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27 November 2012

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.

By Nigel Warner

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.  

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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