their members are not even Labour supporters.

Things are even more laughable in Scotland where the SNP has overtaken Labour in the popular vote yet the unions behave as if the political landscape is unchanged from the good old days, when Labour ruled the waves.

So I say what’s sauce for the goose – should be sauce for the gander.  By all means let’s have a public debate about plurality and fair representation, but the trade unions and their links with the Labour party deserve to be in the mix as well.