Media reform: The future of newspaper ownership in Britain

media, reform

Author(s):  David Elstein
Published date:  08 Aug 2011
Source:  openDemocracy, Our Kingdom

The phone-hacking scandal’s many reverberations include questions about newspaper ownership.

There have been calls for non-EU ownership of national newspapers in the UK to be banned, for there to be fixed limits to the proportion of national newspaper circulation that any one business can own, for Ofcom to have the power to intervene in media ownership at will, for stronger cross-media ownership rules, and for journalists, not owners, to control newspapers.

What difference would these ideas make?

As we focus on ownership, we need to remember that national printed newspapers are in long-term decline, that there is no way of regulating ownership of news delivered online, and that plurality of ownership of newspapers is no guarantee of plurality of viewpoints. We are told that all political parties will now eschew any behind-the-scenes dealings with press barons. Excellent. If there are also to be new ownership rules they should be effective and not counter-productive. That may not be easy.

For example, two groups, News International and the Lebedev Foundation, have ultimate owners outside the EU. The Sun and the Sunday Times make money for the former. The Evening Standard may be making money for the latter. They also own The Times, Independent, Independent on Sunday and i, which are loss-makers. A ban on foreign ownership would almost certainly lead to their closure, unless some UK or EU vanity publisher stepped forward (and it’s not clear why such a vanity publisher would be a distinct improvement).

Ed Miliband has proposed a 20% limit on ownership of national newspapers, measured by circulation. As the Sun’s circulation is more than 20% of all national newspaper sales, that would require News International to close The Times and either sell the Sunday Times or reposition it as a non-national newspaper (by ceasing to publish in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, where would-be readers would have to subscribe digitally). Even then the Sun’s circulation would need to be forced down, perhaps by restricting access to newsprint. In all likelihood any such measure would result in the combined circulation of the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday rising above 20%, so requiring similar measures to be targeted at them.

If a 20% fixed limit is deemed impractical, could Ofcom simply intervene when it felt like it? On what basis? How does Ofcom deal with increases in share of circulation caused by other people’s failures? Remember, News International has lost nearly half its sales in the last 20 years, but Trinity Mirror has lost sales even faster, which has pushing up the “shares” of its almost equally unsuccessful rivals.

Are national newspapers really the key? How about regional and local papers, whose combined readership exceeds that for the “nationals”? The 86 major regional papers carry a great deal of UK and international news: but are excluded from the official count, even though two of the biggest owners of these papers are the Mirror and the Daily Mail groups. And when Ofcom researched the ability of the UK titles to drive the news agenda, it found that just 5.4% of news stories were sourced from all the News International newspapers, compared with 54% from the BBC.

Are journalists more trustworthy than proprietors? Did the thousands of journalists (952 from the Daily Mail alone) who used the private investigator Steve Whittamore – as revealed by the Information Commissioner in 2006 – make those calls at the behest of their owners, or because that was established journalistic behaviour? Even if we could suspend global capitalism for the newspaper industry, are not journalists themselves as much the target of the various inquiries (police and otherwise) as their proprietors?

My advice is that those who want a better media should not try and ‘game’ the market. They should specify what real outcomes they want, such as what they mean by plurality, choice, public interest investigation, and what principles they believe in, such as privacy, freedom of speech, the right to know, and then make these goals their framework.

David Elstein continues our series on media reform, a joint initiative with openDemocracy, Liberal Conspiracy and Liberal Democrat Voice. Click here to find out how to contribute to the debate.

David is chair of openDemocracy and of the Broadcasting Policy Group.