Plurality: regulation for its own sake

Ofcom has come out in favour of ‘plurality checks’ of the UK news media every four or five years. And it believes the reviews should include the BBC and online news.

So far, so interesting. But Ofcom doesn’t regulate the BBC – it would like to as this policy suggestion indicates – and certainly someone outside the BBC should. Regulation of an organisation by that organisation seems, logically, rather worse than the sector self-regulation of the press. Perhaps some independent body should regulate all media? Perhaps that should be Ofcom? Perhaps not.

Why does Ofcom now have such a keen interest in the plurality of news? Could it be because it needs to try and tidy up the mess it and the government got in to over the News bid for BSkyB? Ofcom was minded to refer the bid to the Competition Commission. If it had genuine concerns over plurality, this was clearly The Right Thing to do.

Having carried out a mini-review in the context of the bid, Ofcom decided there were plurality concerns. In the mix of that decision must have been the vociferous anti-bid campaign of the very interested parties of the Mail, Guardian and Telegraph. Initially the BBC was loudly against too, but then realised that A. any genuine plurality review of news would target their broadcast and online near monopoly (oops!) and B. the others weren’t concerned one jot with plurality really, it was just that the European Commission’s decision that it didn’t have competition concerns meant plurality was the only placard they could wave. What they were really against was a more powerful News Corp, and in particular its ability to further cross-promote and bundle its TV and newspaper assets.

Having made its recommendation to the now beleaguered Culture Secretary (Jeremy Hunt may as well change his name to Beleaguered as the verb will be permanently attached anyway) to send the bid to the Commission, Ofcom then allowed itself to get involved in the dodgy UIL – Undertakings in Lieu – charade. Suddenly all those serious ‘plurality concerns’ were to be taken care of by hiving off the ownership of one news channel that has less than a 0.5 per cent share!

With massive irony, of course, history later brought us the biggest shift in UK news market share for decades when News had to shut The News of The World – the world’s biggest selling English language newspaper – over the same phone hacking scandal that scuppered the BSkyB bid.

In the end Ofcom got what it wanted – BskyB remains independent and News got a bloody nose; the huge antipathy between the two organisations is not a one way street. But did Ofcom’s performance add to its qualifications regulating plurality? No it did not.

And is plurality much of a problem anyway? The big problem – and the one politicians now cheerfully admit they were too scared of press revenge to face – has been the concentration of ownership of the press. It is a concentration that has guaranteed, no matter what government is in power, a broadly conservative and anti-European tone to coverage. But that problem is solving itself as newspapers (to use the economic jargon), die on their arse and fail to transfer to online.

Meanwhile, for some good but mostly bad, online and social networks mean a plural mega-plethora of amateur ‘news’ sources. Fortunately we still have the anchor of broadcast news which, though unhealthily dominated by the public broadcaster, no one believes is overly biased or not mainly independent. And that’s because it’s the law. We don’t have Fox News and we show no sign of getting it, so the law must be doing an OK job.

So long as most people’s source of important news (people soon desert celebrity circus and rant-o-vision when they know it’s important), is regulated to be independent and objective, does it matter who owns the ever declining purveyors of opinion as fact that are newspapers? Twenty years ago that would have been a difficult and important task to take on. Now it is just regulation for regulation’s sake.

 

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