It is clear that plurality concerns have not been offset by the promise of diversity associated with the spread of digital media. Online news consumption has been converging around traditional news brands for some time and testimony presented to the Leveson Inquiry demonstrated the enduring capacity of dominant media groups to pressure and influence the policy agenda in surreptitious ways.
We need a new approach to plurality that recognises (but does not shy away from) the complexities in both measuring and remedying media concentration. Furthermore it should adopt a twin focus on both the ownership and funding of news and current affairs
- We need a system of clear ownership thresholds, established in law, and applied both within and across key sectors for news and current affairs. These should at as triggers for intervention rather than definitive market caps.
- The key sectors for news and current affairs include newspapers, television, radio and online news. Plurality should be measured based on standard audience share indicators. For newspapers, television and radio, these should be derived from established regular industry audits. For online news, audience share should be based on traffic to the top 50 news websites (as adopted by Ofcom’s public interest test report on News Corp’s proposed buy-out of BSkyB).
- A first level threshold within sub-markets should be a 15 percent audience share, triggering behavioural remedies in the form of public interest obligations. These should be aimed principally at ensuring journalist and editorial autonomy within dominant news organisations so that owners and shareholders cannot exert undue influence over news output.
- A second level threshold within sub-markets should be a 20 percent audience share, triggering structural remedies in the form of shareholder dilution or equity carve-out. These should be aimed at ensuring that no individual or entity has a controlling share in an outlet, or group of outlets, that commands more than 20 percent of a given audience.
- At the cross-media level, measurement of plurality should be based on the core industry revenues of the aforementioned key sectors. A 15 percent threshold should trigger a structural remedy in the form of enforced divestment.
- A fund should be established along the lines agreed recently between Google and news publishers in France and Belgium. This should be administered by an independent Public Media Trust with a clear set of funding criteria, transparent procedures and an accountable system of appointments and administration. The body will support local and niche news providers either directly, or via established media organisations (for whom funding will be contingent on recruitment of entry-level journalists or commissioning content from independent providers).