Professor Steven BarrnettKicking off our joint Media Plurality Series with the Media Power and Plurality Project, University of Westminster’s Steven Barnett argues that the “share of references” method of measuring media power is not sufficient. 

At the heart of any discussion about plurality and media ownership lies the concept of power: for democracy to function properly, the exercise of power over public opinion, law-makers, opinion-formers and elite decision-makers must be properly distributed and not become concentrated in a small group of individuals or organisations.

Principles of media power

This essentially abstract notion of media power was implicitly addressed by the communications regulator Ofcom in its advice to the Culture Secretary on “Measuring media plurality” in June 2012. It defined plurality with reference to what it called “desired outcomes of a plural market” and suggested two overarching principles:

• Ensuring there is a diversity of viewpoints available and consumed across and within media enterprises.

• Preventing any one media owner or voice having too much influence over public opinion and the political agenda.

These principles were adopted by the government in its consultation on Media, Ownership and Plurality in July 2013 and are generally accepted as a sensible interpretation of the democratic underpinnings of media plurality. They encapsulate the notion of power – over dissemination of news and opinion as well as over hearts and minds – and provide the philosophical basis for intervention in the market to promote a healthy and dynamic democracy.

Measuring media power – Ofcom’s approach

In order to gauge the nature and proportionality of that intervention – at what level concentration becomes dangerous and raises issues of democratically unacceptable power – it is necessary to generate some objective and justiciable criteria. Not only is this important for abstract reasons around justice and fairness, it is also essential for providing clarity to commercial enterprises making vital investment, employment and expansion decisions.

In an era when media sectors were discrete, convergence did not exist and there was little or no cross-ownership, it was relatively easy to impose sectoral limits by audience consumption: traditionally (though not necessarily logically) share of TV viewing, share of newspaper circulation, and share of radio listening. With convergent technologies and cross-ownership now an established fact, we need some kind of “currency” which permits measurement across sectoral boundaries.

Only one such currency has so far been proposed: Ofcom’s “Share of References”. In its June 2012 advice to government, Ofcom elaborated on the Share of References scheme it had first employed for its public interest test of News Corp’s proposed takeover of BSkyB in 2010. That scheme has never really been interrogated as a satisfactory proxy for measuring media power, despite its potential drawbacks.

A full explanation of how the scheme works is contained in Ofcom’s news consumption report published in September 2013. Briefly, share of references is calculated by asking respondents in a representative survey which sources of news they use “nowadays”, and how frequently. Each mention is counted separately and the figures are aggregated, culminating in a share for each news provider expressed as a proportion of all references for all news sources. In Ofcom’s words: “This produces a cross-media metric with consistent methodology and a consistent definition of news across all platforms.”

Share of References: why it is problematic

While superficially offering a solution to the perennial conundrum of cross-media measurement, this metric suffers from one fundamental flaw: by focussing entirely on consumption, it is bound by default to exaggerate the role of television and, in doing so, to distort the true picture of how media power is distributed in the UK.

In pure consumption terms, television’s dominance is clear. According to Ofcom’s 2013 News Consumption report, when asked about their news sources nowadays, 78% said television, 40% newspapers, 35% radio and 32% the internet. This ratio is a wholly predictable function of television’s ubiquity and accessibility, and of course the average 28 hours of weekly viewing. But does that really equate to power?

In three important respects, I believe this metric overstates the power of broadcast media and understates the power of the printed word, whether in hard copy or online.

First, it takes no account of the power to persuade, or the opinion-forming impact of print and online media.  The significance of “impact” was recognised by Ofcom in its 2012 advice to government, and in particular the significant influence which could be exerted by print media’s partiality and its agenda-setting role. However, Ofcom’s ideas for possible measurement “proxies” – importance, impartiality and quality of news source – all favour the television medium despite being, by their own admission, imperfect substitutes.

Impassioned, one-sided argument is an integral and powerful element of a free press. Our national newspapers are highly partisan, and the popular press in particular often elides news and comment.  While we cannot measure to what extent such editorialising drives popular opinion, intuitively a one-sided, opinionated approach will carry more weight than a carefully balanced approach. And yet the power to exercise that passion and thus to influence hearts and minds is entirely absent from this calculation.

Second, it takes no account of the power to set news agendas. Rigorous research is lacking, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that our national press plays a hugely important role in driving news agendas. Broadcast newsrooms are usually immersed in mountains of newsprint, and informal conversations with BBC journalists reveal a high level of editorial anxiety when bulletins are not covering a story which has featured prominently in the press.

Then there are the newspaper reviews: twice each evening on Sky and BBC News channels, at the end of every edition of Newsnight, on Sunday morning’s Andrew Marr show, and frequently mentioned on the Daily Politics and the Today programme. Both Sky and the BBC tweet the front pages of next day’s national newspapers every evening.

Third, it takes no account of the power to influence policy makers – parliamentarians, think tankers, civil servants, regulators. In his 2013 book Democracy Under Attack, former Guardian journalist Malcolm Dean published a meticulously researched account of how this press-driven influence has operated in a number of social policy areas. Moreover, evidence to module 3 of the Leveson Inquiry provided abundant evidence of how unduly powerful media corporations exert pressure on politicians and their policy-making. Four successive prime ministers admitted, either implicitly or explicitly, that they were bound too closely to News Corporation and Rupert Murdoch. That kind of power cannot be measured through share of references.

The conclusion is straightforward, even if the ramifications are not. It is inherent in Ofcom’s approach that television’s penetration and popularity equates to power. But that is an assumption which is at best unproven and at worst seriously misleading. If we adopt their Share of References schema uncritically, we may miss dangerous concentrations of power elsewhere. We therefore need to find ways of assessing media power in a broader sense than this limited cross-metrics approach will allow.

This post is adapted from a presentation to the Westminster Media Forum seminar on media plurality, 27 November 2013. It gives the views of the author, and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics.