There have been plenty of reactions to Lord Justice Leveson’s report on the culture, practices and ethics of the press. Max Hastings described it in the Daily Mail (30 November) as heralding ‘a rotten day for freedom’ while the Sun described the recommendations as ‘a basis on which to destroy 300 years of Press freedom’ (30 November). The victims, meanwhile, argued that Leveson had provided the minimal conditions for meeting their demands for an ethical press while some simply discarded the entire process as irrelevant.
For Emily Bell, former director of digital content for the Guardian, ‘The Leveson inquiry is irrelevant to 21st century journalism’ (Guardian 29 November) because it had nothing to say about the internet. This echoes the Sun’s reaction that the ‘elephant in the room remains the internet… An over-regulated press in parallel with an unregulated internet spells chaos and will be the nail in the coffin of the newspaper industry’ (30 November).
Given that the report is aimed at correcting the behaviour of large news organisations, whether online or offline, as opposed to the writing of private individuals, this seems an odd target. Indeed, from our perspective, the real ‘elephant in the room’, the genuine absence that will make it hard to achieve his aims of an ethical and representative press, is not the internet but the need to tackle concentrated media ownership.
It is not that Leveson ignores ownership altogether in the report. Actually, there is a huge amount of discussion about it from an overview of the main news organisations, to an evaluation of both NI’s purchase of the Times and Sunday Times in 1981 and News Corp’s proposed takeover of BSkyB in 2010/11, a consideration of the relationship between politicians and powerful news groups, and an entire chapter on plurality and media ownership. The problem is that the gap between the problem as laid out and the solutions proposed is so vast.
For example, Leveson suggests that triggers for intervention should be ‘considerably lower’ (p.1470) than those used for ordinary competition concerns and that the scope of the public interest test might be extended within competition law. He further argues that, following Ofcom’s recommendations, plurality issues should be kept ‘under review’ (p. 1473). Disappointingly, however, he gives no concrete proposals about how best to tackle the fact that three news organisations in the UK control 75 per cent of national daily circulation and that the build-up of this kind of press power—and there is little evidence thus far that the most popular online news is significantly more open to a plurality of voices—is bound to distort both media and politics in this country. For many people, it was the arrogance that comes with this kind of power that gave rise to phone hacking in the first place. Furthermore, the idea that existing competition rules can address this effectively is wishful thinking when you consider that no major newspaper acquisition has been refused in the last 46 years.
Leveson also recommended that discretionary power remain with the Secretary of State in respect of public interest decisions over media mergers (p. 1476). But this is in conflict with much of the evidence presented to the Inquiry which demonstrated the pervasive nature and influence of industry lobbying. This was particularly evident in the run up to key decisions taken by ministers such as Jeremy Hunt’s approval of News Corp’s bid to buy out BSkyB prior to the unfolding of the phone hacking scandal or Margaret Thatcher’s permission for News International to buy up the Times and Sunday Times in 1981 without a proper investigation. Evidence of a tacit ‘deal’ between political leaders and media industry lobbyists is unlikely to be substantive—indeed Leveson actually notes that ‘[n]ot surprisingly, the contemporary documents do not evidence any form of express “deal”’ between Thatcher and Murdoch (p. 1245)—but this does not mean that deals are not done.
In the absence of clear ownership thresholds, established in law, the door will always be open to both commercial capture (politicians may be induced to take certain decisions under pressure from media groups) and/or politicisation (certain media groups may be unduly favoured or disadvantaged by political decisions).
Of course, any identified threshold will be to some extent arbitrary. But the Media Reform Coalition formally proposed to the Leveson Inquiry a 15 per cent benchmark that would trigger regulatory intervention in the form of specific public interest obligations to ensure journalist and editorial autonomy with a 20 per cent overall limit in the key sub-markets of national print, television, radio and online. We argue this on the basis that no less than five owners—within or across media markets—is the minimum basis for media plurality. It was, therefore, a little surprising to read in the Leveson Report that “there have been no suggestions as to what level of plurality is sufficient” (p. 1469).
Tackling media concentration is a popular issue with the public: nearly three quarters of those polled in an IPPR survey in May 2012 supported limits on media ownership. If we are ever to produce a press system that is genuinely independent, we need to be pressing not just for ethical forms of regulation but also for a range of remedies, including ownership caps and public interest obligations, to achieve the plurality our democracy so desperately needs.
Please visit www.mediareform.org.uk to see our full proposals.