The sense of impunity which came from the lack of a proper press complaints system is a key part of the problem with the media. So too is the sense of invincibility that came with too much newspaper power concentrated in the hands of one man and the lack of proper regulation to guard against media monopoly. And that was also within Leveson’s terms of reference.
The malpractice and illegality exposed by the Leveson inquiry was never just “one rogue reporter” or a few corrupt public officials. It was a symptom of an underlying problem: the power that comes from monopoly ownership.
Before the News of the World closed, Murdoch owned newspapers with 37% of national circulation – two of the most influential dailies and two of the most influential Sunday papers. That is too much power in one man’s hands. And had it not been for the hacking scandal his bid for the whole of BSkyB would have been waved through.
But this isn’t just about Rupert Murdoch. It’s about guarding against monopoly, promoting the principle of plurality and having proper regulation for a media world where there is massive change and convergence between newspapers, broadcasting and social media.
Media monopoly matters
Preventing monopoly is important in any commercial area – for all the reasons we know about – such as protecting against new entrants being excluded from the market.
But there is an even greater imperative over and above the usual objections to monopoly when it comes to the media, because the media is about communication and the exchange of information in our democracy.
The concentration of unaccountable media power distorts the political system. The free flow of information, of different points of view, is crucial for open debate. The availability of a diverse range of views is important to each and every citizen.
But if you have a concentration of power, you have a small number of people who have too much control over the political agenda, over the public policy debate and over political decision making.
What makes media monopoly different from others is that the media plays a role in representing politicians to the public in a way that influences their votes. When a media company grows too big, it has the ability to trade policy influence for favourable coverage which is so damaging to democracy.
Too much power in too few hands hinders proper debate. Plurality ensures that no media owner can exert too much influence on public opinion and on policy makers. It ensures that no media company can have so much influence that it feels itself invincible, above, even, the rule of law. It ensures no private interest can set itself above the public interest. The time for reform is now But we don’t have a proper regime for protecting against monopoly.
The inadequacies and complexities of the system were laid bare by the News Corp bid for the whole of BSkyB. And the system is out of date – this is an age of great change in the media, where we have print newspapers, broadcast media and new media, and a convergence of all three.
Everyone agrees the system doesn’t work and is out of date and that this problem – which has been there for some time – needs to be addressed. And this includes the Prime Minister. In the House of Commons in July 2011, after the revelation of Milly Dowler’s phone being hacked, he said:
‘how [to] address the vexed issue of media power. We need competition policy to be properly enforced. We need a sensible look at the relevance of plurality and cross-media ownership. Above all, we need to ensure that no one voice… becomes too powerful.’
We agree with him. We feel it would be best for us to go about this – as we did with press complaints – on a completely cross-party basis. So I make this offer to Culture Secretary, Maria Miller. I call on her to establish a process that:
- brings the political parties together
- engages with the media industry and experts, and
- frames proposals for new regulation which should form part of a new Communications Act.
This process needs to be transparent, objective and have integrity.
There are a number of key issues that this process should address, about ownership within media sectors as well as cross-media.
We favour clear bright lines –
- a lower ownership limit below which there is no issue
- an upper limit beyond which there will need to be divestment
- a clear, non discretionary regulatory regime of obligations (such as measures to bolster editorial independence, independent governance and duties to promote plurality) for those media organisations which fall in the middle band between the lower and upper limit.
There’s already been a great deal of thinking on this.
Enders Analysis have proposed a 15% cross-media limit which would include any medium of communication that stands between a creator of content and an audience. Avaaz has proposed 20% as the upper limit for ownership within any one sector, while the NUJ has put forward a limit of 25% across media sectors and within each media sector.
Whatever the figures arrived at, we will need agreement on a clear measurement methodology that includes a recognition of the important influence of new media players online. The process will also need to agree when those judgements about share will be made – not just, as now, when there’s an event such as a merger but by continuous market monitoring. And the process will need to agree remedies that will need to be applied when those limits are exceeded.
Clear limits and a non-discretionary regime for the middle band will remove the temptation for media organisations to pressurize ministers and the regulator and tie them up in litigation.
The process should also agree on the question of the ‘fit and proper person’ test. We think it’s currently too narrow and needs to be properly defined, so it clearly covers impropriety and failures of good governance as well as criminal convictions.
And the process should take particular account of the different circumstances that obtain at a local level, both broadcast and print.
Local newspapers are central to the lives of communities and to local democracy across the country: keeping people in touch with local events in their community, keeping people informed about important local issues through their reporting, and holding local democracy to account.
It’s 10 years since Parliament last decided on these issues – and that was before Facebook, let alone Twitter… The Communications Act 2003 doesn’t even use the word ‘internet’! The pace of change is only accelerating so our framework must be “future proof”. And though it’s all very challenging and complex, it must not be left in the ‘too difficult’ box. And above all, we will not make progress if we allow the political parties to divide on this issue.
We should work together to make sure that the freedom of debate in the democracy which we all care about is protected. So British democracy and the British people, has the media it needs, the media it deserves.