By Des Freedman
Right in the middle of the summer, and without much fanfare, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has published two documents that reveal its plans for the media and communication sectors. Perhaps it thought that no one would notice. The first is a ‘strategy document’, Connectivity, Content and Consumers, effectively a white paper on digital Britain, which deals with issues including broadband roll-out, spectrum management and consumer safety. The second is a consultation on measuring media ownership and plurality that follows Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendation to pursue these issues.
Two years ago, DCMS launched its communications review, which was supposed to produce a green paper outlining its full vision for the sector. In the wake of the phone hacking scandal and the Leveson Inquiry, the green paper was quietly dropped, presumably because there was no appetite in government to tackle media-related issues at such a delicate time. We will never know: FOI requests to access the green paper were rejected, and the Media Reform Coalition was told that the “public interest in withholding the information requested [to protect policymaking confidentiality] outweighs the public interest in disclosing it.”
The government has now come up with a clever solution and has decided to separate out the thorny question of who dominates the UK’s media landscape from the less contentious ‘four areas for action’ (connectivity, content, consumers and costs) identified in the strategy document. Despite the protracted and highly controversial attempt by News Corp to take full control of BSkyB of 2011/12 and despite the overwhelming evidence provided to the Leveson Inquiry of the intimate relationships between powerful media moguls and top politicians, media ownership is not, apparently, an area suitable for action at this time.
The decision to keep plurality separate from its more general proposals for a digital infrastructure is, of course, understandable for a government that has little inclination to upset large media companies ahead of a general election. It has put political expediency ahead of the public interest.
First, while it is true that Lord Justice Leveson did recommend that the government develop an appropriate measurement framework for plurality, he also mentioned the “menu of potential remedies” that needed to be considered and reflected on the “levels of influence” that gave rise to concerns about media plurality. There is no mention in the government’s consultation paper of either remedies or influence (seen by many as a problem of collusion between media and political elites).
Secondly, that this is a delaying tactic – designed to push awkward issues concerning ownership into the ‘long grass’ – is evident in that many of the questions on which it is consulting are precisely the same as those answered by Ofcom in the Measuring Media Plurality report that was delivered to the secretary of state in 2012. Does the DCMS actually disagree with Ofcom’s recommendations concerning whether to include online news in a plurality review or what kind of tools are most appropriate to measure plurality? Is this really a ‘proportionate’ response to the issues of media power and political transparency that were raised in the Leveson Inquiry?
Indeed, the consultation’s emphasis on measurement seems deliberately designed to deflect demands for action to curb concentration. Of course, it is true that we need clarity on what platforms should be included in any review and what tools are necessary to measure plurality, but the consultation’s remit has been unnecessarily limited to a consideration of metrics that ignores proposals for remedies – many of which were put to the Leveson Inquiry (for example by Enders Analysis and the Media Reform Coalition) and, more recently, to the ongoing Lords Communications Committee inquiry into media plurality.
Third, it has ramped up the question of whether the BBC ought to be included in considerations of plurality. Ofcom also considered this last year and concluded that, while the BBC ought to be included in any review as a mark of its influence, ‘there is no separate need for the BBC’s position itself to trigger a review’. This is clearly not enough for the BBC’s commercial rivals, who have long complained about the BBC’s extensive reach and popularity. The Mail reacted to the ownership review by arguing that the “BBC could be curbed under government plans to rein dominance of media giants” while the Sun described the review as a “Probe into BBC share of news coverage” – appropriating a quote from Harriet Harman’s Charles Wheeler lecture about “too much power in too few hands” (originally referring to private print providers). Both stories conveniently ignore the fact that the Corporation is already subject to systems of regulation designed to stimulate internal pluralism and balance. Whether it meets these challenges can be debated, but that is a rather different issue from the determination of many proprietors to weaken the status of the Corporation as it approaches Charter renewal. The BBC could well be included in any assessments of media plurality as a whole but it should not be subject to forms of intervention designed to unblock concentrations of commercial media power.
True, any consultation on media ownership offers civil society the opportunity to make its voice heard, but it is doing so in the context of the government’s declared interest to ‘develop a clear measurement framework in partnership with industry, and carry out the first ever market assessment of plurality in the UK today’.
Any meaningful consideration of ownership issues ought to be part and parcel of the government’s overall approach to the communications landscape. The strategy document, with its proposals to tackle nuisance calls, regulate premium rate services and roll out broadband, is likely to generate far less controversy and far more sympathetic headlines than policies to tackle existing levels of concentration. For that we will need not simply measurements but remedies: ownership thresholds, market caps and public interest obligations that will finally start to challenge the grip on British political and media culture of a handful of very powerful moguls.
Des Freedman is the Chair of the Media Reform Coalition and a reader in Communications and Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London.