When democratic rhetoric meets economic pragmatism: plurality and policy in the UK and European Union
Prof Steven Barnett
In most European countries and the US, the plurality narrative has been driven by one over-arching factor: the relentless decline in traditional business models for funding journalism. While this has been exacerbated by other factors – a worldwide recession, the rise in digital intermediaries, fragmentation of audiences, growing resistance to funding public broadcasters – the structural shift in advertising to online has produced a crisis in the sustainability of media companies and the production of original journalism.
Policy makers have therefore faced a growing dilemma: how to ensure a sustainable economic environment for democracy-enhancing news publishers while also preventing unhealthy concentrations of media power which undermine both plurality and democratic efficacy. In the UK, as in other European countries and the European Union (EU), policy makers speak eloquently about the democratic imperative to legislate for a diverse media, bit the rhetoric is thwarted both by the pragmatics of sustainability and the power of major media conglomerates to exert political pressure.
In both the UK and the EU, it appeared recently that the political wind was shifting. In response to the phone-hacking scandal in the UK, the Leveson Inquiry’s terms of reference included regulatory recommendations around media plurality and cross-media ownership. In oral evidence, several leading politicians testified to the power and influence of large media companies. In evidence to parliamentary committee, Prime Minister David Cameron admitted that “there is a need for better and more appropriate media regulation”.
Meanwhile, the EU established a “High Level Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism” which reported in January 2013 and issued a clear statement about the importance of plurality as more than just a matter of economics: “In setting competition policy, authorities need to look at market concentration not only as an issue related to competition, but also related to pluralism.”
These initiatives might have led to real policy initiatives designed to promote diversity and prevent undue media concentration. In both cases, however, the impetus appears to have dwindled and there now appears to be little prospect of proactive policy aimed at cementing media plurality. In the UK, a government consultation launched last year focussed entirely on appropriate metrics, while the EU now appears to be focussing on issues around transparency (and measurement). This paper will explore recent policy developments in both the UK and the EU, will analyse the relevant policy documents, and will pose the question as to whether economic imperatives are always destined to drive policy making on plurality.