Plurality, Leveson and the Threat to the BBC

The Leveson inquiry raised important questions about media power and the dangers of concentrated ownership. But this vital policy area is now being sidetracked by a very different debate about the size and scope of the BBC, writes Steven Barnett.

What a difference a year makes. It is barely 12 months since Lord Justice Leveson closed part three of his inquiry, dealing with media plurality and the relationship between politicians and the press. Amidst the drama and celebrity fanfare around the phone-hacking evidence, it is easy to forget an equally dramatic postscript in the spring of 2012: the unprecedented six-week period when a procession of democratically elected prime ministers, including the current incumbent, took to the stand and conceded publicly that they had surrendered too much power to big media corporations. They had not, they admitted, applied the kind of regulatory constraints to the media that are essential for a thriving democracy.

Plurality

Media plurality was as an integral part of Leveson’s terms of inquiry. The background and context for action was the unhealthy accumulation of political influence and the opportunity it afforded for exerting pressure not only on politicians and public opinion, but on regulators and even the police. Neither phone hacking nor the police connivance, nor the many other non-criminal journalistic abuses – intrusions into personal grief, data mining, distortion of facts – could have happened without the untrammelled power of private media corporations in general and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation in particular. It is easily forgotten that a crucial element of Leveson’s terms of reference was to make recommendations: ‘for a new more effective policy and regulatory regime which supports … the plurality of the media’ and ‘for how future concerns about press behaviour, media policy, regulation and cross-media ownership should be dealt with by all the relevant authorities’.

That Leveson ducked the challenge of detailed recommendations on plurality is perhaps not surprising, presumably on the basis that one poisoned chalice was enough. While he explored some of the less appetising aspects of relationships between politicians and the press – the use of ‘spin’, covert or unpublicised meetings with proprietors, the development of cosy relationship with senior editorial figures, the lack of transparency in political dealings with media corporations – the rather more abstract issue of concentration of media power and the potential threat to democracy was not central to his report or recommendations. The principal focus of module three, as Leveson himself admitted, was ‘the relationship between politicians and [Murdoch’s then UK newspaper group] News International’. This approach was justified on the basis of Prime Minister David Cameron’s admission that ‘we all got too close to News International’. Leveson did conclude, however, that ‘no government addressed the issue of press regulation, nor of concentration of ownership’.

Disappointingly, in a 2000-page report with terms of reference that explicitly mentioned cross-media ownership, barely 15 pages were devoted to recommendations on plurality. These recommendations were pitched at the level of what Leveson called ‘desirable outcomes and broad policy framework’. Unlike his detailed, thoughtful and highly sophisticated recommendations for a new system of independent press self-regulation that established the framework for the cross-party Royal Charter, his general approach to plurality will require much more detailed consideration.

Policy Making

The first step in that policy-making process was the coalition government’s consultation paper, Media Ownership and Plurality, which was published in July this year and uses Leveson’s broad approach to pose a number of very general questions about a new measurement framework. The paper groups its questions under five general headings:

  • the  types  of  media  that  a  new framework should include
  • the genres it should cover
  • the  types  of  organisation  and services to which it should apply
  • the inclusion of the BBC
  • the audiences with which it should be concerned.

The questions being posed were genuinely open and sufficiently general to allow for any number of interpretations and responses. One and a half pages were devoted to the legitimate and important question of whether – and how – the BBC might be incorporated into a new plurality framework. In other words, while the role of a publicly funded broadcaster in the total media mix was acknowledged, it was a very small element of the consultation and paled into insignificance during the Leveson hearings when set against the distorting editorial influence of a few privately owned global media corporations.

That was certainly not the impression given by our national newspapers, whose reaction to the government’s paper demonstrated graphically the power of a self- interested press to set the media policy agenda. According to the Sun, ‘the BBC’s dominant share of news coverage in Britain is to come under government spotlight’ because ‘its own figures show it provides nearly three-quarters of all TV news broadcast in Britain’. This was a mistake: in fact, the BBC provides only a quarter of the UK’s broadcast news, although three-quarters of broadcast news consumption – a subtle distinction in the exercise of consumer choice that the Sun carefully elided.

This sleight of hand was not restricted to the Sun. The Daily Mail greeted the government paper with the headline ‘BBC could be curbed under government plans to rein in dominance of media giants’ and, with almost undisguised glee, continued: ‘the BBC … could be forced to rein in its dominant news web- site’. Given the rapidly increasing popularity of the Mail’s online news site, there would of course be one very clear beneficiary.

Even Peter Preston in the Observer joined in the BBC kicking party by announcing that the consultation paper ‘raises the prospect, at last, of counting the BBC as part of the news landscape’. In fact, the BBC has always been counted in terms of news consumption, but is virtually irrelevant to discussions of political king-making, partisan agenda-setting and raw political power. It is, in other words, not relevant to what Tony Blair called in his evidence to the Leveson Inquiry ‘the use of newspapers as instruments of political power’.

Press Power

Despite declining circulations, an increasingly defective advertising-based business model and the rise of news aggregators and social media sites, the national newspaper publishers still command a major presence in Britain. According to Ofcom research published in September, 40 per cent of the population ‘use daily newspapers for news’, of which a quarter read the Sun and one in five read the Daily Mail. Alongside a further 9 per cent who read the Times, a combined figure of one-third of newspaper readers read papers owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News UK (or one in eight of the population as a whole).

Whatever anyone’s personal views of Murdoch or his influence on his newspaper editors (of which there was abundant evidence at the Leveson Inquiry), the dominance of News UK still raises important policy questions about how to sustain a diverse and plural media environment in an increasingly challenging economic environment. The question is particularly apposite in relation to Murdoch. His 21st Century Fox company also owns 39 per cent of BSkyB, which, through its stranglehold on premium sporting events and much American programming, returns huge profits in the UK (a staggering £1.3 billion in 2012/13). That same Ofcom report will certainly be used by the big media conglomerates to deflect attention from their own size and ensure that the plurality spotlight remains firmly on the BBC. In order to attempt some quantified assessment of cross-media consumption, Ofcom has developed what it calls a ‘bespoke cross-media metric’ called ‘share of references’, which is based on the frequency with which consumers use different news sources. According to this metric, television commands a 47 per cent share and newspapers a mere 13 per cent. The BBC, of course, dominates TV news consumption, with a 62 per cent share of national and international news viewing. On Ofcom’s calculations, looking at overall news sources, the BBC commands 44 per cent of share of references. 

The BBC and Plurality

Ofcom appears to have provided some useful empirical cover for those who wish to make the BBC, rather than an increasingly consolidated private sector, the focus of plurality debates. There are, however, four good reasons for thinking very carefully about whether and how the BBC should be included in any plurality calculation.

  • It is publicly owned and therefore not subject to any proprietorial or corporate whim. This is not just a question of impartiality rules, because even within an impartiality framework corporate pressures can dictate agendas through omission of some stories or active prioritisation of others.
     
  • Precisely because the BBC cannot express an editorial view, either explicitly or implicitly, it can have little impact in determining (as opposed to informing) the formation of attitudes and opinions. The ability to be impassioned and to infuse not just commentary and opinion pages but news pages (and their online equivalents) with one-sided argumentation is an integral and powerful element of a free press. We do not know – and cannot measure – to what extent such editorialising drives popular opinion, but intuitively, a one-sided approach will carry more weight than a balanced approach.
     
  • The BBC is accountable to its licence payers and to Parliament through transparent reporting and structural mechanisms that ensure its output complies with detailed editorial guidelines. Those guidelines are in turn derived from constitutional obligations laid down by the BBC’s Royal Charter. Because the BBC cannot be captured for private gain and operates transparently in the public interest, to include it in plurality calculations artificially diminishes the potential influence of corporate owners willing and able to promote a particular worldview.
     
  • The BBC itself pursues a policy of internal plurality, whereby  individual  services and programmes are encouraged to develop their own editorial ‘voices’ within an impartiality framework. As the corporation’s submission to Ofcom’s media plurality review makes clear, different editorial agendas operate across programmes, channels and time slots in the way stories are covered and in terms of story selection.

Those, however, are subtle arguments around the distinctions between consumption, impact and agenda-setting that are likely to be lost as we enter the opening skirmishes of the 2015 general election campaign. In addition to the self-interested anti-BBC press, there is the growing sound of war-mongering from an increasingly anti-BBC Conservative Party. In the same week that the government issued its plurality consultation paper, Conservative chairman Grant Shapps, referring to coverage of the welfare cap, said that ‘watching the BBC you would have been forgiven for imagining this was Armageddon … On occasion the BBC mistakes itself for a newspaper. It lets its own opinions come through.’

Political Pressures

This suggests there is another, more sinister, message brewing – one that was subtly alluded to in the Media Ownership and Plurality consultation paper and has been a consistent (if consistently unproven) accusation from the political right: that the BBC is institutionally biased. The brief page and a half devoted to the BBC in the paper included a Delphic reference to ‘a body of research suggesting that broadcast impartiality is challenging despite strong governance arrangements’. Since the same paragraph goes on to mention ‘complexity’ in arguments around the EU and immigration that the BBC might not have fully reflected, the implicit direction of travel is clear: perhaps the BBC is not as bound by these impartiality requirements as it likes to maintain.

There has always been deep antipathy to the BBC on the Conservative right, and a profound conviction that the corporation is seething with left-wing sympathisers. But there is now a danger that this traditional Tory paranoia about BBC bias will translate into a policy agenda that discounts impartiality and public accountability as a basis for setting the BBC apart from private media corporations in a new plurality regime. For a Conservative Party desperate for electoral victory without the Lib Dem crutch, this approach is doubly seductive: it potentially weakens the BBC by calling for curbs on its size and funding, and it provides an excuse for avoiding any confrontation with the reinvented Murdoch empire.

An excellent example of how such an argument plays out was recently offered by Fraser Nelson. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Nelson said:

"Like a medieval army that believes it has to keep conquering or face defeat, the state-funded BBC has started to occupy new terrain and is now a hegemon in providing the printed word. More people get their news from the 18-year-old BBC website than from any newspaper, unfair competition which is crushing not just local newspapers but national ones, too. The chief executive of the Guardian, Andrew Miller, blamed his newspaper’s short life expectancy on the ‘oversupply’ of rivals – including the Corporation. The two organs have the same outlook, but at least the newspaper cannot force anyone to buy it."

Of course the BBC needs to be considered within a new plurality framework, as do burgeoning ‘digital intermediaries’ such as Google, Twitter and Facebook, despite their lack of involvement – so far – in news production rather than distribution. But we would all do well to remember Tony Blair’s phrase about newspapers as ‘instruments of political power’. The national press in Britain sets agendas and influences opinion. Circulations may be in decline and business models under threat, but there is still plenty of scope for the concentration of colossal media power in very few private hands. Policy-makers should not be side-tracked by manufactured anxiety over a publicly funded broadcaster that is owned by us all.

References

Ofcom (2013) News Consumption in the UK: Research Report. London: Ofcom. Available from: http:// stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/research/ tv-research/news/News_Report_2013_slides. pdf (accessed 21 October 2013).

Steven Barnett is Professor of Communications at the University of Westminster. He is the author of The Rise and Fall of Television Journalism (2011) and was twice called to give oral evidence to the Leve- son Inquiry. He is currently running an AHRC-funded project on Plurality and Media Power.

You can follow Steven on Twitter @stevenjbarnett