Cross-media power regulation could return Britain to the 17th century

How do we regulate for news plurality in the UK? Beginning with audience share is a farce, and would undermine our democracy. Ownership must be our starting point.
Brian Winston
6 October 2011

Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, has asked the media regulator, Ofcom, to establish an agreed means of measuring cross-media power in the UK. The measures would be a tool to limit news market share.

The Secretary of State may have been seized with the post-Hackgate ‘do-something’ imperative that overwhelms politicians at times of panic. The initiative could be of as much significance and import as, say, the feeble moves to regulate the banks. It is not as if the Department for Culture Media and Sport lacks rules already, although Hunt seemed pretty fair-set to break them to let Murdoch own 100% of Sky. Ofcom is not unaware of standard competition policy, either.

However, it is entirely possible that Hunt means this question to be taken seriously. If he really means to mess further with actual content (aka ‘news’), the matter becomes vital. If a measure emerges, it could give government a control over the news at late 17th century levels. Welcome back, Sir Roger l’Estrange, England’s first and last ‘Surveyor of Press’ and your police-force, the Kings’ Messengers to the Press.

Those who have suggested post-Hackgate that Ofcom might extend its remit might well have their wish. Alternatively, another regulator (Ofpress?) might do the job. They will be equally pleased. Either-way, ‘cross-media power’ regulation could function as did Sir Roger’s ‘General Warrant’: a way, ultimately, of closing organs of opinion down.


We can only hope that Mr Hunt, whom press reports suggest does understand that print and broadcasting are different, has framed the question to expect the answer: ‘No’. That he knows, really, that no measures that make any sense can be determined.

If he truly wanted to ensure plurality – an important and vital objective – he would not start with the audience/readership share. There are two basic obstacles to this approach.

Let us assume we actually can measure the consumption of different news media at the levels of accuracy needed. (This is by no means as certain as received opinion and the advertising industry suggests it is, but let that be for the moment.) The fundamental difficulty is one of equivalency. What’s a newspaper reader worth in terms of a radio listener? What’s the radio listener worth in terms of a viewer, an internet browser? What is a consumer of a national output worth in terms of a consumer of local outputs, etc, etc?

Such evaluations can only be made (as they have been, for example, in America) on essentially artificial and ultimately arbitrary bases. The research becomes increasingly suspect as its ‘findings’ become ever more critical to the continued corporate health of those involved. What does consumption mean? Just to examine consumption in this context is to revisit all the old unanswered questions about the real ‘power’ of the media, the actual nature of media ‘influence’. But this time, any results produced by the measurement will be used, potentially, to determine the contours of the news environment. Like Sir Roger, Ofpress’ boss will be the ultimate national news editor. Hunt wants ‘agreed’ measures. He has to be joking.

In fact, if Hunt were to go into the DCMS basement (or wherever they keep the archive) he’ll find minutes of meetings held under Chris Smith where this ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’ cross-ownership issue was discussed over tired sandwiches at some length.* In the UK, nothing then came of these Aquinian debates.

The second obstacle follows.

Let’s say Ofpress/Ofcom and the DCMS now have the measures. What do they do to enforce them? Again, there is something that needs be left aside immediately. ‘Share’ has to be determined in terms of longitudinal audience/readership trends. You can’t have the ‘Ofpress Messengers’ breathing down news organisations’ necks on the basis of the overnight ratings. (Well, you could if you were Nicolae Ceauşescu.) So, consequences of the measuring would have be imposed at decent intervals. Will the census be taken annually? Every few years? Once a decade? (The Americans do it every four years.) Measuring news consumption share in effect proposes a virtual licensing of the press between censuses, a situation unseen in England since the Licensing Act was abandoned in 1695.

But, even worse, any such system, if it is to have any meaning at all, needs sanctions. Imposing them, though, would punish the successful. A news organisation, democratically preferred by news consumers, would be in danger of being curtailed. How? Fined? Ordered divestment? (That’s the American way.) It really doesn’t matter. Any conceivable sanctions are deeply offensive to democracy and this country’s traditions.

Anyway, why begin with consumption? If the object of the exercise is to limit ownership, why not start with the owners? That is what provides the American messy and messed-up ‘deregulated’ system such saving grace as it possesses. It started with the owners, not the audience.

Before the Reaganite assault on American broadcast regulation, the Federal Communication Commission operated a perfectly simpleregime. It would not award any organisation more than seven licenses for stations operating in a given segment of the market: seven television stations, seven FM radio stations and seven AM radio stations. And no publishers (which included many of the pioneering radio licensees of the 1920s) were allowed a broadcasting license in any market where they owned a newspaper.

That’s all gone now – which is why Rupert Murdoch has 27 FCC licenses. (All he had to do to get them was renounce his Australian citizenship. You have to be an American to be a broadcast license holder – bit like being the President.) Having removed the original basis of containment, a potential monster was created. For example, Clear Channel, the country’s biggest radio station owner, has 1200 licenses - all serviced, more or less the whole time, remotely. Enter, then, audience assessment to redress the balance. It’s a rather classic example of the purblind limitations of neo-liberal thinking. It is, after all, no surprise that the removal of ownership limitation would enable over-powerful voices to silence the speech of others. That was why the regulations were there in the first place – as any fule (with a memory) kno.

The American’s use of share measurement as an element in regulation began with the news, too. They introduced weighted measures of the average tendency of consumers to find news across all channels, whatever the medium, however delivered, including newspapers and magazines. But the system has proved unworkable and the news content measure was abandoned. And the results were not acted on with any efficiency either. Oganisations are permitted to break the rules in terms of both local outlet ownership and national audience shares on a case-by-case basis; and they do. And, between the quadrennial censuses, there are repeated rows – the FCC v. the licensees v. the audience measurement firms. (Think Standard and Poors and the national credit ratings.) Of course, audience measurement, when you are not merely selling stuff, is far more clearly revealed for the inevitably flawed enterprise it is than is usually the case. And that’s before any comparisons are made. Nevertheless, no doubt Ofcom are booking transatlantic tickets by the plane-full even as I write.

There are great difficulties in applying any such system in the UK. For one thing, geography works as much against the idea of coherent ‘markets’ here as it does in favour of it in the US. In the United States, so firmly embedded is localism within the media industries, ‘market’ is a synonym for ‘city’. Never-mind the application of national share considerations, the American ownership regulatory system is grounded in the localism of media markets. There is, after all, still no dominant national press and, for all the homogeneity of chain-owned titles, there is no equivalent to the editorial platforms of the British nationals.

The purpose of cross-ownership regulation is to ensure multiplicity of voices. The objective is to remove the media mogul. It can be achieved very easily – if you want to own (or operate a publically owned) platform of opinion, you can – essentially -- only have one.

This is where to start the debate. What has to be done to facilitate a situation where ownership is limited – not by the success of audience/readership/usage reach -- but by the number of platforms controlled?

Any proposal along these lines is, of course, deeply offensive to the sacred principle of untrammeled capital; but so be it. Speech is special. Freedom of speech – the right to receive and impart information -- is the capstone right. It is the one without which no other right can be protected. Its capacity for doing harm – which must be acknowledged – has to be contained but, in a democracy, the containment must be as limited as possible: don’t falsely cry fire in a crowded theatre; understand clear and present danger; do no harm. It certainly should not be subjected to notions that it causes no offense (whatever our communications law unfortunately currently says); and it is a right. That is to say, it exactly comes without responsibility – beyond the prohibition against doing real harm. Mealy mouthed conjoining of ‘right’ to ‘responsibility’ denies the very nature of a right.

Which is to say that so exceptional are the privileges attached to speech that ownership limitations of the infrastructures that permit it on a mass basis are perfectly reasonable. Indeed (to quote the ECHR) they are ‘necessary in a democratic society’. This, most emphatically, does not mean limitations on content. It means limitations on ownership – nothing more. We already accept this as a principle, however limited is its current application.

The argument that conglomeration is needed to protect speech is a palpable nonsense. Speaking truth to power requires integrity and nerve, not massive resources – especially in today’s digital world. Mogul power far too easily produces the opposite: the corruption of o’er-weening media subjects under the crown. (Or in Murdoch’s case, technically, not even under the crown.)

Nor is it the case that mighty organisations are needed to gather the news. We are a century and a half from the creation of the first news agencies, while separately owned media voices - themselves of modest size - have always used and benefited from such shared resources. There is nothing wrong with Reuters or ITN as species of cooperatives.

If Hunt were anymore committed to contain media moguls than his colleague Osborne appears to be committed to contain the bankers, he would be looking for a basis to create an environment of smaller media entities. He could start by saying: ‘Print or broadcasting: choose’. He could do some sums about limiting titles, licenses and channels. (He could always adjust as the technological impact bites – the principle would remain.) 

What he would not be doing is looking to know that a New Statesmen subscriber was worth 0.4768 (or whatever) of a Today show radio listener.

*The answer, btw, to Aquinas’ question is, according to the Annals of Improbable Research,  as follows: ‘.... the density of angels dancing on the point of a pin [] is dependent on the assumed mass of the angels, with a maximum number of 8.6766*10exp49 angels at the critical angel mass (3.8807*10exp-34 kg)’.

Brian Winston is the Lincoln Professor, University of Lincoln. He joined World In Action for its 2nd season in 1963 and has an Emmy for documentary script writing. In 2005 he published 'Messages: Free Expression, Media and the West: from Guttenberg to Google'.

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