PressWise response to White Paper on Communications

Bulletin No 41, 19 March 2001

1.i We are disappointed to find that the opportunity has been missed to include the print media in the regulatory structure. The current system of self-regulation under the auspices of the Press Complaints Commission has proved highly unsatisfactory in dealing with complaints from ordinary members of the public, and serves chiefly to protect the newspaper organisations which are responsible for its funding. It is illogical that commercial radio and television companies should be held liable to statutory regulation and the threat of sanctions if they fail to conform to their code, while the newspaper industry is allowed to police itself.

1.ii In our view the correct solution would not be to assign complaints about content to OFCOM, which is primarily concerned with economic and technical factors and is likely to be too unwieldy to deal swiftly with complaints, but to set up a separate Complaints Council. There is also the danger that OFCOM, with its interest in promoting the prosperity of the communications industry, would be too susceptible to influence from broadcasters to be seen as an honest broker. It would thus fall into the same trap as the widely-discredited PCC.

2.i Such a Complaints Council should be independent, government-financed, and democratically constituted. It should draw up enforceable codes of conduct with all media operators, including the press, and have legal powers to impose financial sanctions if all voluntary mechanisms have been exhausted. In cases where libel actions would have been likely to succeed if the complainants had been financially able to pursue such a course, the Council should have power to order compensation to be paid.

2.ii Media codes of conduct should include a “conscience clause” which would permit journalists ordered to perform tasks in contravention of the codes to refuse to do so without fear of reprisal.

3.i We are disturbed by the suggestion that ownership rules, both within and across media platforms, should be relaxed or even abandoned. The public interest demands the utmost diversity in the reporting of news and expression of opinion; a diversity which is already under severe threat from recent newspaper acquisitions and forecasts of a unified ITV system in the near future. In particular, we find the proposal to permit a single ITV franchise in London extremely disturbing.

3.ii Given that the new digital spectra will allow ever more diversity in communications, the White Paper’s apparent obsession with the creation of larger and larger units seems perverse. The public interest would be much better served by widely diversified ownership. As the U.S. experience shows only too clearly, media concentration can lead to the creation of monster organisations responsible to no one – least of all to the public they are supposed to serve. To permit similar developments in this country would be to invite the British media to become mere outposts of a global empire. Smaller-scale local ownership, on the other hand, carries with it a responsibility to the target audience which will be more effective in maintaining standards than any amount of governmental regulation.

3.iii To enable such diversity of ownership, strict rules will be needed: the ownership of one form of communication in a given area must be a bar to ownership of any other. i.e. No newspaper should be allowed to own a TV station, telecoms service or radio station, within its circulation area, and vice-versa. Within these sectors there should be a limit placed on the share of the economically viable market – say 15%. Any newspaper owner, for example, who exceeded this market share, would be required to divest properties until the 15% was reached. Ownership of up to three newspapers in geographically distinct markets would be allowed, but no one would be permitted to own a national newspaper and local newspapers as well.

3.iv There would undoubtedly be protests that such measures would lead to greater costs, eliminating economies of scale. However, this is hardly an impoverished industry, and it is one in which the public interest in diversity must be allowed to outweigh the accumulation of profit. There is also the likelihood of improved opportunities for the training of young journalists – a traditional role for the British provincial press which has been declining as a result of extensive mergers of small papers.

4.i The “nominated news provider” system for ITV is clearly under threat. As most of those who have worked for ITN or the BBC news division would confirm, this system has worked well since its inception and produced good quality and a high degree of impartiality on both sides. The 20% limitation of shareholding in ITN has been of especial benefit. Were this to be abandoned, the dangers of undue influence over the production of news programmes by a dominant company are both real and obvious. This rule should not be relaxed.

5.i The White Paper shows a remarkable lack of concern for the effect of mergers in the provincial press. (4.11.2) “In some areas, even where over 70% of the local or regional newspapers have been published by one company, the Competition Commission has found that such levels of concentration may not be expected to operate against the public interest. In the last 10 years, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has given unconditional consent to all newspaper transfers involving local weekly newspapers.” The last sentence is clearly meant to indicate that, politically, such mergers are seen as being in the public interest. We would beg to disagree. In addition to their effect on newspaper staffing, they inevitably lead to lack of responsibility at the grass roots – a vital feature of local newspapers. In many cases, ownership is now vested overseas. We recommend an upper limit on the number of papers which can be owned by one company in any defined geographic area.

5.ii The continuation of nationality restrictions on broadcasting ownership are welcome, but thought should be given to the extension of such restrictions to newspaper ownership. Given that newspapers are rightly permitted full freedom of political expression, and therefore exercise considerable influence over voters, it is odd that huge swathes of national circulation should be owned by an Australian-turned-American, a Canadian and an Irishman.

5.iii The current disqualification on advertising agencies should be maintained; not because of its effect on fair competition in the advertising market, but because of the potential conflict of interest with news and current affairs programming.

6.i We welcome the White Paper’s recognition of the need for a strong public service role in the new media environment, and the invitation to discuss ways of encouraging a range of community media initiatives. However, there is an absence of democratic public involvement in the establishment of OFCOM. It would appear that, as has been the case with previous bodies regulating the media, it is intended staff this body by secret appointment. This inevitably leads to the appearance, if not the fact, of control by a politically and socially narrow group of people. We would ask that in future this and any other bodies regulating the media should be appointed by transparent means, ensuring social, sexual and cultural diversity.

7.i Perhaps inevitably, the White Paper has been drawn up in consultation with a relatively narrow group of interested parties. But just as Clemenceau remarked that “War is much too serious a thing to be left to the military”, so the future of the media is much too serious to be left to civil servants, politicians, and those who run the industry. The public will be on the receiving end of any future Communications Bill, and therefore the public should have their say before any such legislation is drafted.

7.ii We therefore recommend that there should be an independent public inquiry to take evidence from a wide spectrum of public opinion in key sites across the United Kingdom. The inquiry should review, for both the immediate future and long term, the ownership, general organisation, management and regulation of the contemporary media, and to inquire whether the channels of communication operate in the public interest, with special reference to:

  • The content of the White Paper.
  • The concentration of media ownership, and in particular of cross-media ownership.
  • The likely impact of the Human Rights Act 1998 on newspapers, magazines, radio and television (including the Internet) with reference to the law of defamation, the Official Secrets Act and the Freedom of Information Act.
  • The education and training of journalists and editors.
  • The regulation of the media.
  • The establishment of an Institute for the study of the media.
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