With Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman’s call for a new Communications Bill establishing rules on media ownership, the vast power of a handful of British media owners is back on the agenda.
Or at least it should be – though the quiet disappearance of a green paper and the cessation of work on a white paper covering the topic suggest the government have little enthusiasm for the cause.
While we welcome the dropping of the proposed Communications Data Bill – although there are indications of a new ‘snooper’s charter’ in the works – we’re disappointed not to see a new, more holistic Communications Bill. Doubtless tackling the ability of press moguls to lobby and corrupt ministers is not a task they relish in the run-up to a general election.
But if, as Leveson recommended, decisions on plurality should be left to Parliament, we need to put pressure on Parliament to act.
Indeed, with the House of Lords select committee on communications launching an inquiry into media plurality, there may be no better to build momentum for their cause. And there are indications in our political sphere of a genuine appetite for change.
Over the last week, Harman – who is also the shadow culture secretary – has thrown the weight of her party behind proposals for a 30% newspaper circulation limit, intervention by Ofcom of deals which would lead to 20% control of any given market, and a revenue cap for cross-media ownership.
While there are plenty of complexities and objections that can be brought up against such proposals, we – as we wrote last Thursday – believe there are solutions. The submission we made to the House of Lords (readable in full here) testifies to that belief and contains a clear set of proposals which could guarantee the diversity of our media sector.
First, we need a system of clear ownership thresholds, established in law, which act as triggers for intervention.
That means public interest obligations for any companies which achieve a 15% audience share in their market – ensuring the autonomy of their journalists and editors from the meddling of their owners.
And it means forced shareholder dilutions and equity carve-outs for companies which hit 20%, so that no individual or entity can by themselves command such a big part of the market.
To do this, we need accepted systems for measuring plurality – using industry-standard audience share metrics within each medium and measuring revenues on the cross-media level.
Finally, we need web aggregators, search engines or ISPs – those who make rent from the public demand for online news – to make a contribution to local and niche news providers, driving innovation and variety in the UK’s news landscape.
Obviously, these are up for debate, and equally obviously they aren’t the last word on the subject. But it’s important to put forward concrete proposals for regulating media ownership and drive debate forward while we have this chance. Indeed, when we looked at how they do it in other countries, we found a wide range of lessons and examples to consider, reject, adapt or adopt.
Over the next few weeks, we will be publishing a variety of articles and reports on the subject of ownership. Most crucial is that we do not let the issue out of the public consciousness – for proper competition in the media sector is crucial to the health of our democracy. Watch this space.