Media Plurality - Communications Committee Contents



Media plurality is not a goal in itself but a means to an end. That end is generally conceived in terms of UK democratic life; if there is sufficient media plurality, we can expect that citizens have the opportunity to be informed through access to a diversity of viewpoints, and that media owners do not have too much influence over the political process.

Issues surrounding media plurality have come under the policy spotlight during the present Parliament, prompted by concerns raised about the proposed (and then dropped) acquisition of BSkyB by News Corporation; Ofcom's report on Measuring Media Plurality; the Leveson report; the report by the European Commission's High Level Group on Media Freedom & Pluralism; and most recently the Government's own consultation on media ownership and plurality. Together these have raised a number of ways in which the policy and regulatory framework currently surrounding plurality needs updating.

The focus placed on plurality across these various institutions might create the expectation that a consensus is forming and that momentum is now building behind reform. However, the questions we raised in our call for evidence elicited a range of submissions with very different views about how to proceed. We have found that making clear comparisons between different policy approaches to media plurality is not straightforward. This is not only because they do not generate consensus, but because the different perspectives—at least those we have heard—tend to enter the debate on such different terms: technocratic, polemic, and pragmatic.

Against that background, we have evaluated the different proposals put to us, giving consideration to their merits and demerits; our survey of the evidence can be found in chapters 2-4 of this Report. Our analysis highlights major concerns with some of these proposals and as such helped us arrive at a clear set of principles which we believe any reform to plurality policy should respect. For example, the focus for assessment should be on news and current affairs rather than other genres, and there must be a way to assess the impact on plurality of organic market change as well as the impact of specific transactions. In addition, assessing plurality properly requires more than one form of measurement, although these should be limited so as not to proliferate out of control. It follows that certain automatic interventions such as statutory caps are not the best option; they have to be set on a single scale and thus inherently impoverish the assessment that can be made about whether and how to intervene. Following an assessment, plurality policy should be revised to strike a new balance between the regulator and Government in terms of decisions to be made about intervention: there should be accountability for politicians where appropriate but the onus should be on Ofcom to balance the citizen and consumer interests. More generally, the Government should revise the present system of reviews of media transactions in order to clarify the relationship between competition and plurality policy.

Bringing these principles together, we submit our own proposal for reform; this is contained in chapter 5. Our intention is to help the Government to find a way through the vexed maze of debates surrounding media plurality. We call on the Government, in their ongoing work, to build on our approach, which incorporates

elements from a range of sources and provides a model, around which we believe a consensus may be found.

Our proposal is for a framework of two key elements. The first, which is new, is the undertaking of a plurality review on a predictable periodic basis, which should set the context for the second: a modification of the existing arrangements for a review of specific transactions which occur in the interval between one periodic review and the next. We would expect the latter to happen infrequently.

In a nutshell, Ofcom's task in conducting the periodic review will be to identify plurality concerns which exist in relation to specific media markets and across media, or with particular players. This should provide guidance about the prospects of any subsequent transaction being called in for a specific transactional review. Only in the most extreme circumstances should interventions in the interests of plurality be imposed outwith the context of a transaction, but where immediate and pressing concerns resulting from organic change are discovered in a periodic review, it should be possible for Ofcom to recommend that a media enterprise be forced to divest. A high bar should be in place for Ofcom to make such a recommendation and indeed the Secretary of State should have a role to play, on the basis that he or she should accept the recommendations in Ofcom's report or publish good reasons for not doing so.

Transactional reviews should consist, where relevant, of two distinct processes: one concerned with plurality to be conducted by Ofcom; the other concerned with the competition aspects of the transaction to be conducted by the competition authorities. In reality, we expect that these would occur infrequently, not least because periodic plurality reviews should be written so as to limit the need for transactional plurality reviews. The final step in the transactional review should be the submission of the competition and plurality assessments to the Ofcom Board which should be responsible for reconciling the recommendations of the two reports and implementing them as a single Public Interest Decision. The Ofcom Board would be expected to carry out this function mindful of its twin statutory duties to further and, therefore, balance the consumer and the citizen interest.

There are a number of important reforms in our proposal. We strike a new balance between the regulator and Government in terms of decisions to be made about intervention; Ofcom, not the Secretary of State, should have the final say about media transactions. However, the Secretary of State should have a role in giving political authority to the conclusions of periodic plurality reviews which establish the context in which transactions are made. There should be clear blue water between competition and plurality policy and their assessments should be distinct with the responsibility for reaching a final Public Interest Decision falling to a body with the appropriate statutory duties to give all considerations due weight. Interventions in the interests of plurality should, generally speaking, only be imposed in connection with specific transactions, but there must also be a mechanism for intervening where this can be justified and organic market change causes immediate and pressing concerns.

Many of the detailed questions of implementation remain to be answered, but we hope we have submitted a set of recommendations which the Government can accept and which will stimulate greater consensus and action towards reform than appears hitherto to have been possible.

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