It is an honour to be asked to give this lecture. I asked myself: ‘why’? My only encounter with Brian Leveson was from the witness stand of his eponymous inquiry: one of the more gruelling experiences in a gruelling five years as Secretary of State for BIS. I am not sure if that encounter, or what led to it, was the reason. But it gives me an opportunity to talk about what has been called the ‘elephant in the room’ in the debate about media regulation: the interconnected issues of ownership and plurality.
Media plurality merited only 6 out of 146 paragraphs in the Leveson Report summary and, as a subject, it has largely disappeared in the endless saga about the Royal Charter and the precise nature of self-regulation. But as an economic minister and an economist I was and am deeply interested in competition policy and the market for corporate ownership; and as a political practitioner and democrat I am concerned about the progression from market dominance to market abuse, whether it is in the market for banking, pubs, books, football or newspapers.
Moreover, the issue of media plurality was the source of my own, one, really bad, experience with the press, beyond the normal rough and tumble of political life. I should stress however that I haven’t come here trailing a grievance or to perpetuate a quarrel though the episode merits a brief mention. When the Lib Dem party made a formal complaint about the Daily Telegraph’s use of undercover journalist to trap Lib Dem ministers, including me, into making indiscreet remarks in the privacy of our advice surgeries, the Press Complaints Commission upheld the complaint. An apology was published, albeit tucked away discreetly on an inside page in contrast to the front page ‘sensation’ which generated it.
My own personal involvement and comments on the attempted BskyB takeover had however, at the time, more serious and prolonged repercussions. I later discovered that my constituency office waste bags were emptied every week for the best part of a year by someone looking — unsuccessfully — for incriminating material. My tax files also mysteriously ended up in the hands of a tabloid though, fortunately, there was little to sustain a scandal. I took the view that rather than become obsessed by conspiracy theory I should rationalise these activities as the work of elves and fairies. The editor and journalist of the offending tabloid agreed that elves and fairies were, indeed, to blame and we subsequently got along very well. But they know, as well as I do, that there was a Bad Santa in the background.
Perhaps I can summarise and conclude my personal involvement with a rugby metaphor, appropriate to my former constituency of Twickenham. I managed to stop a certain try by bundling the attacking player, a well-known media proprietor, into touch. Unfortunately, the video referee spotted a punch as well as a tackle and I spent 10 minutes in the ‘sin bin’. Needless to say, I tend to dwell on the try-saving tackle which has helped to keep the score — plurality — level for the last six years. But, of course, the game isn’t over and the issue of media plurality remains very alive.
So, let me return to the question of media plurality. The origins of public concern go back a long way. The power of a small number of press barons was of sufficient concern to the post-war Labour government that it established a Royal Commission and another followed under Conservative prime minister Harold MacMillan.
I was reminded of how topical this issue was over half a century ago when I rediscovered the first article I ever had published, for an undergraduate magazine; it was called “Press Empires”. I recall that I embraced the subject in part because of my childhood. I had a very political father and his politics would now be described as Alt Right: in the Farage/Trump tradition. Our daily diet of news and opinion came from the Daily Mail and Sunday Express (though in due course the family completed its migration from terrace house with outside loo to comfortable detached, which my father marked by switching to the Telegraph).
There was, of course the BBC — radio and TV — but suspicions that the Corporation was run by Communists led, even more, to a reliance on the factual accuracy and balanced political judgements of the Mail and Express. By the time I had arrived at college however, I was developing some scepticism about this world-view but was fascinated as well as concerned, by the grip which some newspapers had on the minds of people as intelligent and thoughtful as my father. I recalled Churchill’s quote that “the Empires of the future will be the engines of the mind”.
Some things never change. Listening to my Conservative former Coalition colleagues fulminating about lefties and liberals contolling the Today programme and the Beeb being too fair minded about the causes of the First World War I am reminded of my dad throwing his slippers at the radio when it announced that we were withdrawing from Suez.
But in many other ways the media scene is massively different. I was writing about a world in which newspapers had much bigger circulations (the biggest, the Express, accounted for almost 4.5 million copies as against the Sun’s 1.8 million today). TV, when it could be glimpsed through the snow-storm of defective tuning, had two black and white channels. The BBC still had a radio monopoly (though pirates were appearing). And the concept of social media was decades away.
Nonetheless the topography, and political shape, of the print press was not dissimilar from today. Two thirds of press circulation was accounted for by three groups: Associated Newspapers (Daily Mail, then also with the Sketch), the Mirror Group (then also with the Herald) and Beaverbrook’s Express. Today 72% of circulation is accounted for by four groups including the three above (albeit that the Beaverbrook press is now owned by Richard Desmond’s Northern and Shell and the Mirror by Trinity Mirror). The new kid on the block, the Murdoch press, has the largest share: just under 30%. Associated, the Mail, has just over 20% of sales almost exactly where it was 65 years ago. For Sundays, concentration was then even greater: 84% by the top three. Now it is almost the same though the Murdoch papers, with the largest share (just over a third) have displaced the Beaverbrook (now Desmond) press from the top
There is comparable concentration in regional press — where 5 companies control some 70% of daily circulation — but the story is complicated by free newspapers and the main story, here, is the disappearance of numerous independent titles and localised 100% monopoly in over a third of local authority areas.
Should we be concerned overall? Were this industry making cars or baked beans or offering hospitality or financial services we would not be unduly worried about the level of press competition, at least nationally. There are 10 titles providing news and comment. It is possible for new papers with new business models to enter, like the I. There are new proprietors: Evgeny Lebedev and Richard Desmond. There are near substitutes in other media. Were there a Competition and Markets Authority inquiry, competition, narrowly defined, would not be seen as at risk.
This market is however qualitatively different from others which is why plurality rather than competition is the issue. Politics makes it so. Ever since the Second World War the politics of the right has tended to dominate in the press with the exception of the Mirror group. The decline of the Mirror group to a circulation market share of around 10%, daily, and 20% on Sunday from the 1960’s (respectively 25% and 40%) and the growth of the Murdoch papers has shifted the balance considerably.
With a very crude categorisation: around 70% of daily and Sunday) readership is accounted for by newspapers whose tone is that of the ‘populist’ right (Sun, Mail, Express, Star), another 15% the ‘establishment right’ (Times, Telegraph) and the remaining 15% broadly the ‘centre left’ (the Mirror and low readership broadsheets). I stress that this is a crude classification. The Star does not major on politics unless ‘Freddie Starr ate my hamster’ has some hidden political message. And the Mail on Sunday has a maverick, unpredictable editorial line (and publishes articles by me-so it must be OK). But, however calculated, the disproportion in political support is gross.
The standard response is to say that newspapers are, these days, a diminished force — as they undoubtedly are in terms of circulation — and that other media provide a corrective balance. In particular, at election times, the BBC — and other public service broadcasters with obligations to observe neutrality — can ‘tell it straight’. Undoubtedly, they do, or try to. However, there is some striking research from Cardiff University and separately from Loughborough and Kings College London which shows that the BBC’s news agenda in the 2015 General Election was consistently set by the print media. In no sense did it act as a counterweight.
Moreover, the extreme lengths to which some politicians go to cultivate newspaper proprietors makes it abundantly clear where power lies. The Leveson Enquiry as well as the House of Commons Media Select Committee exposed in toe-curling detail the obsequiousness of politicians paying homage. And Lord Leveson observed that “at the level of some proprietors, editors and senior executives (the media are) highly skilled at subtle and intuitive lobbying in the context of personal relationships and friendships.” Sadly I was never invited to go riding with Rebekah Brookes but I think that is what his Lordship is talking about.
Where political bias has clearly mattered for the country is in relation to the recent referendum debate on Brexit where the Leave campaign had a clear advantage in press support amongst dailies, much more narrowly on Sunday because the Mail was a Remain newspaper. In making this point I am not, despite being a fully paid up Remainer, blaming the press for the outcome. If Remainer politicians were so politically naïve as to organise a binary referendum on such a hideously complex and divisive issue as membership of the EU, knowing the likely disposition of the press, they can hardly object because it went wrong. People who venture into the cage of a man-eating tiger shouldn’t be surprised if they finish up being eaten. It was such stupidity and carelessness which cost the referendum.
That said, some of the coverage since — the vitriolic attacks on other institutions whose independence is no less important to democracy than that of the press, notably the judiciary- has been pretty despicable.
Whatever our views about particular opinions expressed in the press and about particular owners, the health of the press and of democracy itself depends on there being a range of independent providers: in other words, plurality as opposed to competition which may be intense but fails to provide a range of competing opinions and information sources. Pluraity matters in the words of the Journal of Media Law because “where a few firms dominate the media landscape they exercise considerable control — there is now a convincing body of evidence to suggest that particular corporate or political affiliates can lead to media bias or the suppression of information.” Ofcom, the media regulator, has stressed the importance of plurality “by preventing too much influence over the political process.” But how do we know when plurality is sufficient?
There is no precise legal definition of plurality, let alone “sufficient plurality” beyond a broad understanding that it requires a range and number of owners for different media outlets. It is understood too to relate to news and current affairs (though drama can also affect our views).
Thanks to Lord Puttnam’s intervention in the passage of the Enterprise Act and Communications Act there is now a power for the relevant Secretary of State to intervene in a proposed media merger if he or she believes that are media plurality concerns. That is the power I invoked in referring NewsCorp/BskyB takeover to the competition authorities. However, this power relates only to particular transactions rather than on-going trends in plurality. Since that particular takeover stalled there has been no other which has given rise to investigation. There has been no pretext to probe areas where plurality is clearly a major issue, as with local newspapers -where 141 papers have disappeared since 2011 — or in new markets like internet news.
And it is not easy to separate out those aspects of market abuse which are purely economic and those which lead to excessive influence on the political agenda. The concerns over the Murdoch media relate almost entirely to the latter; but the unhappiness over the role of Newsquest in local newspapers relates to the impact on consumers (and workers) with no discernible political angle.
The Media Reform Coalition has helpfully made an assessment of plurality in five media markets (national press, local press, TV, radio, internet) and also tried to produce a combined measure. It chronicles the continued consolidation and loss of plurality in local and regional newspapers, mainly on account of loss of advertising revenue. Its analysis shows that (in 2012) broken down by 380 local authority areas for which there are data, 100 had no local daily print paper, 143 had a 100% monopoly and only one (sic), Fife, had sufficient competition that no newspaper had over 50% of the market. Market dominance was, if anything, understated since, for example, the largest (by circulation) local newspaper group, Trinity Mirror, has a significant ownership stake in other papers as does DMG (the Mail group). When this factor is allowed for, Trinity Mirror has 65 local monopolies (ie with over 50% share) and Newsquest 67. The numbers have almost certainly grown in the three years since the estimates were made.
Optimists look at internet news as a way of strengthening plurality by providing an opening for new suppliers of news and comment, especially for young people who make little use of the print media. However, in terms of reach, almost all the online news sites are established media companies led by the BBC, the Mail and the Guardian though new, dedicated, news sites like Huffington Post and, to a degree, Buzzfeed have made an appearance. Surveys of internet usage suggests that many people do access news via Facebook, Google or Twitter but these are merely intermediaries or aggregators and the actual content originates with established suppliers led by the BBC and Sky.
IA rear-view mirror is no guide to the future of online news and comment. New online sites specialising in aggressive, ideologically loaded, content like Breitbart have made a significant impact and are credited with influencing the 2016 Presidential election. There has also been a vast proliferation of propaganda sites operating through the main Internet platforms, Google and Facebook, some containing extreme hate material directed at Jews, blacks or women. They gain enormous reach as a result of clever manipulation of algorithms which determine the rank order of reference material sourced in Internet searches. There is also the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ including a new site, based in Montenegro, mass manufacturing news stories knowing them to be false but politically influential or just entertaining. The optimism that Internet news would provide genuine plurality is fading as it becomes clear that there are unparalleled opportunities to manipulate and abuse information.
Radio and TV provide an additional element of plurality, but the plurality may be more apparent than real. There are a dozen main radio channels by listenership. But the BBC, through its national and regional networks, has an audience share of around 55% and Sky accounts for almost all the remainder (through Heart, Capital, Classic, Talk Sport and other commercial channels). The BBC’s dominance of news is much more marked for television: 75% of viewing by the latest count. And as noted earlier the idea that the UK has, in a rough and ready way, a plurality of news coverage rests on the belief that the ‘neutrality’ of the BBC can act as a counterweight to the explicitly political agenda of some of the leading commercial groups in the press. It doesn’t.
What we really need to know is the overall cross-media picture. Ofcom has computed the share of news provision at a wholesale level and its estimates in 2013 were: 44% BBC; 17% Sky and News Corp, taken together; 14% ITN/ITV. A counterview is that news coverage does not fully capture the value of content and that revenue is a better guide since it tells us about the capacity to pay for top journalists and broadcasting rights. Enders analysed the media market on this basis. It defined revenue very widely to include cinema, books and other content. On this basis, News Corporation had a 6% market share, with BskyB adding an additional 5%; the BBC 12%; and ITV 5%. This measure is controversial but it suggests that the BBC and its leading commercial competitors are closely matched.
What is to be done?
First, the most urgent and serious problem in relation to media plurality is the virtual disappearance of local print journalism in many parts of the country and the fact that even where local papers exist, they are often monopoly suppliers. I have seen the progression in my own part of London from a valued and respected weekly journal of record owned by the Dimbleby family, with a team of professional journalists, to a Newsquest freebie with one journalist covering several boroughs from an office miles away.
There is no way that the past can be brought back and the genie of digital technology be put back in the bottle. But there are some interesting ideas around for helping restore plurality. A ResPublica essay by Justin Schlosberg advocates a small levy on new media companies which facilitate and aggregate news content but do not generate it: Google, Facebook, Microsoft. The levy would go to an independent media plurality board or trust to finance local journalism particularly in new and innovative providers or when it is vital, through investigatory journalism and frank comment, to hold local politicians fully to account.
I should add that the Res Publica report didn’t simply advocate action by private owners; it was critical of centralised news management by the BBC and wanted it reversed.
Ofcom in its capacity as regulator, ensuring sufficient plurality, will also have to look at the potentially dangerous situation of devolution to powerful combined authorities with elected mayors for whom media accountability may consist of one monopoly print daily. At the minimum one could reasonably expect an election purdah or neutrality during campaigns. In some cases, the structural remedies available to ensure national plurality — such as share divestment — have a role here to counter monopoly or near monopoly.
Second, there is the issue, largely in abeyance since the failed News Corp bid for BskyB, of how plurality is to be protected at a national level. A new, clearer, legislative framework is needed. The Public Interest Test is currently weak and needs strengthening to deal with gradual, organic, changes as well as major, discrete, transactions. The phenomenon of media convergence was not properly understood when legislation was passed. Ofcom’s 2015 proposed framework for measuring media plurality is an important step forward.
Another issue relates to fixed caps on ownership or ranges or more flexible ‘triggers’. Without some quantitative guide, it is impossible for companies to know whether they will cross permitted limits or for regulators and ministers to make objective decisions. Ofcom’s current approach is to avoid precision because technology and markets are subject to change. But, in the absence of numbers, uncertainty is increased.
Third, and finally, there is the subject which is close to the heart of many of you and has been the subject of extended debate in the last four years: how to give effect to Lord Leveson’s main recommendation which was the establishment of a “genuinely independent and effective system of self-regulation.” As Lord Leveson pointed out, his was the seventh attempt in 70 years to find an institutional framework to deal with bad behaviour in the press: “genuinely independent” of both government and the newspapers being subject to self-regulatory oversight.
Although never close to this issue, I was a member of the Cabinet which received the Leveson Report and recall the initial burst of enthusiasm which lasted a few days, for trying to pursue a cross-party consensus. I don’t need to rehearse the tortuous political history since then other than to note that nothing better illustrates the deficiency of genuine plurality than the fear which politicians still have of crossing newspaper proprietors or the belief that party advantage will accrue from sucking up to them.
The government decision to consult again on the framework for self-regulation has the political effect of stopping progress towards a solution based on the Royal Charter model. As you will all recall this idea was originally proposed by a Conservative colleague in the Coalition, Oliver Letwin, based on self-regulatory professional bodies like the Law Society. The panel is more qualified to discuss this issue than me and I will defer to them.
Suffice to say that the type of scandals which prompted Leveson will happen again in the absence of effective checks and balances. A particular threat is the increasingly casual treatment of truth and fact. This is a world where ‘Elvis Presley is alive and well on the moon’ or’ Princess Diana was murdered by Royal Family’ are presented not as spoofs but as serious news propositions. The existence of websites constructed in order to present untruths as truths should alarm even those at the populist end of the press. This phenomenon underlines the importance of a self-regulatory mechanism for identifying serious error and correcting it. The recent case of the industry’s self-regulatory body finding serious fault with the Sun over the high-profile misreporting of immigration facts and then obtaining a diffident retraction on page 2 justifies the scepticism about the effectiveness of the current regime.
But that infraction of the industry code was relatively minor compared with some of the egregious abuses committed online. It is increasingly untenable to regard the main online platforms as independent of the content they distribute. Their owners, however, go to extreme lengths to avoid responsibility. I recall, in government, that even modest attempts to have these companies take responsibility for, for example, copyright theft or cyber bullying, encountered fierce resistance. I recall one incident when national security was being compromised by material on the Internet. The Home Office wanted typically heavy handed intervention affecting the privacy of millions of citizens. I suggested instead that we should insist on the cooperation of Google to control dangerous material. I will never forget the look of frozen horror on ministerial faces; as if I had been recommending bombing the Vatican.
There surely has to be accountability for the algorithms these companies use, with greater disclosure, and named individuals who can be summoned to face democratic scrutiny. Bringing them within the framework of voluntary regulation, faced with responsibility for retraction and redress, is a necessary next step which will also reassure the traditional print press that it is not being singled out for special punishment, as they claim.
Freedom of expression is a crucial, fundamental, part of our democracy. And we can see the consequences of allowing government the power to control the media in the growing number of countries subject to authoritarian rule.. But we are very far from such a world and the bigger danger to us is of unregulated excess.