Media Plurality - Communications Committee Contents

Chapter 2: scope

14.  In this chapter, we consider the major questions which arose during the inquiry relating to the scope or target of a plurality policy.

15.  We address the following aspects of the scope of a plurality policy:

·  Genre;

·  Geography;

·  Publicly funded media;

·  Media channel;

·  The lifecycle of news; and

·  The value chain.[12]



16.  One of the questions we posed in our call for evidence was, "Should [the scope of media plurality policy] encompass news and current affairs or wider cultural diversity in content provision as well?" Voice of the Listener and Viewer made the case for a wider variety of content being included in any plurality policy:

    "The availability of a range of genres, including drama, comedy and even, in some instances, light entertainment, especially where these involve content produced within the national culture, is important; these can be a powerful force in influencing the agenda or debate. They can also engage a different audience from that for news and current affairs programmes and should be included in the scope of media plurality policy."[13]

17.  Lord Puttnam agreed that the scope of plurality policy should be wider than only news and current affairs,

    "By way of an obvious example, one of the reasons we fund and support public-service broadcasters is to secure plurality beyond simply news and current affairs. We rightly concern ourselves at the possibility of a narrowing taste of the market. … the clear solution, surely, is to achieve a plurality of offering, so that audiences have an optimal opportunity to access the widest possible range of works."[14]

18.  Whilst not dismissing these views, others have pointed out that reforming plurality policy is a difficult task and that getting it right with regard to news and current affairs is the priority. Accordingly, Suzanne Rab and Dr Alison Sprague acknowledged that some genres such as soaps might influence one's viewpoint but, nonetheless, recommended that the scope of media plurality should encompass news and current affairs only.[15] Lord Fowler was emphatic on this point:

    "I think you do what it is possible to do and you also do what is most important. I think what is most important is news and current affairs … it is going to be difficult enough to do that without getting into new areas, like drama with messages … My own feeling would be to concentrate on what we can achieve … and what has the most impact, … news and current affairs. That has the most direct effect on the proper functioning of a democracy. If we can achieve that, we will be achieving a vast amount."[16]

19.  The BBC concurred that news and current affairs are the most important genres in terms of driving the news agenda and developing public debate, and so therefore should be the primary genres to be considered in any plurality policy.[17]

20.  There are also practical difficulties associated with a wider scope of genre for a plurality policy. Ed Vaizey MP, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries explained that,

    "Unless one is prepared to not let the best be the enemy of the good, you could have this debate almost endlessly. Should films form part of the debate—individual films can be extraordinarily influential, wildlife documentaries, for example—video games, books being published, clearly polemical books on particular issues? You would be hard pressed to come to any kind of manageable system that incorporated that wide a scope."[18]

21.  Conversely there are good practical reasons for limiting the scope of a plurality policy to news and current affairs. Ofcom gave two examples—the genre "news and current affairs" is already used in television and online measurement systems and it is also easily understood by respondents in consumer research.[19] As a category, news and current affairs can be identified for the purposes of assessment.


22.  Other witnesses have argued that plurality policy should include genres outside news and current affairs because plurality policy should be concerned with the ability of media organisations to merge and concentrate power, and the implications which this has for agenda diversity in and beyond the genre of news and current affairs.

23.  Mr Goodall explained that, "Our belief is that most of the malign influence of extremely high market shares in media arises not necessarily from the ability to influence the political process, but to influence the economics of the industry in this large company's favour."[20] Professor Barnett gave some practical examples of this,

    "there are two … aspects to it. One … is pure commercial self-promotion. If you are an organisation that holds sports rights … you are much more likely to play news about those sports in your bulletins … Also, by virtue of your commercial power, you will have influence over the regulator … It is important to remember that there are other aspects to plurality beyond the influence on citizens and the public, which are all about the nature of exercising power in a democracy."[21]

24.  Following this argument through leads its principal proponent, Enders Analysis, to recommend a cap of 15% on each player's revenue share of the overall media market. Mr Goodall admitted that this cap was arbitrary,

    "We have gone for a relatively simple, extremely arbitrary rule—I use that word carefully because to me that is a good thing—because it is then very much easier for regulators to maintain control and to make sure that the rules are well understood by every participant."[22]

The merits and demerits of a "revenue cap approach" are discussed in the following chapter.

25.  Some witnesses however claimed that the 15% cap on revenues is more deliberate with respect to the scope of plurality policy than its proponents claim. Professor Collins told us that whatever measurement instrument is taken by regulators and policymakers, "it is not an innocent choice. We know that your Committee has received evidence suggesting that a revenue measure should be taken … the choice of the measuring instrument takes the regulator in very different directions."[23]

26.  Mr Elstein was rather more specific in explaining his objection to the 15% revenue cap proposal,

    "It is just another way of dealing with Murdoch. I said to [Enders Analysis]: Be open about it. Ask the House of Lords to put forward a Bill banning Murdoch. … Whatever you want to do, just do it, but do not muck up our media plurality regime for the sake of a personal campaign against a particular proprietor. However well intentioned you are and however well merited that campaign might be, that is not the point of this."[24]

27.  We recognise that all genres and channels of information used by UK citizens play a role in the ideas and perspectives available to them. Accordingly, there is some justification for including within plurality policy any channel or genre through which those ideas and perspectives are spread. But, for the practical and pragmatic reasons outlined above, we recommend that a plurality policy should be limited to the activities of media enterprises engaged in news and current affairs content. Content diversity in other genres is not unimportant but is a matter of independent commissioning or the stipulations set out in licence and Charter renewal agreement which create the context in which commissioning decisions are made.


28.  Citizens of the United Kingdom can receive news and current affairs content from suppliers based all over the world and this is especially true of internet-based content. This raises the question of whether and how the United Kingdom's plurality policy, which is by definition embedded in the national jurisdiction, should take account of this international dimension. Suzanne Rab and Dr Alison Sprague pointed out that whilst there was a broad international consensus supporting pluralism, "there is no internationally recognised regulatory model as to how this goal is best served."[25] Certainly, a broad-based international approach to plurality does not appear to be in prospect. However, we did hear evidence on the possibility of greater European involvement in this area.


29.  The European Commission is involved, to a limited extent, in UK media plurality policy through the EC Merger Regulation[26] under which competition aspects of large international mergers which satisfy certain jurisdictional criteria fall to be considered by the European Commission's Competition Directorate. Only the competition aspects of the merger are considered by the Commission leaving Member States free to take appropriate measures to protect their 'legitimate interests,' including plurality of the media. As such the media public interest considerations raised by these mergers remain to be considered by UK authorities.[27] Put simply, "Only when media mergers pose issues of market dominance across the EU does the EU Competition Commission intervene."[28]

30.  There is a debate about whether European Union competence in this area should be extended. The European Initiative for Media Pluralism (EIMP) claimed that, "An EU-wide standard framework of rules on media ownership would provide a clear and important foundation for free and independent media."[29] This statement followed to some extent from the High Level Working Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism set up by the EU Commissioner for Digital Agenda, Neelie Kroes, which recommended that "The EU should be considered competent to act to protect media freedom and pluralism at State level."[30]

31.  There was, however, considerable scepticism in the evidence we received about the idea of a pan-European policy on media plurality per se. Professor Collins explained that "We think that the media markets of European Union member states are so diverse that it is very, very hard to imagine a coherent and meaningful pan-European policy coming into existence … and we think continued effort is not really worthwhile—to formulate a coherent and effective European policy on this."[31] Similarly Dr Craufurd Smith said that "the EU has tried to intervene in this field before and was unsuccessful … because a number of member states feel quite strongly that these issues are better dealt with, and … can be better contextualised and developed at the national level."[32] Dr Tambini developed this point further: "News markets are still very national … given that polities remain national and so, in many cases, do language groups."[33]

32.  Despite the general scepticism amongst our witnesses about a European media plurality policy per se, two areas were identified where a pan-European (or wider than UK-only) approach could be of potential merit:

·  to address digital intermediaries; and

·  to remove state aid constraints which might block Member States' endeavours to use targeted and proportionate public funding to stimulate and support greater agenda diversity in their national media.

33.  In relation to the first Mr Foster told us that:

    "The EU already has well developed competence in telecommunications access regulation, and these are big pan-global companies that operate at European scale. There may be some scope for encouraging thinking at the European level about how access regulation could be developed to apply to these digital gateways."[34]

With regard to the second area he said that,

    "there is a more important role for public funding of high-quality journalism in future, which does raise issues of state aid … We need to make sure, working at the EU level, that proposals that seem to make sense here and no doubt in other member states do not fall foul of those sorts of constraints."[35]

34.  There appears to be a strong consensus that UK media markets should be the focus of UK media plurality policy; we agree. We recognise that plurality policy remains broadly a matter for the UK and this report relates to a UK plurality policy.

35.  However, that is not to say that it may not be appropriate and necessary for any assessment of plurality in the UK to take into account the presence of internationally-sourced content in UK citizens' news diets. Indeed it would be important that any plurality policy approach may take into account media enterprises based in the UK as well as those outside UK jurisdiction to the extent that they are consumed by UK audiences if this is considered relevant to the overall assessment.


36.  There is some agreement around the idea that plurality concerns are finely balanced against the issue of financial sustainability, particularly at the regional/local level. RadioCentre told us that "local media companies … are already under considerable financial strain to survive."[36] The Media Standards Trust pointed to the decline in plurality of provision of regular and sustainable sources of news and current affairs content at the local and regional level in the United Kingdom.[37] Professor Barnett described this dramatically in his written evidence:

    "the decline of the local press and inadequacy of other local media … is producing a severe democratic deficit within local communities."[38]

37.  Against this background, we were interested to hear from Ashley Highfield, Chief Executive Officer of the Johnston Press that whilst, "The last seven years has been extremely brutal for the regional press industry … we are now at a level, provided that we can cut our cloth accordingly, that is sustainable for the long term as we move to the predominantly digital world."[39]

38.  Whether or not the commercial prospects of the local and regional media may improve, there were clearly grounds in Ofcom's advice to the Secretary of State to acknowledge that plurality may be under greater pressure in relation to local media than at the national level.[40] Indeed, for this reason we expressed hope in a previous Report, The Future of Investigative Journalism,[41] that the Government's removal of rules relating to local cross-media ownership would provide an opportunity for local media organisations to develop a sustainable business model through consolidation in future if they wish to do so, although we do note that the effectiveness of consolidation as a route to improving the commercial prospects of local and regional media is contested. On the one hand, the Media Reform Coalition claimed that, "there is simply no evidence that consolidation of ownership improves the prospects for sustainability and some evidence to the contrary."[42] On the other, the Newspaper Society warmly welcomed the abolition of local cross-media ownership restrictions in 2012.[43]

39.  In any case, the understandable concerns about the commercial health of local and regional media suggest that these considerations should form an integral part of any media plurality policy. As Professor Barnett explained, "At the local level, [the pertinent questions may] be different [to those at the national level] … "How do we shore up the kinds of media enterprises that we want and need?" Not necessarily just for plurality, but just so that there are some local news information sources that exist."[44] We leave consideration of the exact approach a policy might take to the next chapter on Approach. The important point is the following:

40.  The scope of any plurality policy should encompass both local and regional media as well as national media in the devolved nations and UK-wide media enterprises. In dealing with local or regional media, those tasked with making decisions should in reaching their conclusions pay particular attention to the question of financial sustainability.

Publicly-funded media


41.  The evidence we received was unanimous that the BBC should be included in any assessment of media plurality. The consensus appears to be that not including the BBC in a media plurality assessment would be difficult to justify. News Corporation told us that,

    "It is … difficult to conceive of any sensible regulatory regime which would ignore the role and position of the BBC"[45] and Ms Rab and Dr Sprague told us that the "BBC's position in news provision means that it would be incongruous not to consider it in any measure of viewpoint diversity."[46]

The Government appear to agree. Mr Vaizey told us that "The BBC, clearly because it has got its huge share of voice, has to be taken into account when you are considering media plurality."[47]

42.  Whilst there was consensus that the BBC should be included in any assessment of media plurality, we heard that it should not nececssarily be subject to any control measures as a result of that assessment, at least from outwith its own regulatory framework. For some, this was because this framework imposes requirements on the BBC which are themeslves a sufficient safeguard to ensure that its conduct in relation to plurality is addressed satisfactorily. This echoes a view put in the Leveson report:

    "governance controls in place to ensure internal plurality within the BBC, and the effect of the impartiality requirements meant that its size gave rise to no plurality concerns"[48]

43.  A similar view was expressed by Avaaz:

    "the BBC is subject to a substantial range of public interest regulation that make it exceedingly difficult for it to threaten democracy in the ways privately-owned entities do, to whom these regulations do not apply. Aside from requirements to maintain balance, impartiality and offer the right of reply in all its news programmes, the BBC is also subject to a range of quotas and governance requirements designed to ensure its accountability, internal plurality and diversity of output."[49]

44.  Whether or not the existing requirements on the BBC are sufficient in addressing the organisation's role in respect of plurality, there is a more straightforward case to make that control measures should not be imposed from outwith its own regulatory framework. The current BBC governance structure places a responsibility on the body which oversees the organisation to monitor and intervene in the BBC's direction if necessary. Under the existing governance rules this is the BBC Trust. To argue that control measures should be imposed on the BBC from outwith this governance structure is to open up a debate about these arrangements which would be a matter for an entirely separate inquiry. Quite straightforwardly, therefore, as long as these arrangements remain as they are, it is appropriate that control measures are a matter for the body which oversees the BBC at present.

45.  As such, we agree with the overwhelming balance of the evidence we have received. The BBC should be included in any assessment of media plurality but it should not be subject to any control measures imposed from outwith its own regulatory framework as a result of that assessment. It is for the body which oversees the BBC, under the existing governance rules this is the BBC Trust, to ensure that the BBC's conduct in relation to plurality is addressed satisfactorily.

Media Channels


46.  Ofcom's plurality report observed that "newspapers, online and radio are perceived by consumers to be broadly similar in terms of importance," with use of online news steadily growing from 15% who "ever used" it in 2002, to 27% in 2007, to 41% of UK adults who use the internet for news in 2012.[50] The growing importance of the online delivery of news and current affairs was also described by Mr Foster:

    "for the under-45s … the internet is now a more important source of news than television or newspapers, probably for the first time. There is a real split in the market between the over-45s, who still like print and television, and the under-45s, who rely much more on digital media. That just shows it has to be included in any assessment."[51]

47.  This highlights an issue with the current plurality arrangements which were designed with newspapers and broadcasters in mind—not online providers. Indeed, for the purposes of plurality, the Communications Act 2003 does not recognise online-only enterprises as "media enterprises" at all, leading Lord Puttnam to stress that the "challenge that confronts us as legislators … is to get from where we are now, based on legislation framed principally in an analogue age, to where we ought to be in a digital age."[52] The consensus across the evidence was very clear: that this issue should be resolved and online media should be in scope for the assessment of media plurality.


48.  We heard oral evidence from two digital intermediaries—Facebook and Google. Mr Simon Milner, Policy Director, UK and Ireland, Facebook, told us that Facebook was open to the "Government wanting to include all the different ways in which people find out about what is going on in the world via digital and traditional analogue media within that [media plurality policy] framework" but was keen to stress that Facebook was not a media platform or a news organisation.[53] Similarly Mr Peter Barron, Director of Communications and Public Affairs for Europe, Middle East and Africa, Google stressed that Google was not a publisher. It did not create content but helped people to access content.[54] While no witnesses made a specific claim that digital intermediaries are a present threat to UK media plurality, we received some evidence that they could represent a potential threat if not properly monitored.

49.  Mr Foster explained that "The public interest concern is whether they have an incentive and an ability to decide what sources of news we can get to through their platforms. At the moment, I suspect it is not a major concern, but you can see that in the future, the way in which [digital intermediaries] operate could start to determine which news sources get priority treatment and which get pushed down the list; which news sources they willing to carry and which they are not."[55]

50. Dr Schlosberg made a similar point that digital intermediaries had a kind of "gate-keeping" power which was potentially open to abuse.[56] While the influence of these enterprises may not represent a present threat to media plurality, there was a clear consensus around the view that the impact on plurality of digital intermediaries must be kept under review and taken into account as part of any assessment.

51.  We recommend that media plurality policy should not be limited by the media channel through which content is primarily delivered: print, broadcast and content delivered over the internet may all be relevant, as could be the influence of digital intermediaries on the consumption of this content. It should, therefore, be open to an assessment of plurality to determine which media channels should be in scope based on whether they are relevant to the overall assessment of plurality at the time.

52.  There is a separate question about whether some of the major digital intermediaries can be brought within the jurisdictional reach of any plurality remedies or interventions. We leave this matter to Chapter 5 where we describe our proposal for a media plurality policy.

The Lifecycle of News


53.  To recap, in Ofcom's advice to the Secretary of State, media plurality is described as a means to an end which should have two desired outcomes, the first of which is:

    "Ensuring there is a diversity of viewpoints available and consumed across and within media enterprises."[57]

54.  For some, the inclusion of the word "consumed" was conspicuous and raised a question about whether Ofcom's intention had been to suggest that media plurality policy should actively seek to stimulate the demand for and consumption of diverse viewpoints. As a result, Professor Picard was keen to stress that "There is no way you can force consumption, but you want to make it readily available to everybody, make it readily available to people at a price that is acceptable for them, and make sure that you are not excluding them in some way along the way."[58] Similarly Mr Foster told us that one could not require the public to consume different viewpoints "The first priority should be to focus on ensuring the public has at least the option of finding a diversity of viewpoints, even if in the end it chooses not to take advantage of them."[59]

55.  Robert Kenny explained that the inclusion of the word "consumed" was important. It did not necessarily suggest that media plurality policy should seek to intervene in consumer behaviour, but rather to capture the importance of making an assessment of consumption of diverse viewpoints across and within media enterprises. He told us that assessing "availability by itself is insufficient, and it is appropriate therefore to include 'consumed'."[60] In oral evidence, Steve Gettings of Ofcom explained its inclusion in a similar way, noting that an assessment of plurality should take into account certain characteristics of the way in which consumers behave, for example, that,

    "consumption of … different sources is high among all sections of society … and that there is good evidence of multi-sourcing, … For us that was quite an important metric [because it would help reveal whether any] provider of … content has what policymakers might regard as an unreasonably high level of consumption, in other words dominates the news media market."[61]

56.  We recognise the importance of ensuring that no content provider has an unreasonably high level of consumption and recommend that a media plurality policy should take into account both the supply and consumption of content, albeit that any interventions available will have to be limited in application to the supply side.

The value chain

57.  The value chain for the supply of news is complex. Ofcom explain this in their advice to the Secretary of State:[62]

    "Content might be originated by one company (e.g. a newswire such as Reuters), aggregated by another (e.g. a wholesale news provider such as ITN), and made available to citizens by yet another (e.g. a broadcaster such as Sky)."

58.  Ofcom's document refers to content produced in-house as retail content and content sourced from third parties as wholesale content. We note that the use of these labels attracts a mixed reception from the media enterprises involved. For example, Mr Clive Marshall, CEO of the Press Association told us that he is "very happy with the description of wholesaler. Our role is to provide the building blocks of the news for our news subscribers."[63] By contrast, Mr John Hardie, CEO of ITN, told us that he is "rather unhappy with the expression "wholesalers" being used about us … A wholesaler to me implies the middle man in the distribution chain … That is nothing like what we do. ITN is an originator of television news."[64] However, these labels have been useful to us in discussing the role played by different media enterprises in the value chain of news and current affairs, and so we have continued to use them in this Report.


59.  We considered whether wholesalers of news should be taken into account in any media plurality policy or assessment. The evidence we received was that a judgment needed to be made about where in the value chain editorial control was exercised: if editorial control was exercised by wholesalers, they should be included in the assessment. Professor Collins acknowledged that it was not always easy in practice to work out where editorial control was exercised:

    "Editorial control is the key issue, and that that may be at the wholesale or retail level … teasing out those chains [however] would be a nightmare task for any regulator … [influence may be exercised] at many places along the chain."[65]

60.  The commercially-funded PSBs[66] however, were all firm in their view that the editorial control lay with them rather than their "wholesaler," ITN. Mr Magnus Brooke of ITV explained "We are the customer so we set the overall strategy and editorial objectives for our news programmes and we are in charge. We are paying for them, which is not to say we are in day-to-day editorial charge … we are not consulted on a daily basis about what stories to run but we certainly have control."[67] Similarly Mr Dan Brooke of Channel 4 told us that "From our point of view we hold the whip hand. We have a commercial contract with ITN, which is very detailed"[68] and Mr Marcus Lee of Channel 5 told us "It is not so much a concern that ITN … has too much of a powerful voice … our news output is … Channel 5's voice and it just so happens that ITN create that for us."[69]

61.  We heard evidence from ITN and the Press Association, two news wholesalers. Mr Marshall was clear that "At the Press Association, the editorial control rests with our customers, so at the retail part of the process … We do not editorialise. We would not produce opinion columns."[70] But whether ITN exercises editorial control seems less clear-cut than this, "Day-by-day we are making the editorial choices, consulting with them. They get to see what our running order may be and so forth, but we are not debating on a day-by-day basis: what is first up tonight?"[71]

62.  Ofcom's advice to the Secretary of State allows for the possibility that a degree of editorial control may be exercised by the wholesaler and recommends that a new media plurality regime should not rule out the possibility of influence being attributed to "wholesale" providers of news:

    "The value chain is likely to continue to evolve; as, for example, new types of online aggregators become more significant … [and therefore] we recommend that flexibility is required to consider at which points in the value chain editorial control is most likely to be exercised, and therefore how best to measure diversity and influence."[72]

63.  We recommend that a media plurality policy should be flexible enough to take into account both the wholesale and retail provision of news and current affairs content. It should establish an approach to determining how to attribute content to media enterprises operating at different points in the value chain. This determination will require the location of editorial control in the value chain to be identified in each case.

12   In other industries, this might be termed the "supply chain;" we explain further what is meant by "value chain" later in this chapter. Back

13   Voice of the Listener and Viewer. Back

14   Q 149. Back

15   Suzanne Rab and Dr Alison Sprague. Back

16   Q 149. Back

17   BBC. Back

18   Q 426. Back

19   Ofcom. Back

20   Q 108. Back

21   Q 81. Back

22   Q 114. Back

23   Q 30. Back

24   Q 253. Back

25   Suzanne Rab and Dr Alison Sprague. Back

26   Council Regulation (EC) No 139/2004 of 20 January 2004 on the control of concentrations between undertakings (the EC Merger Regulation). Available online:  Back

27   Competition Commission. Back

28   EIMP. Back

29   Ibid. Back

30   A free and pluralistic media to sustain European democracy The Report of the High Level Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism. Jan 2013. Available online: Back

31   Q 57. Back

32   Q 10. Back

33   Q 12. Back

34   Q 27. Back

35   Q 27. Back

36   RadioCentre. Back

37   Media Standards Trust. Back

38   Professor Barnett. Back

39   Q 340. Back

40   Ofcom 5 October 2012. Measuring media plurality: Supplementary advice to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and the Leveson Inquiry. Available online: Back

41   Select Committee on Communications, The Future of Investigative Journalism (3rd Report, Session 2010-12, HL Paper 256). Back

42   Media Reform Coalition. Back

43   Newspaper Society. Back

44   Q 71. Back

45   News Corporation. Back

46   Suzanne Rab and Dr Alison Sprague. Back

47   Q 422. Back

48   An inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press: report [Leveson] Volume 3. Available online: Back

49   Avaaz. Back

50   Ofcom, 6 June 2012, Op. Cit. Back

51   Q 18. Back

52   Q 141. Back

53   Q 387. Back

54   Q 387. Back

55   Q 22. Back

56   Q 334. Back

57   Ofcom, 6 June 2012, Op. Cit. Back

58   Q18. Back

59   Robin Foster. Back

60   Robert Kenny. Back

61   Q 407. Back

62   Ofcom, 6 June 2012, Op. Cit. Back

63   Q 276. Back

64   Q 276. Back

65   Q 61. Back

66   ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5. Back

67   Q 239. Back

68   Q 239. Back

69   Q 240. Back

70   Q 279 and Q 280. Back

71   Q 279 (Mr Hardie). Back

72   Ofcom, 6 June 2012, Op. Cit. Back

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