The House of Lords Select Committee on Communications begins taking oral evidence next Tuesday in its Inquiry on Media Convergence and its Public Policy Impact. It is a broad inquiry, attempting to take in some of the high level issues that the Communications Review and the Leveson Inquiry are unwilling, or unable, to cover. It proposes to cover very general issues related to convergence of media asking whether there should be some kind of over-arching regulatory framework for broadcasting and the internet, and asks for suggestions for a ‘guiding principle’ for policy on convergence.
Ten years after Ofcom – the ‘converged communications regulator’ was set up, the Inquiry has a slightly retro feeling about it. Media policy and convergence is not a new issue. James Purnell and Richard Collins published on the topic in 1995 and even after Ofcom was set up, Purnell went on to create a ‘Convergence Think Tank’ in government as Culture Minister in 2007. But there is a reason that we are back here, and that is the unfinished business of regulatory reform.
Arguably, the current system, set up in 2003 is not fully converged. We have, in particular a licensing scheme for broadcasters that sets it apart from the press and telecoms. But to what extent do we need converged regulation? The television audience is holding up well, and TV viewers expect public service values, the watershed and consumer protection. Fundamentally, it comes down to questions about what media users understand and expect on the various platforms, and the extent to which the various delivery platforms still constitute separate markets.
Unfortunately however, when it comes to the details and trends and the extent of real media convergence there are methodological problems with a lot of the evidence. The very categories used to present the evidence reify separate converging markets, and a lot of the data is based on surveys that face often inescapable methodological difficulties. Asking respondents about their use of ‘the internet’ and ‘television’ is difficult where people may or may not see using You Tube on a phone over wireless for example as ‘the internet’. Multi-screen viewing also creates measurement problems: the TV may still be on, but is anyone still watching it or are they watching it to the same extent? Radio, television and Internet use is measured in radically different ways, so it is going to be difficult for the Inquiry to unravel the detail of the trends.
So picking over the evidence is going to be more difficult than might appear. But at the highest level the questions are probably simple. Should public policy try to follow market change (for example by tracking consumer expectations, social value, and evidence of harm and offence in converged services) or should there be an attempt to pre-emptively shape the electronic communications system through regulation. Should we rely more on the market or on regulation to guarantee the consumer interest? But these theoretical questions mask a more urgent need for reform. The committee will hear a lot of evidence that convergence of media services and platforms is no longer a theory, and that consumer expectations and experiences are changing rapidly, undermining existing regulatory definitions.
The inquiry is not just about content regulation and public service however. The spectre of large media corporations and their potentially corrosive impact on democracy is an issue that parliamentarians of all hues are currently preoccupied with. This might explain the large number of references to ‘media plurality’ in the Inquiry’s questions. Might Big Media power manifest itself in the world of superfast broadband networks though processes of consolidation, integration, bundling and control of rights, just as it has in the first years of digital? The Inquiry asks “who are the emerging holders of power in the new converged world? How do they relate to and alter the traditional holders of power? What is their effect on plurality and how should plurality in the context of these new players be ensured?”
The questions for the Inquiry are here. I am giving evidence next week and will post some more detailed thoughts later. I think that the Inquiry is asking the right questions, and that they are the big questions that the government’s Communications Review ducked. The challenge for the committee will be to articulate the big ideas that are needed in a way that dovetails with the government’s market oriented ‘art of the possible’ approach.
For those of us who missed the deadline for written evidence at the end of September, it might be worth asking if they will accept any more written evidence from hard pressed academics and civil society groups. (The clerks seemed open to the idea when I raised it). I am giving evidence on Tuesday along with Stuart Purvis. David Levy and Patrick Barwise follow us.