In a post marking our Media Power and Plurality event on 2 May, Tom Gibbons assesses recent recommendations on media plurality in the UK
The House of Lords’ Communications Committee’s recent report on Media Plurality [PDF] is part of a process of reform initiated by the regulator, Ofcom, in the course of giving advice to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport about the implications of the proposed complete takeover of BskyB by News Corporation.
The constitutional proprieties require that Ofcom should only implement policy, and it is for parliamentarians to make it. However, Ofcom is obviously best placed to see how well the current rules work, in particular the operation of the public interest test for media mergers under the scheme introduced by the Communications Act 2003. So, having identified a number of problems, the minister made two formal requests for advice, thus enabling Ofcom to make suggestions for reform. But even then, Ofcom was keenly aware that some judgments about where to draw the line were matters for politicians. Of particular interest, it noted that decisions, about whether the media landscape provides a ‘sufficient’ degree of plurality, involve subjective assessments and discretion, and it suggested that it would be appropriate for Parliament to provide guidance about the issue.
The House of Lords’ Committee’s recommendations incorporate a number of Ofcom’s suggestions, notably the ideas that there should be regular, periodic reviews of plurality, supplemented by specific reviews of media transactions which are significant for plurality. It also endorsed Ofcom’s view that the criteria for review should be primarily qualitative, rejecting proposals for quantitative ‘caps’ on media companies’ ownership structures and their market share. But, while the Committee did recommend that there should be statutory guidance about ‘sufficiency’, it did not take offer any substantive suggestions itself, instead leaving to the Government to take up in the next stage of its overhaul of plurality regulation.
In many ways, this is understandable, because – as both Ofcom and the Committee acknowledged – determining what is ‘sufficient’ plurality is the trickiest part of pluralism policy. Ofcom is of course aware of that, and it considers that, ‘Given the importance of contextual factors, and the associated exercise of judgement, there is unlikely ever to be a crisp and unambiguous definition of sufficiency.’ Its approach is to offer a description of a well-functioning plural media market, indicating a set of key elements that will help to spot one when we see it. Thus:
‘Qualitative guidance could be designed around whether the news media market in the UK displays the following characteristics:
• There is a diverse range of independent news media voices across all platforms, providing citizens with access to a breadth of views on matters of industrial controversy and public policy, ensuring a vibrant democratic debate.
• Among consumers, the reach and consumption of many news sources is relatively high, across all demographic groups and across all parts of the English regions and the devolved nations.
• No one source of news commands too high a share of consumption, thereby ensuring that consumers are not exposed to too narrow a range of viewpoints.
• People multi-source from a number of independent news sources to help inform their opinions, ensuring that the process of opinion-forming draws on a diversity of viewpoints.
• The market conditions are such that there is comparatively free entry into the news media market, as evidenced by the emergence and establishment over time of new news providers.
• News media organisations are well-funded and commercial returns are high enough to ensure their long-term economic sustainability.’
The House of Lords’ Committee saw these elements as the basis of the guidance for assessing the sufficiency of plurality. Yet they are clearly inadequate (insufficient?) because they do not indicate the thresholds that have to be reached, and they rely on the same kind of intuitive approach that characterises ‘the public interest’ or the view that roughly four or five ‘players’ in a media market will provide adequate diversity.
Sufficiency has to be assessed in terms of what is needed for a particular purpose or objective. The context here is the functioning of the media in a democracy. At the least, that entails the provision of a basis of information and opinion for citizens to participate in policy formulation and decision making. That in turn requires that the qualitative components of the elements cited above have to be assessed by reference to the contribution they make to that democratic functioning:
- Ideas promoted by any single media organisation should be open to challenge by an equivalent other.
- The citizen’s perspective should be dominant – are they aware of the diversity of viewpoints and do they have access to them.
- The viewpoints available in the media should represent the range of different interests and communities in the society.
The implications are that, in assessing sufficiency of plurality, Ofcom will have to become involved in judgments about the content of media material. This will be in contrast to current practice, whereby diversity of media sources and platforms is taken to be an adequate proxy for the citizens’ experience of diverse content. For that reason, detailed discussion of the sufficiency of plurality is bound to be controversial and plausible thresholds will be keenly contested. But the sooner debate is opened, the better.
Full details of the Media Power and Plurality conference at City University London on Friday 2 May, jointly hosted by University of Westminster’s Media Power and Plurality AHRC project and the Centre for Law, Justice and Journalism at City, can be found here. Tom Gibbons, Professor of Law, University of Manchester, will take part in a panel looking at national policy.
This article gives the views of the author/s, and does not necessarily represent the position of the Media Power and Plurality Project. We welcome further views and contributions to the media plurality policy debate: please contact us if you would like to contribute.