Intervention in Media Mergers

mediawatch-uk response to DTI Consultation

mediawatch-uk agrees with the view expressed in the consultation paper (2.1) "that the increasing concentration of newspaper ownership in too few hands could stifle the expression of opinion and argument and distort the presentation of news."

We agree with the proposal (2.2) that the Secretary of State should refer newspaper transfers to the Competition Commission. We believe that external and independent scrutiny is essential.

We agree that the communications industry should be regulated (2.6) and this should work in the public interest. Cross media ownership carries with it dangers that public discussion and debate can be stifled and so we welcome existing safeguards. It would be helpful if the term "wide range of high quality broadcasting" could be defined in some way so that respondents can more confidently agree or disagree with what is being proposed.

It would also be helpful to know how the DTI expects to ensure "that those with control of media enterprises have a genuine commitment to the broadcasting standards objectives set out in the Communications Act 2003". Ofcom has not yet devised a Standards Code nor has it made any public statement assuring the viewing and listening public on how the provisions in Clause 319 of the Act will be secured. The DTI does not state (3.5) how "the new owner" will offer or continue to offer "a broad range of high quality programming". Above all this should not be taken for granted and it would be helpful if a workable mechanism for achieving this could have been stated.

It would be helpful if in (3.6) the "circumstances" could have been stated "where the standard jurisdictional criteria are not met".

It would be helpful if in (3.12) some definition of "wholly or almost wholly" were provided. Moreover, we believe that publications that include a high proportion of indecent/near pornographic pictures should not be regarded as newspapers either.

mediawatch-uk believes that advertisements for sexual services should be excluded from 'newspapers' or publications purporting to be newspapers. This is especially so for 'free' papers just hand delivered through letter-boxes. There is plainly confusion over what constitutes a "newspaper" and what does not. We believe that the Secretary of State who evidently has a "view" on this matter really ought to clarify this question.

We believe that "the need for accurate presentation of the news" (5.4) is of crucial importance and that "free expression of opinions" is not abused or stifled. Bearing in mind the process of consolidation we agree that "local editors" (5.9) are "best placed to judge" local views and concerns. It would be helpful if some ways of securing this were stated. We agree with the Secretary of State's view (5.12) that there should be "a sufficient plurality of views" and local editors would seem to us as one way of ensuring this.

We believe that the powers to intervene "in a particular case" (6.1) should be retained by the Secretary of State.

We believe that it is important that "public interest considerations" should be a priority in cross media negotiations and that such arrangements be considered on a case-by-case basis (7.7). We agree that there is a "need for a sufficient plurality of persons in control of media enterprises" and that over concentration is not in the public interest. Audience share is a factor (7.10) to be taken into account.

The aspiration to "appeal to a variety of tastes and interests" really should be defined in some way by stating that illegal material will be excluded as well as anything which is deemed to be "harmful or offensive" or "likely to encourage crime or disorder" (7.23)

We agree that "high general standards with respect to the contents of programmes" should be maintained (7.19). It would be helpful if this had been defined bearing in mind that "standards" means different things to different people. We agree that the Secretary of State should take into account "the media owners past compliance" record. However, this should not be limited to assessments by regulators who fail to uphold the vast majority of public complaints. More attention should be paid to the complaints made by the public.

We agree that "overall innovation and ambition" (7.21) is an important consideration but so is willingness to comply with Codes and Guidelines and an aspiration to serve the public with recognisably excellent programmes. Respect for audiences is another quality that is needed.

We note the Secretary of State's intervention (7.23) to ensure that media enterprises "comply with the spirit as well as the letter of this broadcasting standards set down in the Communications Act 2003". It would have been helpful if the sanctions for failure to comply could have been stated as well as the evidence needed (7.25) to be taken into account by Ofcom and "self regulatory regimes".

We conclude that a very great deal seems to rest upon the discretion of the Secretary of State (10.4). In view of the relatively transitory nature of political appointments we wonder whether this emphasis is really appropriate and whether it ought to be vested in permanent regulators.

10 March 2004

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