Leveson must mark the beginning of change, not the end

We need a new platform-neutral regulator that no longer treats newspapers, broadcasters and websites as if they live in discrete little boxes.

Could the backdrop for publication of the Leveson report this week be worse? A polarised debate between press and campaigners; serious political divisions; and another media crisis - this time at the BBC - eroding public trust even further.

Lord Justice Leveson must take a bleak view of the prospects for building consensus around his recommendations. But there is a bigger danger and the Leveson report will, at best, address only some of the issues confronting Britain’s media. Economically, our traditional media is under severe strain. Circulations for print publications are falling, advertising revenues migrating online and digital revenues growing at only a snail’s pace for the creators of traditional print and television content. According to media regulator, Ofcom, the only growth in readership for our national newspapers is online, and that is currently not where the money is. The so-called print to digital "profit destruction ratio" could be as much as 25:1. 

In a report published by the IPPR today, I argue that once they have taken delivery of the Leveson report, our politicians will need to look much more broadly at the prospects for growth in our media sector.  Leveson should mark the beginning of the process of change, not the end. We need to take a new approach to media regulation. One which is no longer treats newspapers, broadcasters and online services as if they live in discrete little boxes. That’s not where consumers are today. And it certainly won’t be where consumers are by the time a new regulatory regime comes into force.

True, many people remain excluded from the digital revolution, but more than half of households today have three or more internet enabled devices. According to Ofcom, when people buy an iPad or other tablet device, 25 per cent of people say they read a paper copy of a newspaper less often. A new approach should offer more freedom for media companies to innovate and develop new business models and at the same time deliver more consistent standards across the board. 

To do this, we can build on our current system of independent regulators, but shift the focus on to content rather than delivery methods. So, for example, one regulator to deal with news publishing on all platforms, one to deal with broadcast news content, with its special requirement to maintain impartiality, one to deal with general non-news content across all platforms, broadcast and on demand. Each body would involve the industry and lay representatives, including consumers in developing standards and monitoring and enforcing compliance. But they must have teeth, and it must be a requirement for all qualifying organisations to take part. For that you need a statutory backstop.  

Independent and statutory regulation are not mutually exclusive. Advertising and on demand programming have both. ITV is completely under the umbrella of statutory regulation, but that didn’t stop the broadcaster investigating and breaking the Savile story. The backstop role that Ofcom performs for some sectors should be extended to all media. Stepping back from day to day regulation of content would enable Ofcom to take a broader view, helping to develop consistent standards across media on matters such as the protection of privacy and the public interest. 

A new News Publishing Authority would be created as part of this framework as a replacement for the PCC. It would be platform neutral, dealing with print and online services. It would also deal with news video, ending the current risk that newspapers could fall under a new regulator if they develop opinionated TV-like content for distribution online and on demand. Only news publishers over certain size should be required to sign up, and the new body would continue to perform many of the current functions of the PCC, including handling complaints, offering pre-publication advice to complainants and giving guidance to editors. It should also involve industry as well as lay representation, as now. But it must have recourse to Ofcom’s back-stop powers when needed: to compel membership; arbitrate effectively; and apply effective sanctions. 

The public want stricter regulation and the key is to develop a system that is as sensitive to press freedom and the future economic viability of our media as it is possible to be. And that is what this solution proposes. Assessments of media plurality should become platform neutral too. Judgements on concentrations of power and influence should be taken using a range of measures, with consideration given to the continuing viability of established titles and media groups. 

Setting hard ownership limits within particular media segments – like the printed press – may be politically attractive, but if the result is simply the closure of unprofitable newspaper titles, then what does that achieve for plurality and consumer choice? After the fiasco over News Corp's attempted takeover of BSkyB, the so-called quasi-judicial role for the Secretary of State should be abolished too, with Ofcom taking responsibility for media competition and plurality issues with enhanced accountability to Parliament. The UK benefits from one of the most vibrant and diverse media markets in the world. Alongside a lively free press and an abundance of new media players, we have superb public service broadcasters. In the new world, as all traditional media comes under strain, our broadcasters need more security over their long term status and funding. In the case of the publicly-funded BBC this should come with a greater external scrutiny, continuing to work alongside the BBC Trust. 

Without a new regulatory settlement, in a few years time the rich media mix the UK enjoys today of old and new, serious and frivolous, impartial and opinionated could disappear. A traditional industry that is already struggling economically will be hamstrung and unable to compete with new media players. There’ll be no shortage of choice, and aggregation software will help us find it. But will it be worth reading or watching? Leveson will be important. But let’s not get sidetracked into yesterday’s arguments about whether or not a "dab of statute" signals the death knell for free and investigative journalism. There are bigger risks and they require a broader view and a more comprehensive solution. 

Nigel Warner is a former government media policy adviser and author of Life after Leveson, published today by the IPPR

Hugh Grant, one of those leading calls for stricter press regulation, meets David Cameron during last year's Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nigel Warner is a former government media policy adviser and an associate fellow at the IPPR.

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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.