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'A welcome call for democratisation through regulation': Response to Media Reform recommendations

Patricia Holland
18 December 2011

Campaigners and academics have been deploring the increasing commercialisation and the narrowing of UK press and television for many years. So the papers from CCMR, arguing for the democratisation of the media, are particularly welcome -especially in the context of the Government’s plan to move rapidly towards a new Communications Act, and to publish a Green Paper soon after Christmas.

In the run-up to the Green Paper the pressure from media interests: broadcasters, advertisers, production companies and others, has been for de-regulation; a lightening of what they describe as a ‘burden’ (see papers from the Westminster Media Forum July 2011). Before the News of the World scandal there was a danger that arguments which stress the enabling power of regulation would not only be drowned out, but seen as hopelessly out of date. Now, at least, there is a space to re-think basic principles, and to remember that in the 1970s and 80s it was regulation which created a situation whereby excellent journalism could flourish across the television channels.

As the paper on Public Interest makes clear, pluralism is a key requirement. A diversity of structures needs to be in place in order to ensure a diversity of content. The paper focuses on limiting ownership to ensure pluralism in the provision of news and responsible journalism. In my view it is important to ensure that organisational structures also underpin a wider diversity in programming, both across the genres - from challenging drama to reality shows - and within programme genres (we need soap operas as well as original authored plays). It is important to recognise that political and social information and a sense of democratic citizenship, range more widely across the media than simply in news and current affairs. And entertainment is an important part of cultural activity, too. There also needs to be a recognition of the diversity of audiences - as Channel Four set out to do in its early days.

The strength of British television has been its diversity of funding models. It is not only the publicly-funded BBC which should be concerned with the public interest. For many years, the more popular orientation of ITV challenged the BBC, while competition with the BBC, together with appropriate regulation, ensured that ITV did not abandon a diversity of programming in favour of commercial considerations. With that history in mind, it is important that ITV remains part of the public service ecology in its upcoming licence review (see Ofcom report on Licensing of Channel 3 and Channel 5 September 2011). Although the situation has changed since the 1990s, we should be careful not to accept a hard and fast distinction between ‘public service media’ and ‘commercial media’, implying that commercial media have no obligation to respect the public interest.

The paper on Public Interest discussed both newspapers and broadcasting. The two media have different histories and are structured in very different ways. In my view it will become important to consider the two more closely in relation to each other, in the light of the longer term need to take into account a rapid move towards convergence and the shift to digital online media.

Recommendations on media policy need to be of two sorts: the immediate, shorter term recommendations can deal with each medium separately. But in the long term they will have to be considered together, as overlapping structures.

I am aware that opinions differ as to whether this shift to convergence will be rapid or prolonged. However, when a single screen receives material originated both by television and online sources, when the content of newspapers is more likely to be accessed online than in print, questions of balance, news impartiality, regulation will look quite different.

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