Select Committee on Communications Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 719 - 739)


Professor Richard Collins, Professor James Curran and Professor Stewart Purvis

  Q719  Chairman: Good morning, gentlemen. I welcome you to our inquiry. As you will note, I am not the usual Chairman; Lord Fowler is out of the country at the moment. You may be wondering why Professor Franklin is not with you; he has a serious bout of flu and cannot make it. You know what the inquiry is about; you have submitted evidence to us. The first questions are to all of you and then we will switch to asking individuals. I would ask that you do not come in on the questions asked of others, but I will obviously let anybody who wishes to say something say it whenever they want to say it. May we begin with the question of the impact of the ownership, which is obviously part of the key to what we are doing, on news provision and what the impact of that has been. Do you consider that increasing the consolidation of the media ownership to be a threat to the quality and diversity of news available and, if so, why?

  Professor Purvis: I think that it is a threat but I do not think that it is necessarily a serious threat because there is a major offset in this digital converged world and that is that the barriers of entry to the news business are lower than they have ever been in the sense that any of us today could walk out of this room and set up a news website by the end of the day and we could actually receive the content value at the end of the day, and that is an extraordinary change whether it be compared to broadcast or print. The access to the means of distribution and the access to the content by the consumer have changed radically and I think that that is a major offset to the concern about ownership. I think that it creates a new concern which I, in a sense, would put not quite as high as ownership though I would say that it is coming up the scale, and that is media aggregation by which I mean the power of media organisations—and sometimes not from a traditional media background at all but from a technology background—to direct the traffic, and the most obvious example is the aggregator-in-chief, Google, who have the power via the algorithms, in other words the numbers that control the way they direct traffic in an online world, to either send them to your site or not depending on how they choose to do that. As somebody who has experience not just in university but in the media in operating sites, it is quite extraordinary to see the peaks of traffic on your own site and then understand that that is entirely because an aggregator has chosen to point to your site or not to point to your site.

  Q720  Chairman: Do you mean on their front page?

  Professor Purvis: On that page but, in a sense, the search is almost as important as the front page. If you type the word "news" into Google, up come a series of news organisations in an order and I have never understood why they come up in that order but they do because somebody at Google has made them come up in that order. Inevitably, that means the people near the top of the list are going to get more traffic than people at the bottom of the list.

  Q721  Chairman: I use Yahoo and they actually list news; they have news items.

  Professor Purvis: The other twist to this is that Google and Yahoo, which were initially just searches, have now, in a sense, also got into the news business a little bit themselves because Google is saying to people like yourself, "If you would like to comment on the news yourself as the people who make news, write something for us", so they have almost become media creators/content creators, which they will then put in alongside the other content they are pointing to. I think that these are suddenly interesting people and we should be enthusiastic about the services they are offering but a little cautious about the power they are acquiring.

  Q722  Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: I would like to ask one question about that. The question the Chairman put was about quality and diversity. You have talked about diversity. Do you have anything to say about quality in the sense that this range of diversity you are describing could imply, potentially, a loss of quality because a lot of it is unmediated or anyway, if it is mediated, it is not clear by whom or why?

  Professor Purvis: Whether we have a problem with unmediated content is a major issue in itself. If you take the Prime Minister's famous speech, the views papers speech, in that speech, there is effectively an attack on unmediated content, but surely unmediated content is back to the printing press in the first place. It is about people putting forward their views; it is about citizens having a voice suddenly. If we do not like what they say, that is a small price to pay for the freedom those people are being given to air their views.

  Professor Curran: I would like to respond to Stewart's eloquence. The most visited news sites in Britain are those controlled by existing media organisations. It is true that there are a large number of bloggers but how important are bloggers in terms of the general news feed? Pugh, for example, did research in America and found that only 6% of the American electorate looked at blogs as a source of news in the Presidential Election. It needs to be put in context. There is an offsetting factor, it is very exciting but it is not that important as an influence save on journalism. Of course, there is a problem of concentration. Three companies control 70% of the national daily newspaper market. Is there a problem of quality? The British public thinks so. In a Eurobarometer Survey, the British public were more distrustful of the British press than any European population of their press. The figure was 75% of people said they tended not to trust the press. So, there is a problem of quality and there is a problem of diversity and blogs is unfortunately not the solution.

  Q723  Chairman: Do you think that that 76 (sic) % which do not trust the press is a new phenomenon? Do we have figures from further back?

  Professor Curran: It is not a new phenomenon. MORI have done surveys and Gallup have done surveys over a period of some 30 years and it shows a low degree of credibility of the British press. What was different about Eurobarometer is that it compared the situation in Britain with the situation in other European countries.

  Professor Collins: I see the situation more as Professor Purvis does than Professor Curran. I think that a sense of proportion is important. I think that there are very few countries that have a media with five quality newspapers of diverse ownership and three nationally based distinct sources of television news, all of which can claim some authority. It is always possible to say that things could and should be better but, in terms of diversity of ownership, I think that there are few media markets that are more diverse than the UK nationally although if you look at Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and some English regional markets, you get a very different story and more causes for concern. I hear Professor Purvis's view that the growth of online media presents striking opportunities to improve things. I think that the difficulties Professor Curran has pointed to with established print and broadcast media are likely to continue. I think that we are seeing a secular change in those markets. Newspaper readership is declining and as more and more TV channels come on stream, the audience for any individual channel and therefore its revenue-raising capacity declines. Advertising revenue is moving away from these legacy media to online. The responses open to owners of legacy media are becoming more and more restricted as circulation and advertising revenues diminish. So, either they can reduce costs or they can merge. My sense is that unless there is a striking increase in public intervention in media markets, essentially we are going to see a tightening of the ownership screw in legacy media and this is where I think that the hare that Professor Purvis has started running, the potential of online media and what can be done to improve established performance there, is one worth pursuing.

  Q724  Chairman: Do you have any examples of where the proprietor and this consolidation of proprietorship have actually influenced editorial decisions in a particular newspaper?

  Professor Purvis: Coming from a broadcast background, I have one or two examples of where a customer as opposed to an owner or proprietor has intervened and, on those occasions, I rejected their intervention. I cannot speak for the newspaper sector but I am aware that my colleague at City University, Professor Roy Greenslade, did a survey that showed that, at the time of the Iraq war, 175 editors in Rupert Murdoch's employment were all in favour of the war which left some worry about how they had come to that conclusion. That is the only background I can offer on that.

  Professor Curran: There was a survey done by a German sociologist, Donsbach, which compared journalists in Italy, Germany, Britain and America, and, in his survey, 22% of British journalists said that they were constrained by editors or senior managers in what they wrote, which was lower than in Italy but much higher than in Germany and America. According to that survey, one in five journalists felt that they were influenced by "significant management pressure" was the phrase that was used. On the other question about direct intervention, I think that is too blunt a question to pick up on a subtle influence. If you ask senior managers in The Sunday Times now, "Have you been influenced by Murdoch?" I am sure that they would all say "no" hand on heart and they would be right to do so, but the change took place in the early 1980s when Murdoch acquired The Sunday Times. He moved the paper from a liberal conservative to a more right-wing conservative register and he did that through senior managers who had a series of rows with their journalists and 100 journalists out of 170 left in a period of five years. Having cleared out autonomous liberal conservatives, new sorts of team players came in and a new editorial culture ethos was created, and it is no longer necessary to influence the editorial agenda because there is a house tradition and there is a culture already established. To give a satisfactory answer to your question, history is required to be looked at, not simply interventionicity.

  Q725  Chairman: I am sure that Rupert Murdoch does not believe in Scottish independence and yet The Sunday Times, certainly in Scotland, supported the SNP in the Scottish elections, which is just an example the other way.

  Professor Curran: That is true although the fact that so many of the editors of his group's newspapers in Australia, American and Britain all supported the Iraq war suggest that they were double guessing to some extent.

  Q726  Lord King of Bridgwater: Professor Collins, you said that, compared to other countries, there was an undue concentration of ownership, but really you are not so much concerned how we compare with other countries, it is the absolute standard of what is right. There is a greater concentration than there used to be; does that matter?

  Professor Collins: Let me put a similar point more generally, Lord King. I think there is a finite amount of diversity that any media economy can sustain and some markets can sustain no diversity at all, local markets for example. I think that we are in a period in which the established media, and still the dominant media, of broadcasting and newspapers are finding their financial screws being turned more tightly. That process has not gone so far in the UK as a whole as it has in many other countries. I guess that is the sum of my observation. One can always say that there is room for more diversity and more quality. These are criteria that almost by definition can never be satisfied. My point is that one has to assess an imperfect existing situation in terms of how far realistically things could be different and I think that referring to examples in other countries and to structural economic pressures are important factors in doing so.

  Q727  Lord King of Bridgwater: Professor Purvis mentioned the question of customers putting pressure but I am not sure whether that is pressure directly through on the editorial side or whether it comes through the commercial side through advertising, threats to withdraw advertising etc.

  Professor Purvis: My experience was never on the advertising side. In fact, it worked the opposite way where if a broadcaster was aware that we had a piece of content which in a sense might not be in perfect juxtaposition with the advert, they would pull the advert rather than ask us to pull the content, so that is a kind of fairly noble tradition. The examples of where there was direct editorial intervention normally involved content which was deemed to be embarrassing to the broadcaster directly such as, for instance, when broadcast executives appeared before Mr Kaufman's Committee as it was and did not do very well, one might receive a call saying, "Do you really need to show that part where Kaufman turned our guy over?" It was as crude as that.

  Q728  Chairman: Or Maxton!

  Professor Purvis: Or Maxton! The answer to that was, "It was such an important issue and it was also quite a dramatic piece of television, so the answer is `yes'".

  Q729  Lord King of Bridgwater: Part of the study that we are undertaking is on this issue of news and the degree to which there is proper diversity, there is a genuine quality of news provision in this country. I think the evidence we have been given so far is that there is not very much to worry about, there is new technology coming in with lots of other opportunities and we are better than other countries. Are we wasting our time?

  Professor Purvis: I am not underestimating any of the things that Professor Curran has pointed out. There is a whole group of newspapers in this country which is effectively owned and controlled by one man and you cannot get away from that fact. I can only repeat that there are opportunities that did not exist before and I am not just talking about bloggers. I responded particularly to the question of unmediated content. I am talking about specialist journalism for which there never really was a daily outlet before. You might have a specialist journal that has appeared now, there are specialist websites and quite often they break stories. They put material into the public domain which perhaps would not have appeared in a daily newspaper and quite often daily newspapers follow it up. I think that has a positive impact on quality, it has a positive impact on diversity and it did not exist before.

  Q730  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Picking up on what Professor Curran said, I absolutely accept that over time The Times and other members of the Murdoch stable have had a cultural change, but what about the effects of the whole news core entity? I think it is correct to say that, for instance, the BSkyB/Virgin spat was rather undercovered in The Times and I do not know what your response to that is. That is something slightly more than a sort of cultural shift, that is a specific story being ignored.

  Professor Curran: I think that the media are very bad at scrutinising themselves. There has been a very large increase in regional press concentration. When you look at the media sections of the daily papers, they do not talk about it. I agree with the point that Stewart Purvis has made that advertising does not have much influence. I think it is a hare that has been run and its influence is enormously exaggerated. I would like to pick up on the central question which is, does concentration matter, which is the question you put. It matters enormously in terms of restricting entry into the market. It is very, very difficult to set up a daily paper or indeed launch a major television channel because of the established power of incumbents. The Internet is of course an opportunity to enormously extend the range of voices heard and hopefully will do so, but one of the consequences of the economic power of existing large corporations is that they are colonising in cyberspace. There is a problem of online concentration now, paradoxically. If you look at where people go to look for the news online, they go to The Daily Mail, The Guardian and the BBC. My answer is that you have a job of work to do.

  Q731  Chairman: Professor Collins, do you wish to respond to any of that?

  Professor Collins: Yes, I think so. I think that the basic presumption is that diversity of ownership equates to diversity of content and there has not been much research undertaken to test that proposition. If one looks at the news values of the UK media, the 10 major newspapers and the three major sources of television news, as Ofcom did in an interesting paper last year New News, Future News, the finding was that essentially there is a shared universe of news values, that the same things are being reported across the newspapers and across broadcast news. What is different is the spin or the perspective put on it. I think that it is hard to get away from that mainstreaming of what is important in society and indeed a shared mainstreaming of assumptions about what is important is one of the things that keeps society together. I think the question is, is there sufficient information of an authoritative kind in the public domain for people to make well-informed and sensible decisions about the things that matter to them? If one looks at the newspapers that have the highest circulations, the answer is "no" but, if one looks at the ensemble of media that is readily available at affordable prices, I would say "yes", and it is people's choice whether they choose to buy The Sun, The Mirror and The Daily Star or whether to buy The Financial Times, The Times, The Guardian, The Independent or The Telegraph. What I think we have seen over the last 15 years is a growth in diversity of sources of broadcast news. Sky is the most striking example of that, but there is also the relaying of other English language news programmes, CNN, Fox, Bloomberg and so on, and the unprecedented accessibility of news programmes in languages other than English coming from outside the UK. My view is that again one can always ask for more diversity and more quality but, if one looks at the situation over the last, let us say, 21 years since The Independent started in 1986, we have had one new UK-wide newspaper of authority, we have had Sky News come on stream, we have had a plethora of more or less reliable, more or less polemical, more or less authoritative sources of online information and a great increase in the accessibility of substantial news services originated overseas.

  Q732  Baroness Thornton: I want to ask you about regulation to protect diversity and quality of news. There are several approaches, as I am sure you know, and recently, when we were in America, one of the issues that was under discussion was The Wall Street Journal takeover and how that would be protected, or indeed when The Times was taken over, which Professor Curran has already touched upon. There are editorial safeguards that can be written into contracts of journalists or to promote professional codes of conduct. Would you support further regulation to control media ownership and what general approach do you think such regulation might take?

  Professor Collins: When we talk about media ownership, I think we are talking about regulation of concentration of ownership. I take it that we are not talking about national ownership. The Communications Act 2003 liberalised ownership regulation and I think that that is an international trend. One sees it in Australia and Canada and I think the likely outcome of the current FCC inquiry in the US is likely to be liberalisation. There has not been a great deal of change to the ownership structures of the UK media over the last four or five years. I think that we have seen some unanticipated and perverse consequences of concentration of ownership regulation and the so-called Emap case is well known where Emap took over a radio company and, because of the ownership regulations, it had too many channels. No-one wanted to buy or take over the channel that Emap had too many of, so one went off air, which is hardly beneficial to radio listeners. My view is that the room for manoeuvre for regulators in terms of concentration of ownership of traditional, established media is going to decline because I think that newspaper readership is in a long-term slow decline. We are going to continue to see a proliferation of broadcast channels, so any individual channel is going to be less attractive as an advertising medium and advertising is migrating online. I think that it is almost inevitable that there will be further concentration and I think that, if one tries to regulate that, not only is the regulator in a nightmare-ish problem about how do you define the markets and what do you do in an Emap case—and, in my view, what you do in an Emap case is say that continuing with these outlets is less bad than them going off air—and you then get into a proliferation of special cases and so on which I think starts to become unmanageable. I would rather turn attention to what positively public authorities can do. I think that there is still room for continuing more or less with existing concentration of ownership regulations; they still have some bite and they are useful as an insurance or backstop. However, in the long term, I think that we are in a game where they are going to slowly wither away. For me, the question becomes, what is the appropriate and proportionate level of public intervention—we have a massive level of that in broadcasting and I think that is worth thinking about—and what can be done to promote desired behaviour among journalists, owners and editors? I have to acknowledge that the record there is a fairly gloomy one but I think that it is to those two areas that attention can profitably be drawn and I can say more about both should the Committee wish.

  Professor Curran: Richard Collins is of course right in saying that the world is moving in a deregulatory way. I have just completed research funded by the SRC looking at the consequences of that and I and colleagues in three other countries compared reporting and public knowledge in America with Britain, Finland and Denmark—America has the most deregulated TV system and Scandinavia is the most regulated and we are halfway between the two—and what we found was a staggering degree of ignorance amongst the American population. For example, 37% of Americans knew what the Kyoto Treaty was and over 80% of Fins and Danes did, and the difference arose from the fact that American TV clears the news to the margins of primetime. So, between 7.00 and 11.00 you do not get the news on the main networks. Whereas, in Scandinavia, you have a drip feed of public information, news throughout the evening, on the major channels and Britain is in between. I think that it is a disaster that the television news was moved to 10.00 and 10.30 and one of the reasons why the British population emerged as being less informed than Scandinavians is because of deregulation. If I was on your Committee, I would exert pressure on Ofcom to persuade ITV to return the news hour to 10.00.

  Q733  Lord King of Bridgwater: Which they are going to do.

  Professor Curran: It has been leaked but leaks are not the same as ... That is wonderful and there should be pressure perhaps in the form of public statements to encourage the BBC to move to earlier in the evening too. Deregulation is not necessarily inexorable nor is it necessarily desirable.

  Chairman: I think that is an opportunity to move to some questions directed to Professor Purvis on ITV.

  Q734  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: I think that to some extent the question has been gone over fairly well but, just looking again at your times idea, can you recall times when there was pressure from a particular programme or whatever to cover certain stories, or was that not an issue and was it in fact battling away, as it probably should have been, in the way that we were told by ITN, that editorial control is with the editorial management at ITN and is, if you like, sacrosanct? Did that work out in fact?

  Professor Purvis: I think that the distance between ITN as the supplier and ITV, Channel 4 and, for a time, Channel 5 as the customer did help maintain editorial integrity and editorial independence but, of course, being realistic, there were times—and I have given you examples, and there were very few—when I would be called by the customer. There were other occasions when I would be nudged by the customer as to whether we were going to report some success: they had achieved an award of some kind. I have to say that, on that basis, I think that pretty much all British broadcasters do have some puffery. I think if you look at the BBC's coverage of the launch of Freeview, there was quite a lot of it but actually it has turned out to be a pretty important event, so that would be justified. I think that BSkyB for a time covered quite a lot about BSkyB's own digital development. So, I do not think that is a major issue. I think the examples sometimes are of omission, as was said, and when we come on to talk about impartiality ... Let us be honest, impartiality monitoring is of what is transmitted. It is not of what is not transmitted. So, actually, omission is the most powerful tool of all. By and large, I think that the relationship between ITN and its customers has been excellent and I have to say that, from the owners of ITN—and there have been some pretty interesting owners of ITN over the years, some very powerful personalities with some very strong views—to their credit, there was never any intervention at all.

  Q735  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: I would like to pick up on the impartiality point. Professor Purvis, what is your feeling about the suggestion that Ofcom has made that perhaps this needs reviewing in order to encourage what they call more diversity?

  Professor Purvis: First of all, may I, like Professor Collins, commend the Ofcom report. If you have not had a chance to look at that, it is undoubtedly the best piece of work done on broadcast news in recent times. The background is that I lived and breathed impartiality for 30-odd years. I took it so seriously that I did not vote, which actually I think is my failing as a citizen really but I did not want to have to make the judgment. As I have been a little more semidetached from it, I have become a little more realistic about impartiality. I have argued, for instance, that actually there is no such thing as an impartial agenda. There is impartial coverage. In other words, there are certain channels which are more interested in certain things because of where they come from. When I was the editor at Channel 4 News, it was sometimes described as a "left of centre" news. Actually, it had a left of centre agenda but I would say that the coverage of the stories was completely impartial. When I challenged the BBC and said, "Actually, you have an agenda of a kind but you are not really conscious of it", they would constantly deny it until I see that they had a report out which they themselves commissioned which came to the conclusion that there was a BBC agenda, but that did not mean that they did not report individual stories properly. The realist in me says that actually everyone has an agenda of a kind whether they realise it or not. Is this stifling diversity, which is Ofcom's conclusion? I am not entirely convinced about that but, as to their main conclusion that perhaps a regime in which the mainstream terrestrial broadcasters were held with their feet to the fire for impartiality but perhaps it could be relaxed for particularly the foreign broadcasters ... I am not sure whether the Committee is aware but there is a slightly bizarre situation where broadcasters who are outside Europe and wish to be retransmitted within Europe have to be regulated by some country within Europe. Some of them choose London because quite often they have London offices. So, Al Jazeera in English is actually regulated by Ofcom. I am sure that it is regulated by the Dubai Communications Authority but it is also regulated by Ofcom. Ofcom, to be honest, has had problems telling Fox News what the British rules on impartiality are because Fox News comes from somewhere, we all understand that, and it has come up with this definition of "due impartiality". I think that is part of the background. There is partly a real politique here that says, "Actually, can we really tell Al Jazeera and Fox News what to do? Would it not be better to reflect that in perhaps a two-tier regulatory system?"

  Q736  Baroness Eccles of Moulton: I am very interested in your analysis of the agenda that underpins the impartiality in the way individual stories are presented. I think you said that the BBC's agenda might have even been only semiconscious. Upon what would those agendas be based? Would they be crude, party-political positioning or would they be on some dominant public concern, for instance like global warming, or would they be so ephemeral that you could not really pin down what they were meaning?

  Professor Purvis: They would be both and you have chosen a good example in global warming/climate change. The BBC has given considerable prominence to that. There has been quite a debate within the BBC. For instance, everyone is against racism, therefore do you have to be impartial on racism? If it is a given now that there is climate change going on, do you have to be impartial between those who believe in climate change and those who perhaps do not agree? These are the debates going on, but undoubtedly the BBC has made climate change one of its news priorities. That, I argue, is an agenda. I was involved in a review of the BBC's coverage of the Middle East which I found to be a fascinating process. The outsiders—I was a sort of almost insider from news—came to the conclusion that there was not enough self-awareness by journalists about their own agenda and how, to a certain extent, they allow their agenda to be dictated by others. That is my cause, if you like: self-awareness and more honesty and transparency about some of these issues and more debate about them. To that extent, I absolutely welcome what the BBC Trust is trying to do to try and heighten awareness within the BBC of perhaps issues that they were not even aware of themselves.

  Q737  Lord King of Bridgwater: Gavyn Davies, the former Chairman of the BBC, gave evidence to us. I am becoming a little muddled between agenda and culture here. His view was that there was a sort of soft left culture in the BBC which, with hindsight, he felt should have been dealt with. Is that the same sort of point you are making about agenda and culture?

  Professor Purvis: No, I think there is a difference. I understand why you ask the question but I think that there is a difference between, shall we say, the views of individuals and how those may commune at times and what they judge to be the stories of the day. They may connect at times but their starting point is different, I think.

  Q738  Lord King of Bridgwater: It is not just a question of the story of the day, it is the way the story is handled. It is even down to the tone of voice of an interviewer, that sort of angle that we put on it. Either the question is asked straight or in a slightly questioning, disbelieving manner.

  Professor Purvis: We are getting into a slightly different area. My belief is that there is truly no such thing as an impartial agenda but that there can be impartial coverage of a story. An example I gave is, when I was editor at Channel 4 News, we did quite a lot about Nicaragua. At the time, Nicaragua was, shall we say, a story of more interest to people on the left than the right, but that did not mean to say that the coverage of Nicaragua was not completely balanced and completely straight.

  Q739  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: I have a question to Professor Purvis about ownership within television. It is quite possible that ITV could buy ITN.

  Professor Purvis: Yes.

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