Rupert Murdoch Is About to Lose His Fleet Street Crown

(Bloomberg) -- "Send In Army to Halt Migrant Invasion," is the kind of headline you'll find adorning the front page of Britain's Daily Express newspaper. It’s a brand of angry foreigner-baiting that's characteristic of most of the U.K.'s tabloid press. But not all of it.

The rival Daily Mirror is a different beast. While it too revels in celebrities' sexual indiscretions and royal family gossip, you're more likely to find a front page splash looking at the shameful treatment of Britain's Jamaican migrants than one telling foreign scroungers to clear off. In short, it's England's only left-leaning daily tabloid.

So the 127 million pound ($177 million) acquisition by Trinity Mirror Plc (owner of the Mirror newspaper) of Northern & Shell's publishing assets (including the Express) is a strange one at first glance. Certainly odd enough to give the British government pause for thought. Culture minister Matt Hancock said this week that he has a mind to refer the deal to the media regulator because of worries about "sufficient plurality of views in newspapers," as this would be the second-biggest national newspaper publisher by circulation. In fact, as our chart below shows, he’s underplaying it. The new group will be the biggest in terms of overall readership.

For a country that’s long agonized about the concentration of media power in Rupert Murdoch’s hands, this is quite eye-catching. The Murdoch family’s News U.K. still owns the Sun, the Times and the Sunday Times, making it the biggest publisher of national print newspapers. But when you add in digital readers, as we do in the chart above, a combined Trinity Mirror/Express takes the number one spot. So Hancock’s point appears strengthened if anything.

The only problem is when you delve into his “plurality of views” suggestion. At the moment, the English newspaper scene is pretty skewed to the right, with the Sun, the Daily Mail, the Express, the Telegraph on the harder end of the spectrum and the Times and Sunday Times more center-right. On the other side are the Mirror, the Guardian and the Independent, which is online only. The graphic below gives you a sense of the relative readerships, both for print and digital.

Trinity Mirror has promised to let the Express maintain its editorial independence. But even if it lurches leftward, it would only really lead to a more equal balance of right and left voices in the English press. Plus it’s hard to think of the Trinity decision being infected by ideology. Print newspapers are in a state of permanent decline, and the deal seems a sensible way of trying to share back office costs and departments such as sports writing.

Plus, as is often heard from defenders of the Murdochs, it can seem arcane to worry about newspaper plurality when so many people get their news through Facebook feeds and smartphones. So yes, the Mirror/Express tie-up will be big and will include nine newspapers. But so what?

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