Media Plurality - Communications Committee Contents

Media plurality

Chapter 1: Introduction—the case for a media plurality policy

What is media plurality?

1.  The call to define, or at least describe, media plurality elicited the strongest consensus we encountered in this inquiry.[1] The clearest expression of its generally accepted meaning came from Ofcom:

  • "Plurality is not a goal in itself but a means to an end … a well-functioning democratic society."[2]
  • "Plurality contributes to a well-functioning democratic society through the means of:

(a)  Informed citizens—able to access and consume a wide range of viewpoints across a variety of platforms and media owners.

(b)  Preventing too much influence over the political process—exercised by any one media owner."[3]

2.  The existence of a strong consensus around this description came as no surprise; a number of prominent publications have remarked on it before:

    "There is no definition of media plurality in statute; however, in advice to the Department in 2012, Ofcom provided a useful definition of the desired outcomes of a plural market … Lord Justice Leveson noted in his report that this approach to both the diversity of views available and the influence wielded seems to be generally accepted."[4]

3.  We add our voice to this consensus: the twin elements of Ofcom's formulation both represent important "desired outcomes of a plural market."[5] They describe what plurality is for and by doing so define plurality as the state of the media which successfully brings these outcomes about.

The case for a plurality policy

4.  A less clear-cut matter than finding an agreed description of media plurality is the question: why do we need a media plurality policy at all? Curiously, this is less clear-cut not because it was an area of significant dispute between witnesses but rather the opposite: the answer appears to be taken largely for granted: yes, a policy is required and all that remains is to determine what that policy should be. We agree on the need for a media plurality policy, but we also think that the basic case for one—in the most general terms, rather than for a specific proposal—should be made at the outset. This has proved a more difficult task than we imagined.

5.  The definition of the problem naturally frames the range of credible solutions. Ofcom's description contains two different but related outcomes of media plurality. If the case for reform rests more heavily on one than the other, this will have an effect on the relevance of any solution. For example, if the purpose of a media plurality policy were defined in terms of preventing too much influence over the political process, then the solution could include measures designed to rein in democratic imbalances of power and access in the most general sense. Alternatively, if its purpose were defined in terms of the ability of citizens to access and consume a wide range of viewpoints, then the focus is more likely to be on the way the industry's regulatory framework can stimulate the availability of diverse editorial voice. The hierarchy of these two elements must clearly be set. Accordingly, across chapters 2-4, we explore each approach to media plurality policy put to us in evidence together with its version of the case for one.

6.  Having said that, there are one or two preliminary points to be made about the case for a media plurality policy which are neutral with respect to the approach any policy might take. These arise from considering the implications of having no plurality policy at all: what would its absence mean in practice?

7.  First, there is a regulatory context to media plurality policy which we do not, generally speaking, regard as being part of plurality policy itself,[6] e.g.:

·  Broadcast standards including due impartiality;

·  Positive obligations on PSBs, e.g. to show an appropriate amount of national, international and regional news; and

·  Restrictions on TV/radio licences being granted to particular types of person whose influence might cause concern, e.g. advertising agencies.

8.  The case for these interventions does not rest solely on their effect on media plurality. Indeed, the only provisions which are very specifically an implementation of a media plurality policy are the "20/20 rule"[7] and the Public Interest Test.[8] Both of these provisions relate to media ownership. As such, not having these provisions would allow shifts in media ownership to proceed unchallenged, other than by the normal processes for assessing their impact on competition by the competition authorities.

9.  This prompts a more precise question: would it matter if there were no policy on media plurality such that decisions on media ownership were made strictly on competition grounds? To this, our emphatic answer is: yes. There is a fundamental difference between the interests of competition and the consumer on the one hand, and the interests of the citizen and media plurality on the other; in matters of media ownership, both need to be considered. Robin Foster explained this point:

    "Plurality is not the same thing as competition, although they are linked. Competition law helps protect the economic interests of individuals as consumers and acts to secure a reasonable level of choice and value in any commercial market. Insofar as competition law can prevent the emergence of monopolies, it will also have some positive effect on plurality. Society as whole, however, may take the view that the outcome of a competitive market does not fully serve the interests of individuals as citizens. For example, markets might provide high quality news to only the most commercially attractive segments of a population, society would prefer all to benefit. Markets might focus only on the most popular types of news; society would like a much deeper and more diverse range of news and views to be widely available, reflecting minority as well as majority viewpoints. Markets might tend towards an oligopolistic structure (with only a few big suppliers) while society would prefer a larger number of different suppliers"[9]

10.  Professor Martin Cave helped explain these differences further:

    "Plurality is basically a social and collective goal … That means that, as with many collective endeavours, the definition of the goal and the metrics for the goal have to be set top-down … I interpret competition policy as being … essentially an individualistic analysis. What we are trying to do is take the customer … and try to ensure that that customer is able to exercise, without constraint, their own choices as to what they consume. We are not really interested so much in the outcome of what they consume; we are interested more in the ability of the customer to be able to make choices in a way that constrains firms from raising their prices. That is fundamentally it … But when somebody is trying to achieve pluralistic objectives … they may observe a situation, for example, in which people make consumption decisions of their own free will and without any presence of market power, but the outcome turns out to be very unpluralistic. For example, suppose everybody chose to read the same newspaper. That would be, in competition terms, in the absence of market power and in the absence of any kind of abusive behaviour, quite a satisfactory outcome … It is the best newspaper so people buy it. But in terms of achieving the objective for pluralism, which is to ensure that a broad range of opinions are consumed and that no proprietor or owner is in a position to exercise power by virtue of his or her capacity to determine what is in those newspapers, that objective will not be achieved."[10]

11.  Competition and plurality policy are clearly separate but parallel policies, and one way this can be seen is in outcomes which would be satisfactory in a competition assessment but unsatisfactory in a plurality assessment, or vice versa. Therefore, without prejudice to any particular solution, a case can clearly be made for a media plurality policy in the most general sense. This rests on the unsatisfactory situation from a civic perspective which would arise in the absence of such a policy, with decisions on media ownership made solely on competition grounds.

12.  In the following three chapters we analyse the proposals which we received on plurality policy. In chapter 2 we consider different ways to define its scope. In chapter 3 we evaluate various models for how to approach assessment and intervention and in chapter 4 we assess different ways to allocate institutional responsibility for any decision. In chapter 5 we set out our own proposal on media plurality policy, including a set of principles and mechanisms which will be fundamental to the Government's current and ongoing work. A description of the existing arrangements for media plurality is contained in Appendix 4.


13.  We would like to thank everyone who gave evidence to us, both at oral evidence sessions, which we held between June and November 2013, and in writing.[11] We also wish to thank our Specialist Adviser, Tim Suter, whose expertise greatly enhanced our work.

1   It would be remiss, however, not to mention that this consensus was not universal. Some witnesses claimed that Ofcom's description should explicitly embrace social and cultural dimensions of plurality as well as the democratic one. We turn to this question which relates to the scope of media plurality policy in the following chapter, Scope. Back

2   Ofcom. Back

3   Ibid.  Back

4   Department for Culture, Media and Sport: Media Ownership and Plurality Consultation, July 2013. Available online: Media_Plurality_Consultation_2013.pdf Back

5   Ofcom, 6 June 2012. Measuring media plurality: Ofcom's advice to the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport. Available online: Back

6   Further detail on the regulatory context to media plurality can be found in Appendix 4.  Back

7   This prohibits a newspaper group with more than 20% of national newspaper share from holding a Channel 3 licence or a stake in a Channel 3 licensee that is greater than 20%. The restrictions apply to both licensees/newspaper owners and persons controlling licensees/newspaper owners, the participation threshold being 20%. Back

8   Enterprise Act 2002, section 58(2B) and (2C)(a). Back

9   Robin Foster. Back

10   Q 288. Back

11   See Appendix 2 for a list of all those who submitted evidence. Back

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