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‘Counting on plurality’ means adding to the BBC

The BBC’s charter renewal process will be influenced by whatever steps the next government takes on media ownership and plurality.  

Jonathan Hardy
29 April 2015

Rupert Murdoch. Image: Flickr/ Surian Soosay

After the Election, renewal of the BBC charter will be a major policy issue, but so too will tackling media plurality. How these are brought together will influence the outcome for both. Since 2011 a recurring concern in the media plurality policy debate has been the place of the BBC and, as ever, this one comes pre-loaded with commercial and political interests.

Media plurality itself re-emerged as a pre-eminent policy concern due to chronic conditions and acute symptoms. The chronic conditions are on-going media convergence, the persistence of high levels of media concentration across news media, and the emergence of monopolistic digital giants. The acute symptoms were the proposed takeover of BSkyB by News Corporation in 2010, a public interest test referral by Vince Cable, an Ofcom investigation, and the revelations of less than quasi-judicial dealings between Government and Murdoch, phone-hacking and Leveson.

Since then there have been Parliamentary, Government and Ofcom enquiries into media plurality, which reached a rather stalled and shrunken focus on measurement before the 2015 Election. After May 7 a Conservative-led administration may be expected to continue the glacial pace of media plurality reform, while a Labour-led administration may act sooner and tougher on media ownership, ‘so that no media outlet can get too big’. 

On the future of the BBC, the Conservatives pledge to keep the licence fee frozen, to continue to ‘top-slice’ BBC revenues, and to use Charter renewal to achieve ‘value for money for the licence fee payer, while maintaining a world-class service and supporting our creative industries’. Labour’s manifesto pledges to support the BBC in continuing to provide ‘a vital contribution to the richness of our cultural life… while delivering value for money’.

Labour commissioned a taskforce to review creative industries policy whose recent report promotes licence fee funding, rejects any ‘new’ top-slicing, but also supports increased independent production quotas and Tony Hall's proposed sell-off of BBC television production. It advocates twin principles: the social importance of the public service broadcasting (PSB) system, alongside competition, ‘between in-house and external production companies for the supply of content to the public service broadcasters, and…competition for audiences between public and private broadcasters’ (p42). 

Concerning the BBC and plurality measures, there have been two key questions posed. First, should the BBC be included in the analysis of media market share between providers? Yes argues Ofcom, the BBC, its critics, and media reformers, including the organisation I represent, the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom. Market analysis should consider the entirety of relevant markets and that very often includes the BBC’s substantial share.  When it reported in August 2014 on its 2013 consultation the Government acknowledged that ‘support for inclusion of the BBC was the most unanimous response to the questions that we asked’ ‘the organisation must be included in the measurement of plurality’.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport consultation in 2013 framed the question in a more pointed way, asking, ‘Do you agree that the BBC’s impact on plurality should be assessed as part of a plurality review?’ Its accompanying commentary suggested that sustaining impartiality was increasingly challenging and that the BBC’s efforts to serve all demographic groups ‘does not guarantee that any individual is subject to a sufficient diversity of viewpoints’. So, the formal consultation question concerned measurement, but the preamble nudged the second key question here: should the BBC be subject to any new plurality regulation? Answering that question is where the main divisions open up between the commercial interests seeking levers to reduce the BBCs scope and pro-PSB voices.

There was partial backing down when the Government issued its 2014 report. The majority of responses, it acknowledged, had argued that the BBC’s unique position and regulatory structure needed to be recognised. Pro-public service reformers can take some credit here. Their submissions helped to block Government steps to de-differentiate the BBC. By contrast, the original DCMS consultation advanced framings that diminished BBC distinctiveness, including ‘that the BBC is not alone amongst news organisations in having a reputable brand, high audience expectations and detailed governance and editorial processes.’

The 2014 report conceded that while the rather slippery question of ‘the BBC’s impact on plurality’ was left ‘in scope’, ‘the issue of how the BBC’s impact should be managed, if at all, is for now out of scope’. Yet this concession was undercut by a reminder that the purpose ‘was not to review the regulatory and policy levers available for ensuring media plurality, but to confirm the scope and objectives for a measurement framework’. Ofcom then issued a consultation on measurement, and in March 2015 issued another one on its proposed approach, open until 20 May. 

So what is the significance of all this for the BBC and plurality post-election?

The Conservatives embarked on a project to de-differentiate public service and commercial provision. This opens the door for arguments ranging from top-slicing and ‘contestability’ in licence-fee funding to those versions of ‘market failure’ arguments that set out to shrink the space for wide-ranging, popular, public service provision. The counter argument is that the way public services are organised and governed is part and parcel of the services and content delivered and it is this that the commercial market system cannot replicate. PSB is not reducible to units of content, it very much also about the ways funding, organisation, access, training and employment conditions can, and should, build the capacity to serve publics with news and entertainment services insulated from statist, party political or market-based demands. 

The assault on the BBC to advance commercial interests adopts two contradictory arguments regarding media plurality. The first uses BBC provision to justify inaction to tackle pluralism elsewhere. Accordingly, commercial monopolies matter less if BBC services ensure ‘sufficient pluralism’; including the BBC in markets helps shrink the share of other players to safer levels. The second, and more dominant, argument is that the BBC threatens and damages media plurality, ‘crowding out’ competitors. For opponents of PSB, action on plurality offers opportunities to discipline the BBC, cut the range of service, and reduce its market impact.

Similar outcomes may also result from pushing the opening up of PSB provision to external competition if the BBC’s resources are cut beyond the capacity for regrowth. When markets are opened up to commercial competitors, the institutional capacity for PSB is threatened and with it not only the overheads to sustain production cultures but training capacity, access and decent jobs. And so progressive demands to open up BBC services to strengthen political and cultural diversity, need also to meet tests of adding value, and increasing democratic oversight, rather than justifying further service cuts and top-slicing.

Dan Hind assembles a critique of the BBC’s elite consensus news provision to propose a more egalitarian-seeming allocation of funding based on public preferences. But aside from the problems of majoritarianism and market-based preferences here, we need to debate where reallocating licence-fee funds to commercial as well as community publishers, is indeed preferable to increasing democratic oversight of BBC services and advancing greater community –based interlinking of BBC resources without directly diminishing them.

Into such debates falls the authoritative study by Barwise and Picard which tackled head on the charge that the BBC distorts the market and so makes it harder for commercial competitors to meet consumers needs. Their report concludes that removing the BBC would not unleash a supposedly government–capped market but would shrink cultural provision. Total TV industry revenue would most likely be lower, total content investment would be 5–25% lower, and investment in first-run UK content would be 25–50% lower - ‘a severe blow to UK production companies’ - and while the impact on viewers would vary, ‘most would suffer a reduction in both choice and value for money’. 

This debate matters for the BBC, and it matters for the whole public service broadcasting sector, but it has an even greater significance. It matters for the way in which 21st century public-facing media is governed. The CPBF argues that commercial providers with a significant share of media markets should meet public interest obligations. These, depending on market share and service, range from adherence to industry-agreed codes, to protection for editors and content producers, through to requirements to invest in newsgathering or original production. Rather than shrink the space for public service media, we need public interest obligations as a condition for all media providers who hold significant market share. 

The means to achieve this are combination of periodic plurality reviews and a strengthened public interest test, but public service media require special consideration and separate treatment. So, to question one, yes, the BBC should be included in market analysis, but the BBC should not be included in plurality enforcement measures, since their purpose is to secure plurality beyond the public service media themselves. The commercially funded PSBs, ITV and Channel Five have weaker public service obligations, and should be subject to ownership caps but they too (and the public trust Channel Four even more so) should also be granted special consideration as public service media.

Public service media are required to meet standards of internal pluralism in editorial content, beyond impartiality in news and opinion. The combination of such service requirements and their systems of governance and oversight are not replicated across purely commercial media. Moreover, the periodic authorisation and review of public service media provide more suitable mechanisms to assess and sustain ‘internal pluralism’, both within individual suppliers and across the public service system as a whole. 

This is not an argument for uncritical endorsement: how the BBC performs on every criteria, and spends our licence fee, matters. Rather it is an argument that plurality mechanisms, which are designed to tackle concentration in commercial media, are not appropriate tools for PSB governance. Above all, the pluralism obtained by public service media should not serve as grounds to diminish plurality across commercial media. When Murdoch, with 34 per cent share of the national newspaper market, berates Sun journalists for not attacking Miliband hard enough to see off Labour’s threat to his empire we have only the latest reminder why 71 per cent believe there should be controls on media ownership.  

If pro-commercial forces succeed in shifting the debate on plurality away from themselves towards BBC provision then we face a strengthened agenda of de-differentiation leading to disaggregation of BBC services, with the licence fee siphoned to subsidise (mostly) commercial providers. Those seeking a more diverse, democratic public realm need to be vigilant here. The discussion of pluralism needs to be kept focused not just on PSB provision but on advancing media ownership reform, more plural provision and standards for all public-facing media, or this historic opportunity will be missed. 

In the late 20th century, social democracy rallied against neoliberalism to defend public service media. Ahead, there is an even larger struggle concerning the extent to which private power, in all its forms, is a suitable basis for meeting the communication needs of our social, cultural and democratic lives. 

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