Select Committee on Communications Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by Professor Richard Collins, the Open University

SECOND CALL FOR EVIDENCE

  1.  Established media sectors are in decline, newspaper readership is declining and advertising is migrating to the Internet (the freesheet sector is a qualified exception). Radio listening has also declined. In television, as channels proliferate viewership for individual channels declines and revenues per viewer hour fall (a trend exacerbated by the migration of advertising online). In some sectors, eg "broadsheet" newspapers, firms have responded by raising prices but the high returns to economies of scope and scale across these sectors mean that firms are likely to respond to these market changes by merging and/or reducing costs. Both strategies have potentially adverse consequences for the quality and diversity of news and suggest that the House of Lords Communications Committee's inquiry on Media Ownership and the News is particularly timely.

  2.  In other sectors, firms' raising of prices and merging potentially raise important competition concerns. Such concerns are certainly relevant to the media sector, although familiar problems in competition regulation, eg market definition and slow resolution of cases, may pose particularly acute problems, but in the media sector other considerations also apply—notably the key role of media in providing information necessary for people to form views and act effectively as citizens—and have heretofore mandated special regulatory regimes. The public interest test for newspaper mergers is a case in point.

  3.  The public interest test (undertaken by Ofcom and the Office of Fair Trading) identifies the objectives of accuracy, pluralism and freedom of expression and specifies:

    —  accurate presentation of news and free expression of opinion in newspapers; and

    —  plurality of views in the markets for newspapers.

  Additionally, in respect of broadcasting related mergers, it identifies the objectives of diversity, impartiality and protection of the vulnerable and specifies:

    —  media pluralism;

    —  the need for a wide range of high quality broadcasting services appealing to a wide range of tastes and interests; and

    —  media enterprises commitment to the objectives of section 319 of the CA 2003 (ie protection of minors, preservation of public order, impartiality of news etc).

  To these objectives, the goals of truthfulness and comprehensiveness might be added.

  4.  Established media regulatory regimes have largely been based on government/regulatory control of entry to media, and particularly broadcasting, markets—hence the use of media cross ownership regulation (government controlling entry to terrestrial broadcasting through spectrum assignment) as a proxy for concentration of ownership regulation. However, technological change (broadcasting satellites, the Internet etc) means that government ability to control entry, and thus to set and enforce regulatory conditions, is diminishing. If public policy objectives, such as those defined for the public interest test, are likely to become more difficult to secure through traditional forms of regulation (prohibition of undesirable conduct and encouragement of desired conduct by authorising entry, and licencing providers, only if such goals are secured) what can be done in new circumstances?

  5.  The problems of established, "legacy", media sectors are the reverse of the opportunities enjoyed by emerging sectors. Broadband access to the Internet is now enjoyed by more than 60% of UK homes. Using the Internet as a source of news is among the most widespread of UK online users activities and users rate the Internet as more important than television, radio or newspapers for gathering information and is more trusted than newspapers (though television is the most trusted news source). Although it's important not to oversimplify by making a categorical distinction between the Internet and "legacy" media (not least because of the interdependencies between them—particularly in news) it's clear that the Internet has diversified and extended the range of sources of news and information available to UK users,[1] and that threats to "legacy" media are balanced by the opportunities presented by new media.

  6.  Although securing public policy objectives by attaching conditions to licences is diminishing in effectiveness, opportunities to strengthen and extend the contribution of the media, and particularly new media, to securing public policy objectives through public funding remain. Both the BBC and UK Film Council exemplify this practice of "positive regulation" and Ofcom's proposal for a "Public Service Publisher" provides another case in point. Public funding should be conditional on recipients demonstrating that their services contribute to securing public policy objectives (notably accuracy, pluralism, freedom of expression, diversity, impartiality, protection of the vulnerable, truthfulness and comprehensiveness) and that they adhere to a suitable code of journalistic and editorial conduct.

  7.  More work needs to be done to formulate a suitable code for UK circumstances but possible sources include the lexicon of European codes of journalistic ethics (at http://www.uta.fi/ethicnet/ ); the proposals of the Royal Commission on the Press 1977 for codification of editorial/journalistic rights;[2] Baroness O'Neill's list of proposed "conventions and standards" notably:

    —  Declaration of "relevant interests and conflicts of interest".

    —  Declaration of "relations with lobbyists, political parties, companies and campaigning organisations".

    —  Publication of "credentials of reporters writing on technical topics" and warning if reporters "lacking the relevant competence" are assigned to a particular topic.

    —  Declaration of "full financial information about payments made to obtain material relevant to `stories'".

    —  Publication of corrections "of equal length and prominence, perhaps written by third parties".

    —  Penalties for "recirculating `stories' shown to be libellous or invented".[3]

  8.  In summary, entry by new providers (especially online) should be encouraged and public finance made available to incentivise providers to offer services characterised by accuracy, pluralism, freedom of expression, diversity, impartiality, protection of the vulnerable, truthfulness and comprehensiveness. Funding should be conditional on adherence to a suitable journalistic/editorial code of conduct which should be the subject of public consultation and might be based on selection from and/or a combination of extant codes notably those formulated by the Royal Commission on the Press 1977 and latterly by Baroness O'Neill.

29 January 2008




1   However, see Paterson's claim that Internet news emanates from a limited number of sources, notably four major news agencies, and that "source diversity" in news has not grown significantly. Paterson, C (2006) News Agency Dominance in International News. Paper 01/06. Leeds. Centre for International Communications Research. At http://ics.leeds.ac.uk/papers/cicr/exhibits/42/cicrpaterson.pdf Back

2   Including:
The right to reject material provided by central management or editorial services.
The right to determine the contents of the paper (within the bounds of reasonable economic consideration and the established policy of the publication).
The right to allocate expenditure within a budget.
The right to carry out investigative journalism.
The right to reject advice on editorial policy.
The right to criticise the paper's own group or other parts of the same corporate organisation.
The right to change the alignment or views of the paper on specific issues within its agreed editorial policy.
The right to appoint or dismiss journalists and to decide the terms of their contracts of employment within the established policy of the organisation and the right to assign journalists to stories (Royal Commission on the Press 1977: 155). 
Back

3   See pages 186-7 and 190 in O' Neill, O (2002) Autonomy and Trust in Bioethics. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. Back


 
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