Plurality. Not an easy word to say at the best of times - but it
has certainly become flavour of the month, especially in political
And why not? It's a feelgood word. It has a healthy, wholesome glow
about it. A generosity of spirit. And yet it sounds impressively
rigorous and philosophical.
You'll find it sprinkled liberally throughout the Government's
consultation document on media ownership rules, published last week. The
foreword, signed by the culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, and the
secretary for trade and industry Patricia Hewitt, lays out the ground
rules for their best of all possible media worlds. "The Government's
task," they state, "is to create a framework for media ownership which
protects (a) plurality of voices and encourages a diversity of content
while, at the same time, promoting the most competitive market for media
businesses and attracting new investment."
This is a stage in a long process that will lead eventually to a
Communications Bill sometime in the spring of 2002. Much of the
consultation paper was already touched upon in last year's
Communications White Paper, but it helps to confirm government thinking
on a few substantive points.
For instance, legislative barriers to the mergers of the last two
remaining ITV companies will be removed. The rule demanding that there
be two sellers of ITV airtime in London would go, as would the rule
preventing commercial TV companies from commanding more than 15 per cent
of the total audience.
But it did state that there should be a minimum of four free-to-air
terrestrial broadcasters. Surely Bob Wootton, the director of media and
advertising affairs at ISBA, is not against a bit of plurality and
Well, yes. Up to a point. "This is a very worrying consultation document
indeed," he states. "It is at pains to establish plurality and diversity
but only as an editorial concept. Thus, outdoor isn't mentioned because
it doesn't carry editorial. The paper distances itself entirely from
market issues - they will all be passed to the competition authorities.
As such, from our point of view, it is critically flawed. It will let
all sorts of things slip through. We would have to say that the
Competition Commission hasn't served our interests too well so there is
not a wellspring of optimism there - and history tells us that when we
are in doubt we may be right to be sceptical."
Wootton is disappointed that the views of advertisers appear to have
been ignored here. "It's worrying that the subtleties of some of these
points appear to have been missed. We welcome the provision that there
shouldn't be fewer than four terrestrial television stations.
But we have always argued that the rule should be applied to the
commercial sector - and they have included in their reckoning the BBC.
It also has to be said that it fails to advance arguments about
cross-media ownership very far."
Several cross-media ownership options have been outlined - but many
observers believe that the Government would again be entirely happy to
see this issue hived off to the competition authorities.
Jim Marshall, the chief executive of MediaVest and the chairman of the
Media Policy Group of the IPA, says that in some ways the paper is quite
enlightened - for instance, in recognising that there should be
different rules for different media. But he says: "One of the most
interesting little titbits is its confirmation of the proposal to do
away with the rule that there can't be just one ITV company in the
London market. The implications are phenomenal, in terms of competition
and the structure of ITV. If we presume that there won't be a single
owner for the whole of the network for the foreseeable future, the
London situation could seriously unbalance the market. There would be a
huge potential to maximise revenues if one company did manage to take
control of London. Funds would flow in to London."
Do they just refer everything to the Office of Fair Trading and the
Competition Commission? The problem here is the lack of clarity. We
could get situations such as the proposed merger of Carlton and United
News & Media, where you had to wait months and then it was blocked. So
it could actually make takeovers more problematic.
The most worrying thing, Marshall says, is that there has been little
heed given to the concerns of advertisers. In some instances the
interests of advertisers coincide with those of media owners but in
others they don't. Where there is no competition in the market it could
bring problems for advertisers which could have an impact on the
Marshall thinks that it is too simplistic to just say: "Let's leave it
all to competition law."
Jerry Hill, the chief executive of Initiative Media, has an interesting
perspective on all of this. Not so long ago, when he was boss of the
TSMS sales house, he was a passionate advocate of consolidation within
ITV. Is he still of that mind? It's not an easy question, he
For instance, the issue may soon become academic if ITV's audience share
continues to erode. But, for the foreseeable future, it will always be
difficult to calculate the extent to which a single ITV could distort
the television airtime market.
He states: "To take a view on this you have to predict the chain
reaction spawned by legislative change and anticipate the implications,
not just of ITV consolidation but of other possible outcomes. That might
include calculating which companies seek to extend their interests into
the UK or extend their interests into TV from other media. You'd also
have to take into account how the smaller organisations would either
rationalise or seek alliances in response to compete. It is this that
will determine the impact on prices in the longer term."
And what about radio? Many analysts believe radio should take great
heart from the document, particularly its view that the complicated
points system (used to determine the maximum size of commercial radio
companies) should be done away with.
Paul Brown, the chief executive of the Commercial Radio Companies
Association, states: "This is actually the first time that we've seen
evidence that our viewpoint has been listened to. As for cross-media
ownership and companies that want to own television, radio and press, I
can't see any problem in that issue being left to the Competition
Commission. I accept that there are issues of plurality where local
radio is concerned, but I think broadly it should be possible for the
commercial sector to at least be able to match what the BBC does."