Country report: United Kingdom

(July 2014)

 

Introduction

The implementation of the MPM2014 for the United Kingdom shows a low/medium risk for media pluralism in the country. The results collected by implementing the MPM in UK, show risks in the country as follows: 18% (6) of the indicators assess a high risk; 20% (7) of indicators indicate medium risk, and 62% (21) refer to low risk.

Risks to media pluralism in the United Kingdom are relatively small overall, but some deficiencies and challenges create risks, and potential risks, due to media concentration, limited attention to issues of cultural and geographical pluralism, and influence over the financing of publicly supported media. There are also insufficiencies resulting from intervals in updating existing policy to include newer digital media activities.

The highest risks to media pluralism in the United Kingdom are economic, with some risks identified in the legal/regulatory regimes, followed by socio-economic risks.

Although generally suitable and effective, the pilot UK implementation revealed some issues with the Media Pluralism Monitor’s instrument and the methods that should be considered. These involve the measurement of sectorial and cross-sectorial ownership and revenues, limitations in audience measurement systems that are particularly related to regional and digital media, and some absolutism in the measurement categories.

 

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Graph 17: Average level of risk for each type of indicator – UK

 

Legal Type of Indicators Assessing Risks to Media Pluralism

The United Kingdom has a well-developed legal and regulatory system that are related to media that are governed by the rule of law and that generally exhibits effective implementation and processes (indicator 1, low risk). The United Kingdom protects freedom of expression, affords information access (indicator 2, low risk), provides for independent media and competition regulatory authorities (indicator 5, low risk), maintains specific media pluralism and competition policies (indicator 3, 12, low risk), regulates cross-ownership involving operators of broadcast channels (indicator 13, low risk), and requires political impartiality in broadcasting (indicator 15, low risk).

The assessment of risks to media plurality involving the legal/regulatory frameworks in the United Kingdom did not reveal substantial issues. The majority of indicators were measured to exhibit low risk, however, some indicators revealed certain problematic issues. These do not appear to be immediate significant threats to media pluralism, but they should receive attention from policymakers.

The regulatory framework related to recognition of media pluralism as an intrinsic part of media freedoms and/or as the policy objective of media legislation and or/regulation (indicator 3) was evaluated as not posing a threat overall to media plurality in the UK. However, media pluralism is not explicitly linked to media freedom in the relevant legislation, and the policy might, in general, be improved to deal with pluralism as a specific factor. Nevertheless, the issue of media pluralism is salient and recognised. There have been a number of recent developments in the United Kingdom that are relevant to this issue, such as the Leveson judicial enquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press (2012), and the House of Lords Select Communications Committee Enquiry into media plurality (2013-2014). It remains to be seen whether these result in a more robust regulatory framework for media plurality.

The issue most often rising in pluralism debates in the United Kingdom is assessed by indicators 12 and 13, involving regulatory safeguards against a high concentration of ownership and/or control in the media (both in terms of horizontal and cross-media ownership).

Although certain legislative provisions exist, the regulation was largely relaxed by the Communications Act 2003 that removed the upper limit of 15% of the audience share that one company could control. The Media Ownership (Radio and Cross-media) Order, 2011, removed the restrictions on radio ownership, including the provision that one person cannot hold more than one national radio multiplex. There are no specific provisions when it comes to newspapers and ISPs. Nevertheless, a high level of concentration of ownership can be prevented via merger control rules under competition regulation. The Enterprise Act, 2002, section 58, applies a public interest test to mergers. There is a consensus emerging among media policy specialists, however, that this provision is not adequate, especially since ‘sufficient plurality’ is not defined.

Three media merger cases since the implementation of the act have illustrated the complexity of existing arrangements that arise from the number of regulatory bodies being involved (competition, media, consumer affairs) and the vagueness of the wording of the public interest test. None of the cases specifically raised significant concern in regulatory bodies about plurality, although media critics and media policy analysts were particularly concerned about plurality in relation to News Corporation’s takeover bid for BSkyB. The way these cases have been handled, combined with Ofcom’s continuous suggestions that ownership rules should be further liberalised, cast a negative assessment on the sub-question I. 3. in indicator 12, regarding pro-active policy making and implementation.

Another concern that is relative to ownership arises in indicator 16, which assesses the existence and implementation of regulatory safeguards against excessive ownership and/or control of mainstream media by politicians (high risk). Although provisions exist to prohibit media ownership by politicians in the Broadcasting Act 1996, they have neither been amended to include video on demand (VoD), nor do they apply to newspaper ownership. Further, there are no self-regulatory measures that stipulate editorial independence in audiovisual and print media (sub-question E.3). Despite these weaknesses, political ownership of media is generally not an issue in the UK:1) none of the major media (broadcasting or press) are owned by politicians; 2) broadcasting regulations require impartiality in news and public affairs, and compliance is high, 3) there is an active print press that represents the range of political opinion represented in Parliament. Consequently, ownership by politicians has not presented issues that have been deemed to require additional legislative or regulatory action. There have been occasional critiques about the political behaviour of certain owners, evidenced by the Leveson Enquiry, for example, but those have not involved politicians as owners.

The Monitor identified no major legal/regulatory threats to media plurality, although a number of indicators contain issues that have been identified as being minor risks. The assessment of regulatory safeguards for the journalistic profession (indicator 4, medium risk) revealed that although certain journalistic rights are both enshrined in law and respected in practice, no laws/regulations or self-regulatory codes prevent commercial influence on the editorial content (indicator 4, E.2). This has been an issue in the United Kingdom and has most recently been revealed in journalistic practices that were exposed during the Leveson Enquiry. In addition, there are no mechanisms for granting social protection to journalists in cases of changes of ownership (indicator 4, I.2.). Although the right of journalists to access events for news reporting is not explicitly recognised in law or regulation (indicator 4, E.5.), there are no reports indicating that this is not respected in practice (indicator 4, I.5.).

No legal or regulatory provisions safeguard access to airtime on public service media for various cultural and social groups (indicator 7, high risk). There is no official evidence that this has been an issue in practice in the UK, although various cultural and social groups are becoming more vocal about their degree of representation among public service media personnel. Assessment of the impartiality of political reporting on television (indicator 15, low risk) revealed that, although there are provisions regarding fair, balanced and impartial political reporting on television, the rules have not been updated and expanded to cover non-linear broadcasting (indicator 15, I.6.). This might not present a significant threat currently, because the video on demand market involving news and public affairs has not developed in the United Kingdom to the extent that a significant number of services are carrying political content that has not originated on linear broadcast channels.

Weaknesses were found in policy regarding local public service broadcasting, and they indicate attention is required, especially given the centralisation of media in London and the devolution of governance to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and other parts of the country. Although regulatory provisions for locally oriented and locally produced content on public service channels and services exist in the United Kingdom (indicator 10), they lack regulatory safeguards involving the obligation to maintain regional news correspondents, the installation and maintenance of local production and transmission facilities, and the obligation to have a balance of journalists coming from various geographical groups (indicator 10, E.2., E.3., E.4.). indicator 10, then, scores high risk.

The United Kingdom has significant regulatory safeguards for universal coverage of audiovisual media (indicator 11), but does not require measures to promote the distribution of newspapers in rural areas (indicator 11, E.4., I.5). Nevertheless, the overall risk to plurality from insufficient geographical coverage of the media is assessed as low.

A risk related to the level of independence of public service media in the United Kingdom, stemming from appointment procedure and the composition of their governing bodies (indicator 17), was identified. Although there is no direct evidence that the general principle of independence from government is not being respected, the risk was assessed as medium because neither the regulators, nor the government actively monitor the implementation of appointment procedures (indicator 17, I.2.).

The issue of net neutrality (indicator 20) was deemed to create a medium threat to media pluralism. Net neutrality policy in the United Kingdom is considered underdeveloped because little political debate on the topic has occurred, Ofcom has issued few discussion documents, and a number of ISPs have adopted a voluntary code that is related to information about traffic management. The United Kingdom has yet to implement the net neutrality policies and neither the Government nor Ofcom have developed specific measures.

 

Economic Type of Indicator Assessing Risks to Media Pluralism

Some significant economic risks to media pluralism are evident in the data. High concentration is manifest in television, newspapers and internet services’ provision, as measured by revenue and public consumption. Media institutions and content providers are strongly centralised at the national level and operate primarily from London, which creates some geographic pluralism risks. Those risks are increased because regional broadcasting services are relatively weak.

The highest economic risk to media plurality results from high ownership concentration and high audience and readership concentration (indicators 21 and 22). There is high concentration of ownership in television, newspapers, and Internet Service Provision (indicator 21) that presents both pluralism and consumer risks. Combined revenue of the Top 4 players in the television market (BSkyB, BBC, ITV, and Channel 4) represents 73.85% of the £12.3bn television market (indicator 21, question 1). The Top 4 companies in the newspaper market have revenues worth 70.78% of the total £3,714m annual revenue (News UK, Associated Newspapers, Trinity Mirror, and FT Group) (indicator 21, question 2). 4 players dominate the ISP market (BT, Virgin, BSkyB, and TalkTalk) and jointly command 92.14% of the total market revenues of £3.7bn (indicator 21, question 3).

This financial dominance is related to audience and readership figures (indicator 22). The Top 4 players in each category remain the same. Together the Top 4 television operators have a joint audience share of 75.4%. The Top 4 newspaper firms command 67.8% of newspaper circulation, and the Top 4 Internet Service Providers account for 86.8% of internet subscribers. There is a relationship between indicators 21 and 22 because greater financial resources tend to result in content and system investments that attract large audiences/user groups, and larger audiences/user groups create increased revenue.

High risk to media plurality also stems from the market share of the Top 8 players across media sectors (indicator 23). The number of sectors in which the Top 8 firms/owners are active produces a combined market share of 92.77%.

Some risks are evident in the development of broadband services (indicator 24, medium risk). Although the penetration rate for both fixed and mobile broadband is significantly higher than the EU average (indicator 24, questions 1 and 2), both download and upload speeds are considerably lower than the EU average (UK download 12Mbps – EU average 20.12Mbps; UK upload 1.4Mbps – EU average 5.19Mbps) (indicator 24, questions 3 and 4).

Centralisation of the national media system poses some threats to media plurality (indicator 26, overall score: low risk), despite the presence of regional media. The risk mostly stems from the newspaper market, since there is high concentration of ownership when it comes to specific regions in the UK (indicator 26, variable 2). Trinity Mirror is dominant in three of the five cities that were analysed. In Birmingham and Cardiff, Trinity Mirror owns the three largest regional dailies. These are the only dailies published in these cities, which means Trinity Mirror essentially controls 100% of the local market. It also has a dominant stake in Glasgow, where it controls 67.6% of the local market. The circulation of national dailies published by Trinity Mirror represents 13.35% of the total circulation of national newspapers, so its local strength is not equally matched at the national level.

There is a disparity between the circulation of national dailies published in the capital and the circulation of regional/local dailies that presents a geographically based threat to pluralism involving the presentation of regional news and views (indicator 26, questions 1 and 5). The circulation of national dailies represents 84.64% of the total newspaper circulation in the United Kingdom. This dominance is to some extent offset by the relative strength of regional/local radio and internet services.

 

Socio-political Type of Indicators Assessing Risks to Media Pluralism

The study revealed few significant risks to media pluralism related to socio-economic factors in the UK. It provides relatively good service to audiences with special needs (indicator 27, low risk), pursues universality of the broadcast and broadband services (indicator 28, low risk), and the politicisation of media tends to be present only in the national press (indicator 29, medium risk). It does exhibit low risk in the financing mechanisms for PSBs.

A few minor issues have been identified when it comes to assessing the guarantees for universal coverage of public service media and broadband networks regarding geographical coverage (indicator 28, low risk). The percentage of the population covered by sufficient quality of signal for all public TV channels is 98.7% (question 1), and the percentage of the rural population effectively passed for cable is 5% (question 4). This risk is somewhat offset by the availability of multichannel free and paid digital broadcast television services and growing broadband distribution capabilities.

Some political bias in the media is seen in over-representation of the government and leading parties and in the highly limited media representation of other political actors (indicator 29, medium risk). The results of the content analysis conducted as a part of the assessment indicate that this representational bias poses a high risk to media pluralism in the UK, but this requires more extensive follow-up investigation because of the limited nature of the analysis used in the Media Pluralism Monitor’s method. Furthermore, the second element of the indicator (question 2) needs to be clarified because it is somewhat ambiguous in its assessment of a ‘one-sided portrayal’.

A risk of political control over media funding by state advertising was revealed, because there are no rules regarding the distribution of state advertising (indicator 31, medium risk). However, the analysis of the distribution of state advertising did not reveal any significant current disproportional distribution.

There is a medium risk to media plurality coming from the mechanism of providing financing to the PSM by the government (indicator 33, variable 1). The licence fee in the UK is used for BBC services and, as of 2011, for S4C, the Welsh language broadcaster. The level of the licence fee is determined by the BBC’s Royal Charter, which sets its role and remit. The BBC Charter is renewed every 10 years following lengthy negotiations, research and consultations. In addition, the conclusions and recommendations of Ofcom’s review of the PSB are taken into account, which are also informed by both in-house and independent research and comprehensive consultations. Despite two of seven panel members claiming that these public discussions are of no influence, the indicator has been assessed as medium risk with the opinion that the robust debate regarding the BBC and the licence fee in the UK does carry some weight, and that the role and influence of public opinion and the way it feeds into the regulatory process is a much wider and theoretical question. In addition, the 2010 interventionist incident, when the BBC’s licence fee was frozen after a few days’ negotiations behind closed doors with the newly elected coalition government, and as a part of the post-recession cuts, has not had a decisive influence on the assessment of this indicator, since it does not represent common practice in the 68-year-long tradition of the licence fee.

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Graph 18: Level of risk for each risk domain – UK