Study of top 300 luminaries fails to shed light on nature of power

Is the head of FilmFour – Channel 4’s new cable, satellite and digital TV channel – really more powerful than the controller of BBC1 or the chief executive of ITV?

He is if you believe The Power List, the Channel 4/Observer analysis of the 300 most powerful people in Britain, published this week. FilmFour’s Paul Webster is ranked number 175, just two below the editor of The Times, Peter Stothard (or “Stoddard”, as The Observer calls him at one point).

BBC1’s Peter Salmon does not feature at all, and nor does ITV’s Richard Eyre (though his picture does appear in The Observer’s “Power 300” report, to accompany the entry of the other Richard Eyre, the theatre director and Government adviser on the Royal Opera House).

Perhaps ITV’s Eyre should have stayed in his old job, as chief executive of Capital Radio – for his successor, David Mansfield, is in the list at number 180, ahead of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the editor of the News of the World.

No doubt the compilers of the list (who, to be fair, didn’t include anyone from C4) would say that Webster is included because of FilmFour’s role as a leading British film production company, not as controller of a channel with a handful of subscribers. And that Eyre’s slot has gone to ITV’s director of programmes David Liddiment (number 79) – not to mention Gerry Robinson (13), Michael Green (36) and Clive Hollick (32). And that the people with real power over the BBC1 schedule are Sir John Birt (16), Sir Christopher Bland (112), Tony Hall (head of BBC News, at 155) and Mal Young (head of drama series, 234).

But is C4’s chief executive Michael Jackson (50) really more powerful than every national newspaper editor (even after he snatched the TV cricket)? And shouldn’t there be a place for Mark Booth, the chief executive of BSkyB? (Unfortunately, the compilers seem to believe Elisabeth Murdoch holds that job, which is why she is ranked number 74.) For all the errors and arguable judgments that beset such ventures, The Power List is a fascinating exercise in analysis of who holds power and influence in Britain today – and in particular, of the power held by people in the media, whether owners, editors, producers, writers, performers or spindoctors.

The list was drawn up by a panel of eight, headed by Lord Hattersley and including Observer editor-in-chief Will Hutton, who writes: “This is a media age. The impact of the media on public attitudes and popular culture is vastly greater than 25 years ago. Supermodels Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell are benchmarks beside which millions of young women judge themselves; they are as influential in shaping our society as the Chancellor of Oxford University or the chair man of the Royal Opera House.”

Some would say Twiggy and The Beatles were just as “powerful” in the Sixties. But it partly depends who is doing the choosing. The panel also included style guru Peter York, Carlton director Sara Morrison and former Smash Hits editor Kate Thornton and it was chosen by media owners. This helps account for the strong media presence. As John Mulholland points out: “If a group of businessmen and women had conjured up a similar list, would Murdoch be deemed more influential than both the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Governor of the Bank of England? Perhaps not.”

Rupert Murdoch is judged second only to Tony Blair as Britain’s most powerful person, pushing Bill Gates into third place. “Administrations of all political persuasion crave the support of the 4 million daily Sun readers and the 700,000 Times readers,” says The Observer’s explanation of his high ranking (unfortunately weakening its argument by confusing “readers” with sales). Nor is its timing lucky when it writes of Murdoch: “An uncanny ability to charm (or bully) successive Prime Ministers has seen his News International business grow, unchecked by regulation or effective competition.”

That, of course, is not how Murdoch sees it, judging by his outburst last week over Peter Mandelson’s referral of BSkyB’s Manchester United bid to the Monopolies & Mergers Commission. Unchecked by regulation?

Have C4 and The Observer overstated Murdoch’s power? NI will say so. Yet in Sunday night’s C4 programme, one of its most influential former editors, Andrew Neil, had no doubt of Murdoch’s importance (while dismissing the idea that Bill Gates had much power at all). The political editors of The Financial Times and New Statesman took the same line, arguing that Murdoch seeks to influence government policy through his media businesses, and that the Blair Government cannot ignore his wishes.

Undoubtedly Murdoch has enormous influence – but power? At the moment he doesn’t even have the power to get Sky Digital into the homes of thousands of people who ordered it during the summer. Whereas Eddie George can put up our mortgages and Gordon Brown our taxes (the indirect ones, at least).

It depends how you define power. The Observer says the intention was to come up with the 300 people “who had most impact on the daily lives of British people”, which is why it includes people such as Delia Smith, Kate Moss, Liam Gallagher, Ian Wright and Alan Shearer. But is that the same as power?

Even accepting that criterion there are some odd choices. If you had to name the most powerful people in advertising, apart from Maurice Saatchi (99), would you really select Adam Kean and John Pallant, the creative directors of Saatchi & Saatchi? And the obsession with film means Charles Denton is in at number 91 as chairman of the Lottery Film Panel, with no reference to the vastly greater largesse bestowed by the Sports Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund.

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