A review which has just been announced by the Office of Fair Trading into the rules affecting the ownership of regional and local media might well end up as a nothing more than a smokescreen for a far more significant re-alignment which is already taking place nationally without any sign of government interference.
National newspapers which have invested heavily in their websites – like the Sun, News of the World, Guardian and Daily Telegraph – are carving out their share of the expanding online television market without having to pay any heed to the old rules on cross ownership or monopolies. The likes of Sun tv and News of the World tv are outside the reach of Ofcom. It says they are not television-like services; the regulators and the government are happy to look the other way.
But the transmission of intrusive and dubious video material, for example by the Sun and the News of the World, is so sensational it is setting the agenda. Mainstream broadcasters like the BBC, ITV and Sky are now falling over themselves to rebroadcast footage which they would never have dared to commission or broadcast themselves for fear of falling foul of the ethical codes of both Ofcom and the BBC. But anything goes in the unregulated world of online tv.
For the trashy tabloids, convergence has already happened. What we are seeing is the emergence of Freak Television – whether it is a thirteen year old father filmed in hospital with his baby daughter under questionable circumstances; the American mother of octuplets; the terminally ill Jade Goody; or Prince Harry’sracist video which was acquired under equally dubious circumstances by the News of the World. Not surprisingly, on the back of these stories, the publicist Max Clifford is aiming to reinvent himself as a father figure to Jade Goody and the saviour of her children while at the same time arranging media deals on behalf of Alfie, the thirteen-year-old father and his baby daughter Maisie.
Once these videos are loaded onto the sites of the Sun and the News of the World they are in the public domain and just like any other news source, the material is available for rebroadcasting, an offer the mainstream broadcasters just cannot afford to ignore in today’s competitive media market. Video footage from the Sun and the News of the World – with their respective logs burned into the right hand corner of the shot – feature regularly in mainstream news bulletins and programmes. But just as with ability the national press to carve out a new business in the unregulated world of online television, so we see the regulatory bodies asleep on the job when it comes to safeguarding the regional press.
We all know the four major groups which control the bulk of the regional and local titles have been operating a business model which is as bust…just as bust as that of the failed banks which relied for their expansion on precarious wholesale financial markets rather than the funds of their depositors.
What Newsquest, Northcliffe, Johnston Press and Trinity Mirror have been doing is cutting costs and hollowing out their editorial base simply in order to sustain unacceptably high levels of profit. Now, having found that so much of their advertising revenue has haemorrhaged away -- and that they are losing readers hand over fist -- they say they have no alternative but close their weakest titles.
They are appealing to the government to allow further consolidation and contraction of their industry even if it means tearing up the rule book that seeks to limit cross ownership and to prevent provincial newspapers, local radio stations and regional television stations being rolled up together in one monopoly. But it is these local press monopolies which failed to invest initially in local websites – hence their loss of revenue from advertising for properties and cars – and it is these companies, which in kicking up enough of a fuss behind the scenes, succeeded in blocking the BBC’s plans for ultra local websites which would have guaranteed 400 new jobs. What does the Office of Fair Trading think it can achieve?
The word from BERR – the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform – is that the ownership rules must be relaxed, and relaxed fast. This view is shared by the Ofcom boss, Lord Carter. They are convinced that unless there is further consolidation, these regional news outlets will face a dire future. But why didn’t the regulators see this coming? Why didn’t they intervene to stop the previous headlong rush towards consolidation which was just a desperate attempt to maintain profit margins for shareholders?
What we have to accept is that when it comes to protecting their business interests, media companies usually get their way. The national newspaper proprietors – with the help of the Press Complaints Commission – fought a highly successful campaign to ensure that the British press remains self regulated and that the principle of self-regulation extends to the online audio-visual output of newspaper websites. So the media proprietors can have their cake and eat it.
Ofcom has decided their websites do not fall within the EU’s definition of television-like services and by leaving their output to self regulation, the newspapers can join up the dots – using their cheque books to buy up sensational and intrusive video material which can command the agenda not only in the press, but also online and in television and radio as well. I think the newspaper industry’s lobbying has been so successful that the nationals will be left well alone by the government of the day.
And we know what the Conservatives would do: they say that once these newspaper websites become fully-fledged digital channels they should be allowed to become partisan and politically-loaded broadcasters. Again we can see how the media world is being reshaped to suit the proprietors. My bet is that come campaigning for the European Parliamentary elections on June 4, we will see the newspaper sites pushing the anti-European agenda of the Sun, Telegraph and Daily Mail. Politically partisan tv has arrived in Britain by the backdoor.
The long-standing rule book on media ownership is being rewritten free of regulation and a great tradition of impartial public service broadcasting is certain to be eroded, if not smashed, by what could become an online smash and grab
Nicholas jones was speaking at an NUJ Left meeting, London, 18.2.2009.