When Ofcom published its report to the media and culture secretary, Karen Bradley, on its public interest test for the proposed acquisition of Sky plc by 21st Century Fox, it rightly found that a takeover would raise public interest concerns.
But these were only raised in relation to the potential influence of members of the Murdoch Family Trust over the UK’s news agenda.
Ofcom wrongly seems to have decided to ignore plurality concerns that are not related to news. Bradley is due to make a final decision on whether to refer the case to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) after July 14, the deadline for final representations on the issue. Several other concerns do have public interest consequences and justify a second-phase review. They should be thoroughly considered by the CMA in that review.
News is crucial for keeping citizens informed and enabling public debate, but it is not the only content that can shape people’s worldview or engagement with political issues or processes. A review of research on the effects of entertainment content provides convincing evidence that it can influence people’s levels of social trust, fear of crime, views on law enforcement and civil liberties, stances on gender and equality issues, all of which can be important shapers of political preferences.
For example, one recent study of Austrian viewers found a clear correlation between the amount of American content watched and misconceptions about the norms and facts of the very different justice system in their own country.
There is also evidence that entertainment content can introduce political issues to audiences that are not usually interested in news and politics, even encouraging them to seek out information on issues. A recent experimental study found that some kinds of entertainment content encouraged viewers’ awareness of and engagement with political issues.
Celebrities, who appear not just as actors or musicians but also on talk shows and other formats, can influence political positions and levels of engagement. There is also increasing evidence of the nuanced influence of satire and political comedy shows. Therefore, while an emphasis on news content may be justified, Ofcom’s exclusion of other content from its considerations of the deal’s potential consequences for UK politics is not.
Public interest in sport
Live sport transmission and sports coverage is big business, but it is also important for social cohesion. Live sports remains a significant force in bringing communities and even the nation together in a collective experience that can engender unity and pride. This includes more that just the World Cup or the Olympics, for which viewer’s access is somewhat protected from their being listed as “important events”.
The participation of clubs from places such as Tottenham, Liverpool and Glasgow in international tournaments can be valuable vehicles for social cohesion in some of the country’s more deprived areas.
Sports rights, however, are increasingly the subject of fierce and very expensive bidding wars. By 2016 the two biggest football rights holders in the UK were both internet service providers, BT and, of course, Sky. The movement of sports content to subscription and online-only platforms can seriously affect the ability of those from poorer communities, the elderly and those in rural areas to access sports. While this may not be as important a public interest as that of having a well-informed public engaged in political processes, it is still a legitimate public interest concern.
Despite raising serious and well-evidenced concerns over the potential consequences of the deal on the UK’s news provision and political process, Ofcom decided that the behavioural undertakings offered by Fox to set up an independent board for Sky News and take other measures to safeguard against members of the Murdoch Family Trust influencing Sky News would acceptably mitigate these concerns.
Des Freedman has already pointed out on this site that the Murdochs do not have a good record of sticking to promised undertakings. But, in any case, such behavioural remedies would not address the company’s position as an internet service provider (ISP) and the potential consequences in terms of access to content and viewers, the premium content markets, or to the advertising market upon which UK content production depends. Structural undertakings would be necessary.
The Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, in its submission to Ofcom – which has yet to be published online – rightly raised the potential negative consequences for the UK advertising market of having a dominant owner across multiple media platforms. Advertising still funds a vast amount of the UK-produced content of all types, so the health of that market – and the extent of competition for advertising and audience “eyes” faced by UK content providers face is important.
Perhaps a more serious issue, though, is the fact that the deal will give the Murdoch Family Trust a combination of cross-platform media ownership and ownership of an ISP. The potential for bundled services and cross-platform promotion are great. Jonathan Hardy, national secretary of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, correctly warned that this combination could lead to the “lock-in” of consumers and could even affect editorial independence.
As my UEA colleague David Reader and I argued in our submission to Ofcom, Sky’s position as an ISP in an environment in which “reasonable” traffic management is allowed can have damaging consequences for viewers’ access to content, not to mention its dominance in the market for premium content rights, such as for high-quality drama and sports.
These concerns cannot be solved by behavioural undertakings alone. With Bradley “minded to refer” the case to the CMA, one can only hope that they will not relegate these to a mere mention in an appendix.