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This project aims come up with clear principles to shape and underpin future media policy in the aftermath of the phone-hacking scandal and the Leveson inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press. It will cover the areas of regulation and ownership and aim to bring some consistency to the rules that would apply both to traditional and new media forms as they converge.

Media policymaking in the UK has long sought to balance out important economic, democratic and cultural objectives, using an array of interventions: public ownership, discreet subsidies, tax incentives, ownership controls, quotas and content regulations.

Critics argue that for at least the last two decades, economic arguments have won out too easily, driven by powerful industrial lobbies. Deregulation, relaxation of media ownership controls, and reduction in the obligations on commercial public service broadcasters have been part of this – as has a reluctance by UK politicians to adopt a tougher regulatory stance towards the carriage of unlawful or antisocial content on the internet.

The starting point of the project is a recognition of the competing policy priorities in this space. Focusing on what is doable as well as what is desirable, within the technological constraints of a globalised media marketplace, the economic constraints of sustaining growth and development in a valuable industrial sector, and the democratic constraints on how far parliament can go (or will be prepared to go) in limiting freedoms of expression and action in increasingly open public forums. All of this will be informed by discussion with leading practitioners.

Set against the backdrop of convergence of all digital forms of media, and in line with some clear principles and policy priorities, IPPR will consider options around:

  • The future structure of press regulation (in print and online)
  • The legal framework for balancing privacy rights, freedom of expression and the public interest, in the age of Twitter
  • The system for measuring and promoting plurality of ownership, especially in news
  • A coherent framework for content regulation across digital platforms, perhaps including the BBC.

Politicians need to decide what media policy is for in this new era, particularly in terms of the outcomes that matter most to the general public. News, information and entertainment are all highly regarded by users, regardless of how they choose to consume them: radio, TV, print or online. But they are not all economically equal. News almost invariably requires a subsidy from more profitable forms of media, mainly entertainment. So scale remains an important feature of those private companies who provide news services. This is one of the paradoxes at the heart of the debate over media plurality.

Background

4 July 2011 may well go down as a day that changed the terms of debate around UK media policy. Up until that point, the UK government was ready to allow Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation to add 100 per cent control of Sky Television to its 40 per cent control of the national newspaper market in the UK. The revelation that the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s mobile phone had been hacked sparked a chain of events that not only thwarted News Corp’s ambitions, but also caused politicians across the political divide to start reappraising their approach to media policy in this country.

The phone-hacking scandal was not the only driver of change. Earlier in 2011, questions in the courts and in parliament over the use of super-injunctions by celebrities provoked an outcry, in part about the differential treatment of new and old media. And behind all of this has been a growing unease in the political world about the impact of technological convergence on some traditional and popular media safeguards, such the 9pm TV watershed.  

To some on the political left this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tackle the growing concentration of power in UK media, particularly that of Rupert Murdoch. To some on political right, it is a means to reopen the debate about the scale and influence of an over-dominant BBC. But against this has to be set the disruptive impact of digital, technological change that is affecting the position of all traditional media forms.