'We need nuance, not an arbitrary 15% rule': Response to Media Reform recommendations

Defending the public interest requires detailed examination of what exactly is the relevant market, or more likely, combination of markets.

Sally Broughton Micova
18 December 2011

The CCMR make a clear and strong case that questions of media plurality and ownership must be inextricably linked to considerations for the public interest. This means that media ownership should not just be examined from a competition law perspective and at the point when mergers or acquisitions are taking place. They argue that a public interest test should be engaged both at such times and through systematic and continual oversight by Ofcom.

Their proposals are grounded in the principle that “no media organisation should be too large and hence too powerful, either within a news sector or in aggregate across news sectors”. This is the crux of maintaining a healthy role for media in democratic life, in political discourse and the dissemination of information to citizens. However, the application of public interest to issues of media pluralism must not be so narrow as to exclude consideration for the other important functions of media in society.

Most of the media in the UK are private commercial ventures. Maximising protection of the public interest in questions of media pluralism is about finding the right balance between their commercial interests and the interests of the public. In doing so it is important to remember that these media do not just provide news, but also entertainment content, sports coverage, and other things, that while not directly related to participation in democratic politics, are important for the negotiation of values, cohesiveness, identity and a host of other aspects the way each citizen positions him/herself in society.

The catch is that, particularly in broadcasting, but also in print and online media, quality content in these non-news genres is expensive to produce or procure. This means that, in some ways, big media can provide more benefit, for instance in their ability to invest in premium original content, or in-depth features in print. At the same time the presence of overly large players can create distortions in the market for sports rights or premium foreign content.

This is where determining the right balance of pluralism to serve the public interest gets tricky. I argue that it is not enough to insist that a public interest test should have criteria “concerning plurality of information, diversity of cultural expression, contribution to public good” in cases in which one owner would have a share of 15% or greater in a relevant market. Defending the public interest requires detailed examination of what exactly is the relevant market, or more likely, combination of markets.

It cannot simply be an aggregate of audience, even cross-platform. It should also include the position of that medium as a procurer and producer of content, as a seller of audience to advertisers, and more. In these other markets 15% may or may not be an appropriate threshold. In these markets the public interest to be protected may be less about ensuring a variety of views and political diversity, but about ensuring access, choice, or quality.

In light of arguments about commercialisation and the spread of a materialistic consumer culture, I also suggest that media that are not involved in the production and provision of news could also be included. Media that do not have a daily news programme or cover politics on the front page are still very relevant to a citizens world views, values, or even behaviour.

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