Successive governments have taken the view that the media is key to a healthy, well-informed democracy and that control of the media should not be concentrated in too few hands. Legislation has therefore been implemented to ensure a range of media ‘voices’, giving consumers access to a range of diverse views.
The current regulatory framework for safeguarding media plurality is set out in the Communications Act 2003 and the Enterprise Act 2002.
For example, under the Communications Act, Ofcom has to maintain a sufficient plurality of TV and radio services providers. Furthermore, no one can own more than 20% of a Channel 3 licence and national newspapers with more than 20% market share. The same restriction applies to anyone who is more than 20% owned by someone who has more than 20% of the national newspaper market, known as the ‘20/20’ rule.
The Enterprise Act gives Ofcom a formal statutory role in relation to certain media mergers, triggered by the Secretary of State issuing an intervention notice specifying a ‘media public interest consideration’. This happened in 2011 with the proposed acquisition by News Corp of BSkyB.
In the context of Ofcom’s examination of that proposed merger, Ofcom recommended that the government consider undertaking a wider review of the current media plurality regime to ensure that it reflects the realities of the current media market.
DCMS asked Ofcom to provide advice on media plurality in 2011. Ofcom published its advice in June 2012 and gave further advice in October 2012.
In 2013, DCMS published a consultation on the scope of a measurement framework for media plurality. The consultation highlighted media market changes, particularly the significant increase in the use of the internet as a news source, giving the example of Google News and Facebook, two of the three most-used online news sources after the BBC.
DCMS set out its conclusions on the scope and objectives of a measurement framework in August 2014, which included the following:
- Online content should be included
- All organisations that impact on news and current affairs should be included
- At least one of the measures should focus closely on media ownership
In September 2014, DCMS asked Ofcom to develop a suitable set of indicators to inform the measurement framework, in consultation with industry. Ofcom published a ‘Call for Inputs’ in October 2014. It is now consulting on the set of indicators.
Ofcom defines plurality as:
- Ensuring a diverse range of independent news media voices across TV, radio, print and online;
- High overall consumption across different demographic groups;
- Consumers actively using a range of different news sources; and
- Ensuring balance among organisations and news sources, so no one voice has too much influence over public opinion or the political agenda.
Ofcom’s proposed framework is based on its 2012 advice to DCMS. It comprises the following categories of metrics:
A count of the number of providers, indicating the potential for a diversity of viewpoints.
A measure of the number of people using news media and the frequency and/or time they spend consuming it. Ofcom’s proposed measurement comprises reach, share of consumption and multi-sourcing.
A measure of the potential for news sources to influence opinion. Ofcom’s proposed measurement takes account of personal importance, as well as perceived impartiality, reliability and quality.
Additional qualitative factors which cannot be quantified in metrics, but are an important part of measuring media plurality. Examples given by Ofcom include internal plurality, internal governance processes, editorial policy, impartiality requirements, market trends and future market developments.
The main areas where Ofcom’s thinking has developed since 2012 are:
Online news and intermediaries
Ofcom proposes that any online news source should be measured by the framework, including content originators, content aggregators and online intermediaries, e.g. Google search and Facebook.
Cross-media and sector-specific consumption metrics
Ofcom believes bespoke cross-media consumer research is the most appropriate measure of cross-media consumption and proposes a ‘share of references’ metric.
Ofcom proposes that the stated importance of a news story is a useful proxy and that metrics could include an analysis of the extent of online sharing of news stories via social media.
The role and relevance of contextual factors
Ofcom proposes that contextual factors be considered in the round alongside quantitative metrics, as they provide a fuller picture of plurality.
Measuring media ownership
Ofcom proposes distinguishing between the retail and wholesale functions of news provision, in order to understand any differences between the provision of news to the end-user and the production of that news.
Ofcom proposes to aggregate news sources with common ownership for both retail and wholesale when calculating metrics such as reach and share of reference, in order to assess the consolidated reach and impact of a given media owner.
The closing date for responses is 20 May 2015.