Towards a New Approach for Media Plurality: Suggestions for Ofcom’s Consultation

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It is been more than four months now since Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation decided to withdraw its bid to fully acquire British Sky Broadcasting (BSkYB) on 13 July 2011. Although that decision put an end to a case which had kept the British media and public opinion in upheaval for more than a year, it did not stop the debate on how a plural media environment can be both regulated and enforced. While the Leveson inquiry is now investigating the ethics and freedom of the press after the so called ‘phone-hacking’ scandal, Ofcom – the UK media regulator – has recently launched a specific consultation on measuring media plurality.

The consultation aims to collect evidence on several aspects of media plurality in order to implement future regulation in the field. In particular, Ofcom asks which approach should be adopted to measure plurality and whether setting absolute limits on news market share would be an advisable solution. Regarding these questions, a few suggestions can be drawn on the basis of recent research which I carried out at the London School of Economics.

Only news media content

As Ofcom’s approach towards the case of News Corp/BSkyB has shown, a new approach towards measuring media plurality should start by taking into account the news market as a whole. Thus, the first step consists in defining this specific market, which does not concern every media product – such as movies, entertainment, sports, etc. – but only a small part of the entire media content. In the case of television, for example, the news market accounts for only nine percent of total TV viewing time – according to Ofcom data (2010) – or even only two percent – according to FTI’s submission to Ofcom (2010).

While this preliminary decision – i.e. considering only news content – could seem obvious in the UK context, it would be disruptive if applied to other European countries – such as France, Germany, or Italy – which currently regulate media plurality by considering every kind of content produced by media companies.

An audience-based perspective

The news market should then be assessed within a broader theoretical framework, marked by a shift from the supply side towards the consumer side. In other words, regulators should move beyond the traditionally media platform-based approach and focus instead on an audience-based perspective, where the actual news consumption is taken into account. This does not mean that media ownership and media concentration lose their relevance. On the contrary, ownership should be a key part of this wider framework which aims at understanding how audiences consume news and from which providers.

By focusing on the audience side, this approach necessarily implies going beyond distinctions among traditional media platforms – newspapers, TV, radio and internet – and considering all news providers within one “converged” news market. This shift proves not only unavoidable in the case of cross-media mergers, but also essential in the current media landscape, where digitisation processes are blurring traditional boundaries among media sectors. Again, this is not to say that measuring concentration within each media sector can be regarded as irrelevant. Measuring the distribution of news consumption in a single media sector by each provider – especially in the case of television, which is still considered as the main source of news by far – still proves fundamental. However, each media sectors’ analysis must be included in the broader converged news market’s framework and judged within this perspective.

A new cross-platform indicator

It follows that also new audience-based metrics need to be put in place, such as Ofcom’s share of references. By ‘reference’, Ofcom means “a news brand/title that is cited by a consumer as a source of regular UK or international news or current affairs”. The cross-platform indicator is then obtained by asking consumers “to name their sources of UK and international news and current affairs”. According to our research, the share of references proves innovative because it overcomes traditional distinctions between media sectors and allows for the actual measuring of cross-platform news consumption. Thus, it also proves extremely suitable for the current new media environment which is increasingly shaped by processes of technological convergence.

However, this indicator does not prove particularly effective in measuring the actual influence of different media platforms on audience. In other words, the share of references does not sufficiently take into account the different impact that is traditionally attached to various media (e.g. the different impact of TV news compared to newspaper articles). Therefore, it needs to be combined with other indicators in order to assess the different relevance that audiences attach to different media (for example by asking consumers which are their most relevant sources of news instead of just their regular sources of news). It is not possible here to define a new set of metrics. Suffice is to say that the share of references represents a crucial step further towards a practical measure of plurality within this new converged and audience-based framework.

Setting limits

Finally, regarding the need for a threshold, our analysis of the News Corp/BSkyB case shows that, although setting limits is always an arbitrary decision, it would enforce regulators’ role and make decisions over media plurality clearer and more easily applicable. A comparative analysis shows that the application of either US concentration indices – such as the HHI or the Noam Index – or different European countries’ regulations to the UK case mentioned above would provide contrasting results. While concentration indices reveal that the UK news market is already highly concentrated for US standards, this same situation, however, would not trigger a public intervention in other European regulatory regimes.

In general, as written in our research’s conclusions, “the existence of a certain type of ‘ex-ante’ regulation would enforce policymakers’ task, by giving them clearer instruments, which are in place before an eventual merger happens. It would also grant regulators a higher degree of independence, by linking their final judgments to limits which are set in law and not decided by politics on a case-by-case basis”.

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