Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator, gave an assurance to the Leveson Inquiry (1.2.2012) that it would speed up its investigation into whether it has sufficient power to provide protection against media companies exercising too much political influence.
Ed Richards, Ofcom’s chief executive, told Lord Justice Leveson that if given another chance to look again at News Corporation’s aborted bid for total control of BSkyB it would have placed more emphasis on the “risk to the democratic process.”
Ofcom’s evidence gets to the heart of one of the key challenges for the Inquiry: should there be fresh restrictions on the concentration of media power? Campaigners for greater media plurality say that News Corporation’s level of media ownership in Britain – 39 per cent of BSkyB together with three national newspapers (The Times, Sunday Times and Sun) – is too large and should be reduced.
In his evidence to the inquiry Richards acknowledged that the absence of the power to make recommendations on the impact of media concentration on the democratic process became an issue during the investigations it conducted into News Corporation’s bid to take full control of BSkyB.
In the event, Ofcom advised the government to accept the assurances given by News Corporation about the steps which would be taken to protect BSkyB’s editorial and financial independence.
But when the judge asked whether this had been a “green light” or an “amber light” from Ofcom, Richards said the recommendation to accept News Corporation’s undertakings was made because the regulator considered they did address concerns over media plurality.
However, on reflection, Ofcom now felt the proposed BSkyB takeover did raise the need for a wider review of plurality because the conventional analysis of the concentration of media ownership was based on the proportion of readers and viewers and that was deficient because it did not measure the influence on the political process which a company might exercise.
Lord Justice Leveson said Ofcom’s admission that its regulatory regime “did not do the job properly” with regard to the democratic process was highly significant to the work of his inquiry. The judge is taking evidence from politicians and media proprietors in May and he said he would like to know before the end of June the scope of any recommendations which Ofcom intended to make to the government; he and his team of assessors intended discussing possible options by early July.
Earlier in his evidence Richards explained that companies could acquire “a very substantial share of the media market” not solely by mergers or similar transactions but also by the sudden closure of other media outlets.
“You could find because of organic growth that a media company could have too much political power...the current legislation has no means of assessing that...that is a very serious deficiency in a highly dynamic market.”
After Lord Justice Leveson said Ofcom’s investigation into the scope of its own regulatory role “plays absolutely full square” into the work of his own inquiry, Colette Bowe, Ofcom’s chairman, said the regulator would do its utmost to ensure that the judge was supplied with details of any proposals Ofcom intended to make to the government.
She agreed with Ed Richards about the deficiencies in Ofcom’s power to look into the impact of significant power in the media market; Ofcom already had such powers in relation to the telecoms sector but did not have the same powers with regard to media plurality and the impact on the democratic process.
During their oral evidence neither the judge nor the inquiry’s counsel Corine Parry Hoskins asked either Richards or Bowe about the pre-election pledge given by David Cameron in June 2009 that a future Conservative government would remove Ofcom’s policy-making functions and return them to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.
Cameron said that in future Ofcom’s remit would be “restricted to narrow technical and enforcement roles” because the regulator had become an “unaccountable bureaucracy” which was taking decisions which should be the responsibility of ministers “accountable to Parliament.”
The Sun hailed Cameron’s announcement as the first sign that a new Conservative-led government would curb the activities of the “Ofcom busybodies.”
But Cameron’s promises to curtail Ofcom seem to have been dropped in their entirety, along with News Corporation’s bid to take total control of BSkyB – all part of the fallout from the revelations about the hacking of the mobile phone of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler which resulted in the closure of the News of the World in July 2010.
Illustrations: The Guardian and the Sun, 14 July 2010.