Des Freedman, Reader in Communications and Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths and member of the Coordinating Committee for Media Reform, argues that Ofcom’s proposals are too cautious to deal with media concentration.
Ofcom has just published its review of media plurality, Measuring Media Plurality, that is likely to inform debate on media ownership and regulation in the run-up to the publication of the Leveson Inquiry recommendations and future communications legislation.
It is a disappointing document in the sense that its recommendations are not ‘fit for purpose’ to secure the objectives it correctly identifies. Plurality, for Ofcom, is understood both as ‘a diversity of viewpoints’ and as a means of ‘preventing any one media owner or voice having too much influence over public opinion and the political agenda’ (p. 1).
Yet its conclusion—that there should not be limits on news market share nor should there be a possibility of plurality reviews being triggered by either complaints or companies reaching a particular share of consumption and that, instead, there should be periodic reviews every four or five years—demonstrates both political caution and an overbearing concern with market stability that is out of step with a growing mood to tackle media concentration.
It specifically rejects the proposal by Enders Analysis for a cap on total media market revenue (measured at 15 per cent for any single company) and also dismisses the desirability of introducing platform specific limits, as suggested by the Coordinating Committee for Media Reform.
The public interest is subordinated instead to a commitment to protecting industry interests that remain uppermost throughout the document. It proposes an understanding of media policy as those interventions, or rather non-interventions, which are necessary to maximise the stability of the sector and to limit any undue volatility. The issue is not that industry viability is not significant but that the emphasis on profitability is unbalanced.
One immediate response to Ofcom’s recommendation for five-yearly reviews is to suggest that investigations are justified when there is a problem. At the moment, as amply demonstrated through the daily revelations at the Leveson Inquiry as well as the metrics of ownership concentration—which shows that News Corp still maintains a grip on 34% of the daily newspaper market—we do have a problem with concentrated ownership and insufficient diversity of viewpoints.
This is not an assertion confined to the outer edges of the media reform movement.
During his appearance at the Leveson Inquiry, Labour leader Ed Miliband called for a cap on newspapers owning between 20-30% of the market in order that ‘one organisation does not exert an overweening power’.
Earlier the same day, former Conservative prime minister John Major argued there should be a ‘clear limit’ to concentrated ownership capped at about 15-20 per cent of the media.
Indeed, even deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said to Leveson that ‘when concentrations of power or power as wielded unaccountably occurs, you need to try and find some remedies and safeguards against that.’ In his written submission, he argued for ‘strong rules around media ownership that protect plurality in the market.’
The problem with Ofcom’s recommendations is that they privilege ‘practicability’ and ‘proportionality’ (p. 6) above the need to take decisive action to unblock the media system at a time when the consequences of unaccountable media power have been laid bare.
Throughout the document, there is a deeply-felt concern with ‘commercial sustainability and innovation’ (p. 2) but very little evidence of the need to protect citizens’ interests. Almost every form of intervention is rejected on the basis that it would unsettle the market environment and make it more difficult for companies to settle on fixed, long-term plans. Indeed, interventions are described as ‘discretionary’ as in ‘too much discretion would create market uncertainty and impair incentives to invest and innovate’ (p. 32). Furthermore, discretion is associated simply with the power of ministers either to launch or bury reviews, a power with which Ofcom is rightly uncomfortable.
Yet, at the same time, ‘setting absolute limits [on market dominance] leaves no room for flexibility. This creates a risk that it is not possible to address issues of commercial sustainability and innovation in an appropriate manner, and this could be a concern in markets that are dynamic and unpredictable’ (p. 34). Discretion is out; flexibility is in.
However, in CCMR, we are not asking for what David Elstein, in his own positive response to Ofcom’s document for openDemocracy, calls ‘ad hoc discretionary interventions’ but a systematic approach to ensuring plurality based on a series of principles that can be deployed in relation to specific circumstances:
- The promotion of a diverse news landscape and high quality journalism in the public interest;
- The protection of the public from unethical and unlawful newsroom practices;
- The regaining of public trust through transparent mechanisms of accountability.
Our submission to Leveson calls for a threshold of 15 per cent of specific market sectors (national newspaper, television, radio, online) beyond which a series of public interest obligations—protecting editorial autonomy and supporting public interest media) are imposed on the particular organisation up to a limit of 20 per cent.
Our call is for levies to be imposed on those companies who continue to make significant profits. These levies would not, to use David Elstein’s phrase, ‘penalise success’ but simply reflect an argument that large media companies should have a responsibility that goes beyond their own immediate interests in their own market and make a contribution to the wider media economy from which they benefit. This will neither bankrupt nor demotivate the Googles, Facebooks and News Corps of this world.
Our call is for government to intervene in proactive and creative ways to sustain plurality and facilitate diversity. David Elstein asks: ‘If a loss-making news operation closes, what can be done anyway?’ Our proposals are precisely about making it possible to secure jobs and titles through changes to charity law and introducing tax incentives to encourage new forms of mutual ownership.
Our starting point is that the existing system—as exemplified by the undemocratic, collusive relationships that have been nurtured between press, politicians and the police—has failed the needs of citizens and that radical action is necessary to protect the public interest. Of course, we expect politicians and media executives to cry out that our proposals constitute an unwarranted attack on press freedom (they do not), that they will deincentivize innovation and penalise success (they will not) and that they are impractical (they are not).
Democratic media reforms depend on the political will to press for change. Media pluralism and diversity are not likely to be secured through non-intervention but, instead, by acting decisively and using a range of financial and regulatory tools such as those proposed by the increasingly vigorous media reform movement. Ofcom has so often provided us with vital data; this time, it has not offered proposals that live up to the challenge.