'Where's the BBC?': Response to Media Reform recommendations

A response to the new media reform committee's recommendations, to be submitted to the Leveson Inquiry and the Communications Review.
David Elstein
18 December 2011

The CCMR executive summary reflects a lot of hard work, but it tries to cover too much ground for its own good.  The Leveson process is sensibly restricted to newspaper ethics, not the media as a whole.  Covering media ethics and governance, as well as ownership and funding models, is simply too ambitious, and has led the CCMR to some simplistic and misguided conclusions.

The summary opens with a call for a statutory right of reply, as if that were the most important issue facing the media today. The CCMR argues that this should be offered to “persons or organisations” who “believe” they have been misrepresented. This is an upside down approach. The issue is one of accuracy, which applies as least as much to facts as to persons or organisations.

Despite this mis-cued right of reply apparently being “statutory”, there is a whole structure of ombudsmen and news tribunals envisaged, with the “power” to demand an instant right of reply. Yet at the same time the summary recognizes that these demands might be ignored. It is not at all clear what the “statutory” element is. 

Most newspapers acknowledge (more post-Leveson than pre-Leveson) that correction of inaccuracies is a crucial part of establishing public trust. However, nearly all newspapers fail to give appropriate – let alone equal – prominence to corrections as compared to the original mis-statement. As I suggested in my last contribution on this subject, it would encourage errant newspapers if the re-vamped press regulator maintained on its website a running log of inaccuracies (as established to its satisfaction by complainants) yet to be corrected by the original publication.

It was in that same article that I offered the idea of a VAT waiver for compliant publishers – an idea adopted by the CCMR – and graduated penalties in the shape of length of loss of the VAT waiver could be an important part of the new regulator’s armoury. In turn, this muscle would induce publishers to pay their share of the regulator’s costs. Yet the CCMR also calls for statutory funding for the new body, without specifying any level or reason, or acknowledging the great dangers of such a step. This is simply a bad idea. 

Disappointingly, on the issue of punishing invasions of privacy, the CCMR falls well short. It calls for stiffer fines, when successive Information Commissioners have rightly been seeking custodial sentences to be part of the sanctions for these offences.

The longest section of the summary is on ownership. The CCMR would have done well to await the outcome of the current consultations by both Ofcom and the House of Commons Culture Committee on measuring media plurality (my submissions is here - opens as PDF) before plunging into the tricky issues of fixed limits on ownership of different media, as if they were all of equivalent significance.

Perhaps the most astounding omission from the executive summary is any mention of the BBC, which is overwhelmingly the dominant media owner in the UK, with a news consumption share of over 45% (over 60% by some calculations), compared with News Corp’s 8%, Daily Mail’s 7% and nine other organisations with a share of 1% or more. The notion that the rapidly declining national newspaper industry must be subject to fixed ownership limits (other than those which comply with normal competition rules) is increasingly anachronistic, especially in that context. 

The 15% limit espoused by the CCMR would result in the closure of several newspapers, including The Times and The Sunday Times, despite their heavy investment every year in newsgathering, which is deemed a behavioural plus by the CCMR. As The Sun alone constitutes over 25% of national newspaper circulation, what does the CCMR propose? Rationing? The Daily Mail Group and Trinity Mirror also comfortably exceed the 15% limit. Fifteen per cent of the national newspaper market represents 3% of the adult population – by any standards, a pretty low threshold.

The eccentricity of omitting any mention of the BBC is all the more notable when the summary calls for media organisations (whether profitable or not) to be levied to support public service news ventures. That £3.6 billion pounds is already levied annually on the TV-owning public to support the BBC, which spends hundreds of millions on its public service news operations, is blithely ignored, as are the tens of millions spent by publicly-owned Channel 4 on news and current affairs every year.

Equally puzzling is the section on the BSkyB take-over bid. The CCMR seems to believe that there was a conflict of interest “clearly revealed” at the political level in that affair: yet the published evidence clearly shows that Jeremy Hunt behaved at all times in a quasi-judicial fashion, never stating – let alone acting upon – his own views as to the advisability of the transaction until after the Milly Dowler phone-hacking (and the distress it indirectly caused her parents) was revealed. 

The CCMR makes not just a category error in its call for News Corporation’s stake in BSkyB to be reduced to 15%, but a real political error, too. The only part of BSkyB that has any relevance to media ownership rules is Sky News, which accounts for approximately 2.5% of all news consumption. Ofcom itself (which the CCMR – somewhat naively – believes to be an impartial judge of these matters) agreed that there was no reason why News Corporation could not own all of BSkyB, let alone the present 39%, provided Sky News remained majority owned by non-News Corp shareholders. (For the evidence of bias in Ofcom’s approach, see my this previous post of mine.)

The fact is that BSkyB does not control any state-owned spectrum.  It holds a number of channel licences from Ofcom, but the actual ownership of these licences is a trivial part of its business. Indeed, BSkyB could at any time transfer its operations to – say – Dublin, rendering UK ownership rules redundant, along with some 15,000 UK employees. Ireland would also benefit from the transfer of well over £1 billion a year BSkyB collects and pays in taxes. 

This whole section tells us a great deal about the CCMR’s political stance; unfortunately, it also serves to undermine the sensible ideas it offers on remedying some of the faults in the structure and control of the current Press Complaints Commission – which is where the CCMR might more usefully focus its contribution to the debate. 

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