Archive for the ‘House of Lords’ tag

How will the government judge if a media merger should go ahead?

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Many of the media forecasts for 2009 suggest it will be a year of consolidation. Buffeted by ever colder winds of economic woe – and an even harsher financial climate than 2008 – many media companies will, the forecasters suggest, look to merge with one another, try to piggy back off one anothers resources, and sometimes even ‘bunk up’ together (most notably in the case of the Independent and Daily Mail).

But, when mergers happen, how will the government decide when it ought to intervene? And how will it make a judgment on which mergers should go ahead and which shouldn’t?

Last year the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications thought long and hard about this question, and wrote up its studiously gathered evidence, its thoughts on implications, and its recommendations, in the excellent The Ownership of News report.

The Select Committee unfashionably emphasised the importance of owners and ownership structures on journalism. This was not, they said, necessarily in terms of proprietorial interference – though that can still be the case with respect to some owners. Rupert Murdoch, for example, told the Committee he was what one might call a ‘traditional proprietor’ – meaning that he determined the position taken by some of his publications on major political issues like elections and Europe.

But ownership structures could, the Committee suggested, have an even more important influence on journalism than owners themselves – particularly on the way in which news is collected and the type of news that is published. Publicly owned companies, for example, are under more pressure to show a regular return on investment, even if this meant cutting editorial resources like newsgathering.

It was for this reason that one of their recommendations was:

that the public interest considerations for newspaper mergers and broadcasting and cross-media mergers are amended to refer specifically to a need to establish whether a merger will impact adversely on news gathering

Though it is difficult to determine how this would be evaluated or policed, it’s still a laudable principle – especially if one believes that original newsgathering is important – particularly at a local level.

Other recommendations included giving Ofcom the power to initiate a public interest test, and getting Ofcom to investigate whether newspaper mergers are in the public interest. These recommendations were based on the – quite sensible – assumption that Ofcom is probably better placed to the assess threats to the public interest in the case of media mergers than the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

And how did the government react? Well, in response to the newsgathering recommendation it said:

we consider the current media public interest consideration, including the considerations relating to accurate presentation of news, free expression of opinion and sufficient plurality of views in newspapers, provides a sufficient basis for dealing with this issue to the extent that it may give rise to public interest concerns” (from Government Response to Ownership of News)

The equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders, let’s leave things as they are.

This response was similar to those made to the other Ownership of News recommendations – We think the current safeguards are fine thank you.

Such government responses have particular piquancy now that it looks as though local ownership rules are ‘likely to be relaxed’ (from Leigh Holmwood in Media Guardian).

If – when – they are, there will probably be a flurry of mergers and consolidation. The government, in its wisdom, will then have to make decisions without the benefit of suggestions from the House of Lords to deal with just this situation.

Written by Martin Moore

January 5th, 2009 at 4:58 pm

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Plucky Lords to challenge the media

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I yesterday had the pleasure of giving evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications.

The House of Lords, unlike their counterparts in the Commons, have plucked up the courage to do a serious examination of the impact of media ownership on news.

I say courage because, despite the enormous changes happening in news and the difficult questions these changes raise about public interest reporting and the role of the Fourth Estate, MPs have studiously ignored the problem.

Indeed there have been more blue moons since 1997 than there have been government inquiries or consultations into the media. It was only as Tony Blair left office that he felt brave enough to challenge the influence of the news media (in his now infamous ‘feral beasts’ speech). The Conservatives have been even less critical – indeed so comfortable is David Cameron with media malpractice that he snapped up Andy Coulson as his director of communications – shortly after Coulson had resigned as editor of News of the World following the royal phone tapping scandal (see previous post).

So the House of Lords should be applauded for launching such an inquiry, and for not being scared off by the danger of bad headlines.

Yet this said, I can’t help but be anxious about what the Select Committee will achieve. By focusing on media ownership the inquiry could end up being either anachronistic or prescient. Working out what to do about media owners has been a bugbear of the government ever since mass media arrived. The first Royal Commission on the Press, back in 1947, was set up because of ‘increasing public concern at the growth of monopolistic tendencies in the control of the Press’. Now, 60 years on, we’re still worrying about it, and not much closer to working out a solution.

But the focus on media ownership could also be prescient. If, by ‘media ownership’, the Lords are thinking about the economics of news production. The financial model that used to underpin news is being eroded every day, and so the question of how public interest reporting will be funded in the future is horribly unclear.

If the Select Committee can raise awareness about the seriousness of this problem, and can suggest some innovative ways for how we might address it (preferably ones that don’t include the term ‘Public Service Publisher’), then they will have done a great service.

Written by Martin Moore

October 25th, 2007 at 11:09 am

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