On Thursday 13 June shadow culture secretary Harriet Harman used Westminster University’s annual Charles Wheeler lecture to call for laws which would limit media ownership.
In an echo of our own proposals, she demanded a true plurality law: rigorous ownership caps, hard limits for forced divestiture, lower limits for intervention, and various public service obligations in between. She mooted a 30% cap on audience share within media sectors and a 15% cap across them, and stressed the need for a “clear regime” which would remove these decisions from ministerial discretion and thereby from the influence of those who stand to lose from them.
As she pointed out, phone hacking was “a symptom of an underlying structural problem: the power that comes from monopoly ownership.” Plurality, she said, “ensures that no media company can have so much influence that it feels itself immune, above the rule of law.”
We first wish to congratulate Harman on making this speech and on standing up under the terrific pressure that the press barons bring to bear on anyone who threatens their commercial interests – the pressure to keep quiet and court their interests. It is an important step forward in opening up the debate about media ownership, and her coverage in the Times, the Guardian, the New Statesman and the Huffington Post testifies to that.
Among the measures she suggests are many we’ve been pushing for. Harman calls for accepted systems for measuring plurality, using industry-standard audience share metrics within each medium – and potentially a revenue cap for cross-media.
She demands “clear definitions” and “bright lines” established firmly in law “to protect the regulator from unwarranted attempts to influence it”; she decries “too much discretion by the regulator or ministers.” Too right: as we argued in our submission to the Lords’ Select Commitee on Communications, discretion opens the door to politicised decision-making, and creates unstable conditions for businesses trying to play by the rules.
Likewise, she calls for remedies beyond simple divestment – outlining a space between hard upper limits and a “bottom line” in which media companies would be subject to public interest obligations like “editorial independence”, “independence governance”, and “promoting plurality.”
We’ve written in detail about how a new media plurality regime could limit the power of proprietors to shape public opinion without strangling their businesses or wrecking the market – by freeing editors from the influence of their owners and making internal decisions subject to review by the journalists who have to carry them out. This does not mean content regulation, but instead, as we told the Lords, “should be aimed at ensuring journalist and editorial autonomy within dominant news organisations.”
She even said that we should look at plurality at the local level – and with our forthcoming report on pluraliy showing massive concentration within the daily newspaper market, and many local papers branching out into TV and radio, that could not be more timely.
But further action is needed. Although Harman proposes a 30% upper limit within each media sector, we think this is far too high. We and all those who believe in media plurality must push for the bar to be lowered, because media academics reckon [pdf] that an absolute minimum of four independent voices is necessary for a properly plural public sphere – and the ideal number is 6. One third of the national market means simply too much power.
Moreover, we must persist in mentioning that dreaded word – “funding”. In our submission to the Lords we suggest a fund established by companies like Google and administered by an independent Public Media Trust to support local and niche news providers. We also think that funding entry-level journalism jobs would both subsidise the media, free up more experienced journalists, and help widen access to a profession which is increasingly dependent on internships and expensive professional courses. If we ask how to protect and promote media plurality without allowing ourselves to discuss public or corporate funding of initiatives like these, we as a democracy are shooting ourselves in the foot.
So there’s much work to be done. The public support is there: this May an IPPR poll found that 73% of the public supports limits on media ownership. What kind of limits, and how they’ll work, is up for debate. As Harman suggests, the most important thing is that politicians treat this as the cross-party issue that it is; we applaud those of any party who throw their weight behind proposals that will work. But there’s no question that Harman is right when she says: “the time for reform is now.”
We have drafted a model letter which you can use to express your support for Harman’s proposals and ask her to consider lower limits. We also invite anyone interested in this issue to come to our Rally for Media Reform on the evening of June 17.