The Media Reform Coalition has prepared a new media plurality bill that provides the basis of a much needed legal framework for remedying concentrated media power in the digital age, drawing on recent recommendations from OFCOM, civil society groups and academics. Above all, it seeks to redress the present gaps and stalemate in media plurality policy, paving the way for a comprehensive, fair and future-proof approach.
In spite of the ‘long tail’ promise of digital news, media plurality is a resurgent issue in policymaking debates in most liberal democracies. The power vacuum left by evaporating profits and retreating corporate investors has put many newsrooms back in the hands of wealthy individuals, from local oligarchs in Eastern Europe hoping to capitalise on opportunities for political influence, to dot com billionaires in the US seeking to redefine the business of news. In the UK, the Leveson Inquiry in 2012 produced stark testimony from both senior politicians and senior media figures regarding the closeness of their relations which Leveson described as ‘unhealthy’, and which served as a sober reminder of why media ownership regulation is still needed.
Added to all this is the new gatekeeping power attributed to digital intermediaries which some consider to be the epicentre of contemporary plurality concerns. But rather than diminishing the gatekeeping role of traditional news brands, the evidence points to the contrary – that the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter are progressively amplifying the voice of incumbent and legacy media whilst doing little to support those vehicles of public interest journalism most under threat; especially local and long-form reporting.
In November 2015, OFCOM unveiled its framework for measuring media plurality after more than five years of deliberation and consultation, and persistent calls for Parliament and/or government to set benchmarks for determining plurality ‘sufficiency’. Whilst this framework contains useful metrics, it does not address the crucial questions of sufficiency and remedies. Parliament must act now to fill in these gaps and minimise enduring uncertainty. This document – produced in consultation with a wide range of civil society groups, academics and legal experts – provides a basis for doing so, and for further deliberation leading to a draft plurality bill.
The principles set out in the document are structured around two main parts corresponding to measures that safeguard media plurality among large media owners, and bottom-up measures that promote plurality via support for community, independent and not-for-profit media at all levels: from hyperlocal to national news.
In respect of plurality safeguards, the overarching and broadly accepted principle is that dominant market players on any or all platforms should adopt some degree of public interest obligations, or be subject to structural remedies under conditions of acute concentration. Public interest obligations need not, and should not amount to content or public service regulation, but might include the adoption of governance frameworks that preserve an arm’s length between owners and editorial output. Structural remedies need not be limited to enforced divestment but may include a range of approaches to pluralizing shareholdings in ways that preserve rather than threaten the long term sustainability of news organisations.
And whilst the decision-making body should have a degree of flexibility to select and tailor remedies according to the specifics of individual cases, we need bright lines set out in law to determine the circumstances in which intervention is triggered, along with the range of applicable remedies. Given the known intimacy in relations between media and political elites, the existing plurality regime places far too much discretionary power in the hands of the Minister. This renders policy acutely vulnerable to commercial capture or, potentially, leaves media groups vulnerable to political pressure.
In regard to ‘bottom up’ remedies, new funding support should be raised from a relatively small levy on the profits of digital intermediaries in a bid to cross-subsidise between the most profitable and least profitable vehicles for public interest news. It is widely acknowledged that although companies like Google do not profit directly from their use of journalistic content, news services play a key role in their ‘user experience’ and thus add immeasurable value to their businesses. There is a legitimate basis for a legal framework that ensures digital intermediaries make a meaningful contribution to supporting independent media in the public interest. Rather than simply enforcing ancillary copyrights, a public media trust should be established with the specific purpose of supporting initiatives that make a measurable contribution to news plurality.
Overall, the principles set out here show that progressive legislation in support of media plurality is both necessary and possible. They are designed to address the essence of contemporary plurality concerns: to ensure that citizens are exposed to a diverse range of voices and perspectives; and that journalism’s unique contribution to democratic life is enhanced amidst the dynamics and pressures of converging media markets.
You can access the bill here and we would welcome your comments.