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1 Media Ownership and Plurality: Response to DCMS consultation of July 2013 Prof Steven Barnett, University of Westminster Overview

Before answering the specific questions in the consultation, I would like to make one contextual point. While the consultation rightly takes the broad-brush approach of the Leveson report as its starting point, it then appears to limit its scope to issues of measurement and consumption. While these are important indicators of media plurality, this approach constrains stakeholder responses in two key ways. First, it does not allow for what the eminent American political scientist, Edwin Baker, called “communicative power”. While undue concentration of media ownership is certainly unwelcome because of its potential influence on diversity of news, information and ideas in a democracy, there are other potentially harmful consequences for democracy. In particular, as abundant evidence to the Leveson Inquiry demonstrated, unduly powerful media corporations or individuals can influence policy and regulatory decisions by exerting pressure on politicians and policy makers through their media outlets; and they can dominate or create news agendas – sometimes driven by their own commercial imperatives – which other, smaller outlets feel obliged to follow. Furthermore, a framework which is constructed purely around statistical models of consumption or “share of references” by definition takes little account of opinionforming impacts of different media forms. The role and importance of “impact” was recognised by Ofcom in its report to the Secretary of State last year on Measuring Media Plurality, but its ideas for measurement “proxies” (importance, impartiality and quality) were – by its own admission – imperfect.1 Second, as I and others testified to the Leveson Inquiry, the current policy regime around plurality – in particular, the Public Interest test – is not fit for purpose. The process is too vulnerable to political intervention and the terms on which a merger (or organic growth) should be allowed to proceed are too opaque. More clarity is required about who can trigger a regulatory enquiry and on what terms; about the scope of regulatory responsibility to avoid overlap between Ofcom and the Competition and Markets Authority; and on where ultimate decisions should lie about divestments or conditional green lights. These broader issues all require further consideration by the government, which I trust will consult again before coming forward with proposed legislation. They are the subject of a major research project I am now running, with funding from the AHRC, and which I hope will offer useful ideas and policy recommendations.
Ofcom (2012) “Measuring Media Plurality: Ofcom’s Advice to the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport”. 19 June 2012, p21:

2 In response to the specific questions raised: 1. Which Media? There is no question that a new policy framework should embrace online and the internet. We should, however, be very careful about casual assumptions that an “explosion” of online news and opinion sites somehow vitiates the need to monitor burgeoning media power. Research by Goldsmiths has demonstrated that the vast majority of online news is aggregated material which originates from the main newspaper and broadcast news operations.2 We must therefore interpret very carefully figures about online consumption and not assume that this is automatically evidence of a diffusion of influence. It is still the case that serious investment in original journalism – which holds power to account and provides citizens with factual, verified information to allow them to participate in an informed democracy – is virtually all conducted by mainstream news organisations whose stories are then recycled via blogs, tweets, Facebook and other forms of social media. While stories can sometimes be developed in different directions online without the constraints of traditional media formats, self-contained online media operations rarely carry the authority or influence of mainstream, wellresourced and high-reach mass media organisations. Huffington Post is often used as an example as a new online presence, as is Guido Fawkes. Others are trying to establish themselves. But even these are niche operations and we should, for the moment, be very wary of confusing technological opportunity and online distribution with influence, reach and power. At the same time, we should be thinking of new policy initiatives which might help these fledgling media operations to flourish and make a more significant contribution to plurality. I elaborate on this a little at the end. 2. What type of content is relevant to media plurality? 3. Do you believe that scope should be limited to news and current affairs, or be widened to consider a wider cultural context? 4. If so, how might a wider context be defined? While news and current affairs might be regarded as the everyday lifeblood of democratic activity, powerful media organisations are capable of influencing the circulation of ideas, attitudes and opinions in myriad ways. Editorial influence based on a particular corporate culture or vision of the world can easily extend to drama, comedy, factual programming, or even children’s programmes, all of which can have implications for the diversity of ideas in a healthy democracy. A corporate culture which is manifestly sympathetic, for example, to an incumbent government may be less likely to commission a biting political satire or a powerful drama designed to expose a particularly egregious aspect of government policy. Similarly, a corporate worldview dominated by republican sentiments might be more amenable to a comedy which caricatures the Royal Family.

Natalie Fenton, ed, New Media, Old News: Journalism and Democracy in the Digital Age, Sage, 2009.


3 While there might therefore be an emphasis on news and current affairs, plurality cannot be defined solely in such narrow terms. This has clear implications for any measurement system, such as share of voice or share of references, which is focused exclusively on news consumption. Such approaches are inherently deficient because they cannot embrace wider notions of media influence and power. For this reason, I favour both the definition and approach to cross-media measurement advanced by Enders Analysis, based on revenues and a 15% cap.3 This has the dual advantage of encompassing all forms of media output, including online and digital (see below), and of capturing the more inchoate notion of media power outlined above. Those media organisations with the resources and personnel to invest in newsgathering and other potentially influential content areas, such as documentaries and drama, will have more influence on the broader cultural environment than the panoply of small online sites or community initiatives with few resources and small audiences. 5. What sorts of organisations and services are relevant to media plurality? 6. Do you believe that scope should be limited to publishers or include services that affect discoverability and accessibility? The consultation document is right to raise questions both about the role of wholesale news organisations and digital intermediaries such as Google which, through use of algorithms, can act as information gate-keeper. That is a further attraction of adopting a cross-media revenue-based model, which would capture those increasingly powerful gate-keeping organisations which, while not involved in the newsgathering or cultural production process, can influence both distribution and access. That, however, would still leave potentially a small number of very powerful players on a sectoral level which could have dangerous consequences for plurality. It would not be democratically healthy, even with a putative 15% cap on total cross-media revenue, to allow one or two media enterprises to have an excessive share of, say, national newspaper circulation or television news viewing without any compensating public benefit obligations. Thus, while acknowledging the wider definition of plurality, there needs to be recognition of the particular contribution to democracy of professional newsgathering and original journalism. This principle should accommodate the needs of media businesses to mitigate their economic difficulties and, where appropriate, to allow a measure of consolidation while balancing this with the need for editorial diversity. This delicate balance is particularly acute at the local level where the decline of the local press and inadequacy of other local media to fill a growing lacuna is producing a profoundly serious democratic deficit within local communities. I therefore support the principle advance by Media Reform and other civil society groups for a sectoral two-tier approach, whereby consolidation or organic growth beyond a certain share will trigger a number of public interest obligations rather than the “nuclear option” of divestment. These might include:
For a definition, see written evidence from Enders to the current Lords Select Committee on Media Plurality, p129:

4 clear evidence of increased investment in high quality journalism. setting up new - or improving on existing - journalism training schemes. subsidising non-profit media initiatives elsewhere (see below). agreeing to transparent auditing of editorial decision-making processes to prevent undue corporate pressure on editorial output. appointment of an independent ombudsman full participation in a self-regulatory scheme recognised according to the terms of the cross-party Royal Charter.

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Where threshold values are clearly open to debate, I would endorse those who have proposed a 20% share to trigger these behavioural remedies, and a 30% share to trigger structural remedies around mandatory divestment. While I recognise arguments about “penalising success”, they have to be set against an appropriate ceiling of media ownership in a democracy and our undistinguished history in the UK of dealing with burgeoning media power. As successive Prime Ministers admitted in their evidence to Leveson, governments have been too timid to tackle this problem and political life – in terms of relationships between media and politicians and media and the police – have suffered grievously as a result. We must have the courage to put the public interest before political pragmatism. 7. Do you agree that the BBC’s impact on plurality should be assessed as part of a plurality review? Clearly the BBC is one of the most important cultural and journalistic institutions in the country. While there are valid arguments for including it in any calculation of sectoral shares, it certainly should not be subject to the same kinds of behavioural or structural remedies as other organisations. There are four reasons. First, there are no proprietorial or corporate influences which guide its output. This is not just a matter of the application of impartiality rules, which applies to all broadcasters whether public or private, but the absence of any overarching corporate pressure which can dictate agendas. There are regular allegations of bias levelled at the BBC from all sides of the political spectrum, but none based on rigorous empirical evidence. On that subject, it not entirely clear what the consultation document means when it says: “There is also a body of research suggesting that broadcast impartiality is challenging despite strong governance arrangements”. There is no question that impartiality is a “challenging” aspiration, for the BBC as much as for ITN and Sky. In fact, the governance and regulatory arrangements – combined with strong internal cultures of journalistic norms and practices – ensure that all three organisations strive to meet their statutory obligations and institutional aspirations. Politically motivated accusations of bias – from whichever side of the political spectrum – should not be confused with a failure to meet those obligations. Second, because the BBC cannot express any views, either explicitly or implicitly, it can have little impact in determining (as opposed to informing) the formation of attitudes and opinions. The ability to be impassioned and to infuse not just commentary and opinion pages but news pages (and their online equivalents) with

5 one-sided arguments is an integral and powerful element of a free press. While we cannot measure to what extent such editorialising drives popular opinion, intuitively a one-sided approach will carry more influence than a carefully balanced approach. Third, the BBC is accountable to its licence payers and to Parliament through transparent mechanisms, in particular the BBC Trust, which ensure that its output complies with detailed obligations laid down in the Charter, Agreement and accompanying Service Licences. It cannot be captured for private gain and operates transparently in the public interest. It therefore operates entirely differently from corporate owners willing and able to promote a single worldview. Fourth, the BBC itself pursues a policy of internal plurality, whereby individual services and programmes are encouraged to develop their own editorial “voices” within an impartiality framework. Both in the way stories are covered and in terms of story selection, there will be different editorial agendas between news programme on different channels or news bulletins reaching different audience demographics. This theme was developed further in the BBC’s own submission to Ofcom’s media plurality review.4 While some consideration should therefore be given to the presence and consumption of BBC services in overall calculations of plurality, it is important to recognise that the BBC’s ability to editorialise and set agendas is severely circumscribed. In that context, it is worth emphasising again that neither opinion-forming impact nor news agenda-setting are properly accounted for in any consumption-based metric. For that reason- and because it overrepresents the role of television in people’s everyday lives – I believe that Ofcom’s favoured “share of reference” approach needs to be treated with great caution as a cross-media consumption metric. 8. Are there specific factors that you think a measurement framework needs to capture in order to provide a picture of plurality in local communities? 9. Do you agree that a measurement framework should also seek to assess the plurality of media serving other audiences or communities of interest? If so, which ones? The Consultation is right to point out the difficult position of local media, their importance for sustaining local democracy, and the potential for new online initiatives such as hyperlocal sites. Because of the necessarily small numbers of users involved, current measurement frameworks are probably inadequate for capturing the level of exposure to relevant media at the local level. A better, more sophisticated framework would be helpful. Much more important, however, than measurement issues are new structural, regulatory and funding initiatives to reinvigorate local media. Serious consideration must be given to ideas for new ownership and funding models which might add to the plurality of voices at local and regional level where investment in journalism is becoming increasingly parlous and monopolistic. Some creative options around charitable and non-profit enterprises were explored by the Lords Select Committee on Communications during its inquiry on Investigative Journalism, and thought might be

BBC Response to Ofcom’s Invitation to Comment on Measuring Media Plurality, March 2012.

6 given to ways of incentivising or rewarding enterprises which can sustain journalism with its roots in local communities. At the moment, these tend to be precarious, shoestring operations, run by enthusiasts but without the resources to report across a range of local issues, or to scrutinise local elites. New platforms do offer the potential for increasing plurality, but realistically require structural and financial support to be both viable and effective. As part of my current AHRC funded project on plurality, I am looking at ways in which charity law might usefully be amended to offer some financial assistance to local initiatives. The Community Radio model, with financial assistance available according to strictly defined criteria relating to “social gain”, might provide a further useful model. 21 October 2013 Prof Steven Barnett Professor of Communications School of Media, Art and Design University of Westminster Watford Road, Harrow Middlesex HA1 3TP Direct Line: +44 (0)20 7911 5981 email: