The three main UK political parties – the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and Labour – have set out their policy priorities for the media & telecoms sectors in their party manifestos. A recent report from Enders Analysis highlights areas of convergence and divergence between them in different areas of TMT policy. Although there will be considerable policy continuity from one government to the next in some areas there are also substantial areas of disagreement between the parties, Enders writes, including media plurality. There is also a lack of policies for improving the provision of local news, Enders found. Here is an extract from the report, summarising progress in these areas during the last parliament, and outlining the different parties’ approaches going forward.
One consequence of News Corp’s aborted bid for BSkyB and the revelations which came out of the phone hacking scandal was a revived interest in introducing new laws to regulate media ownership and plurality. In his Report, Lord Justice Leveson made several recommendations on media plurality:
- Plurality policy should be narrowly focused on news and current affairs, and should include online provision
- Ofcom and the Government should include the industry in the process of developing a measurement framework for assessing plurality
- The government should consider whether there should be periodic plurality reviews, or an extension to the public interest test within the markets regime in competition law
- There should be a revised process for approval of media mergers by the Secretary of State, with the aim of making the reasoning behind decisions public and potentially subject to judicial review
However, he also acknowledged that there had not been enough time to address the subject of plurality in sufficient depth. The House of Lords Communications Committee then took up the issue by launching an inquiry, which led to a report published in February 2014. The report recommended that Ofcom conduct periodic reviews of plurality in news and current affairs, with the power to recommend remedies where organic growth led to excessive concentration, including divestment. The Secretary of State would then have to accept Ofcom’s advice or publish reasons for rejecting it. The Committee did not favour using caps on market share. In its response in August 2014, the DCMS committed to developing a measurement framework and letting Ofcom conduct a baseline assessment of plurality first before addressing the question of whether and how the current regime should be changed.
As with press regulation, the Conservatives have not signalled any intention to bring in stricter plurality rules. In their manifesto, the Liberal Democrats commit themselves to implementing the recommendations of the Communications Committee’s report, but want a vote in both Houses of Parliament to be necessary if a Minister wants to reject or change the recommendations Ofcom makes as a result of a plurality review. Labour have made their intention to bring in new plurality rules clear for some time. In June 2013, Harriet Harman outlined Labour’s thinking. She said the party favoured “clear bright lines”, with:
- “A lower ownership level below which there is no issue,
- an upper limit beyond which it would not be possible to go and where there will need to be divestment,
- and a clear, non-discretionary regulatory regime of obligations (such as measures to bolster editorial independence, independent governance and duties to promote plurality) for those media organisations which fall in the middle band between the lower level and upper limit.”
As to the exact placement of the limits and the metrics used, Harman was relatively agnostic at that stage, but pointed to the examples of a 15% cap on cross-media revenues, a 20% cap on ownership within any one sector, and a 25% limit within each sector and across all. Previously, in her evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, she had suggested a 30% cap on the proportion of newspaper circulation that could be in the hands of one organisation, with Ofcom having to approve transactions that led to a company having a 20-30% market share. That cap would only affect one publisher in the national newspaper market – News UK, which currently has a 32% share of the daily market and a 35% share of the Sunday market (see Figure 2). The requirement to review transactions leading to a 20-30% market share would mean that the purchase of any of The Sun, The Sun on Sunday, the Daily Mail or the Mail on Sunday would have to be reviewed, since each has over 20% market share.
The main government initiative concerning local media in this Parliament was Jeremy Hunt’s bid to establish local TV during his time as Culture Secretary. We have been consistently sceptical of the initiative, and note that no mention is made of it in the Conservative manifesto. Instead, there is a promise to consult on introducing business rate relief for local newspapers in England. The Liberal Democrats are committed to redirecting the current subsidies for local TV, would extend Ofcom’s community radio grant support to online hyperlocals, and would allow non-profit local media outlets to obtain charitable status where the public interest is being served. Labour’s manifesto does not mention local media – an omission we find strange given the party’s commitment to a programme of devolution to cities and regions. The number of journalists at local newspapers has fallen substantially in the last decade, raising the question who will cover, scrutinise and investigate the exercise of power by newly-empowered local politicians?
Likewise, the nationalist parties have few concrete proposals for fostering more local news provision. Both the SNP and Plaid Cymru instead focus on seeking the devolution of broadcasting policy (regulation of print media is already devolved). The only proposal to improve the local news situation is one by Plaid Cymru to give local newspapers the status of ‘community assets’ by amending the definition of the latter in the 2011 Localism Act. The thought is that, if a publisher wanted to close a local paper, it would have to go through a standstill period during which the community would be consulted on the closure and given the opportunity to bid for the paper. This rests on the idea that there are newspapers which publishers are closing because they are insufficiently profitable, but which are of enough value to the local community that they might accept a paper producing low profits, or running at a loss. How many of those there are is hard to say exactly, but perhaps unlikely to be many.
Nevertheless, it is striking that, despite what seems to be a widespread political consensus that more devolution is desirable, nothing like the same consensus exists on the importance to that project of boosting local news provision. As to why that is, one answer is that reviving local news will be difficult without some form of government subsidy and in a climate of austerity, such subsidy might be thought hard to justify while cuts are still being made elsewhere. We looked at various announcements regarding how the BBC could support local media in our recent report Local media – new structures emerging [2015-032].
This extract from Enders Analysis’ report on Party positions on media & telecoms for GE2015 is reproduced here with permission and thanks. This post gives the views of the authors and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.