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Dancing around the inevitable: The Oxford Media Convention

Regulatory reform of Britain's media is coming: the question is how, and when. This year's annual Oxford event brought the big players together to wrangle over the future of the press.
David Elstein
27 January 2012

Regulatory reform of Britain's media is coming: the question is how, and when. This year's annual Oxford event brought the big players together to wrangle over the future of the press.

There was a lot of side-stepping at the annual Oxford event this year. Culture minister Ed Vaizey expressed his admiration for Ofcom, the UK media regulator so loudly criticized by the Tories (when in opposition) for over-stepping its remit.

In turn, Ofcom boss Ed Richards, whilst advocating a coherent structure for future media regulation, to cover content accessed by viewers from the entire range of sources, declared he had no personal or corporate appetite for becoming a super-regulator, least of all with responsibility for the press.
Richards was keen to emphasise the difference between Ofcom's ability to close a broadcaster down (as it controversially did last week with the Iranian-funded Press TV), with the consequent legally cautious journalism that entailed, and newspapers willing to risk prosecution (as the Daily Telegraph did in paying a large sum for the stolen data on MPs' expenses) in pursuit of the public interest.  Amelia Hill's scoops on prospective arrests in the phone-hacking scandal - such as that of Andy Coulson - would no doubt have been blocked by The Guardian's lawyers if that paper had been subject to Ofcom licensing.

Yet one organisation Neil Berkett (chief executive of Virgin Media) wanted regulated by Ofcom was the BBC.  He argued that his company was at least as much affected in its business by the BBC as by any other media player, yet there was no common regulatory approach.  The BBC was largely regulated by the BBC Trust, whose role in life was to protect the licence fee and the BBC, not pay attention to the welfare of the media sector as a whole.  Berkett also criticised the UK's archaic regulatory regime, whereby the issue of wholesale prices for pay-TV sports channels was still unresolved, after a 2-year investigation and nearly 2 years of unfinished appeal process.

The chairman of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten, wittily welcomed the delegates to Oxford (he doubles as Chancellor of the University), and revealed his own little soft shoe shuffle, reversing part of BBC management's plan to make deep cuts in local radio output.  He then bemused his audience with a 10-minute explanation of his decision to call in headhunters to advise on the appointment of the next Director-General.  The incumbent, Mark Thompson, has apparently given no hint of when his time in office (nearly 8 years currently) might end; and Patten was effusive in his praise for the DG.  Yet succession planning appears to be one basic task this exemplary executive failed to undertake in all that time: indeed, he disposed of his own deputy only last year.  Small wonder that Patten's self-justification earned more laughs than applause.

David Abraham, chief executive of Channel 4, also announced a step change.  Perhaps stung by the revelation last year that BSkyB's UK origination budget (excluding sport) had overtaken Channel 4's, Abraham chose to take his organisation into a rare annual loss in 2012 in order to boost its programme budget this year.  Of course, last year's disappointing audience statistics may also have had something to do with this.

In the session where I was a panellist - on cross-media ownership rules designed to protect media plurality - there was another delicate manouevre, this time by the Labour Party's Helen Goodman, a member of Harriet Harman's front bench media team.  In marked contrast to her leader, Ed Miliband's, floated notion of a 20% limit on ownership of national newspaper circulation, Ms Goodman disavowed fixed limits, perhaps influenced by the realisation that rationing The Sun (currently at 29%) would push the Daily Mail into being rationed, which in turn would push the Daily Mirror into being rationed: none of which would do anything to increase the circulation of The Guardian, or - indeed - newspapers generally.

Other members of the panel - Damian Tambini of the LSE and Jonathan Hardy of the Co-ordinating Committee for Media Reform - were keen to see cross-media limits set that go beyond the current limited restrictions on ownership of ITV (affecting only BSkyB and News Corp).  OurKingdom is a supporter of the CCMR (though I have my reservations about its interim recommendations, as previously published).  My concern is that it has too long a shopping list of desirable reforms, and too little argument in support of the mechanisms it plans to use to deliver them.  The danger is that critics of the mechanisms never have to engage with the proposed reforms: better, in my view, to have the argument over prnciple first, and only then address the various ways in which an agreed agenda might be brought into operation.

But these are early days in the Leveson inquiry, and also in the run-up to a new Communications Act.  The speed of technological change is daunting (delegates were treated to a video record of all the media activity undertaken by some volunteer families: complex, even bewildering at times, but exhilirating in the way TV, DVD, mobile, games console and set-top box were simultaneously deployed).  

So regulatory re-design is not only needed: it is inevitable. The debate is not just about media misbehaviour and consumer protection: it is about how society organises itself, about power, and about culture.  Oxford dipped its toe into this heady mix. OurKingdom and openDemocracy globally need to both monitor and engage in such a serious conversation.

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