Should owner rules change?

Do media ownership regulations need to be revised, Alasdair Reid asks.

Alex Altman, chief executive, Initiative
Alex Altman, chief executive, Initiative

In recent weeks, you could have been excused for struggling to remember why the Leveson inquiry was set up in the first place, or, indeed, what it aims to achieve. As it dragged on, it seemed Leveson desperately needed a new plot impetus - and cometh the hour, cometh the man. It is very much to the inquiry's credit that it has afforded the veteran pantomime villain Rupert Murdoch the chance to remind us all of his timeless qualities.

Appearing last week, he was asked to address many issues - but his most politically explosive evidence pertained not to phone-hacking or related shenanigans. No - the real storm brewed up when he was asked to revisit the furore occasioned last year when Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation scandalously attempted to buy (and yes, we know we've used this joke before, but we're nothing if not persistent) Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB.

In response, Murdoch released fulsome records of the exchange of information between his company and the office of the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, during the bid process - and this has served to reopen the debate on the whole deeply vexing question of the way that media ownership rules are managed in the UK. There have been those arguing that the system has been open to potential abuse and needs further reform.

There will, of course, be others who point out that we already have enormously elaborate regulations overseen, jointly and severally, by the Office of Fair Trading, the Competition Commission, the European Commission and Ofcom. Not to mention various cabinet ministers, as appropriate, and their numerous Whitehall elves.

But still - is this enough? Absolutely it is, Alex Altman, the chief executive of Initiative, argues. He says: "Every three years, we have the opportunity to debate this (under the 2003 Communications Act, Ofcom must undertake a statutory review every three years at the very minimum) and the last time the rules were reviewed, the industry had no major concerns.

"So we have good regulations and good processes for reviewing them - and though you can argue that the world changes very quickly these days, I really don't think we need to revisit this more frequently. It's possible for companies to behave badly or otherwise regardless of regulation - but I really don't think it's possible for anyone to own too great a share of the market under the current system of regulation."

Steve Hobbs the director of media operations at Aegis, tends to agree - though he does concede that, while the rules are sound, the political processes by which they are implemented may need looking at. But he argues that the current laws aim to strike a good balance, guaranteeing plurality while also giving the market the flexibility to adapt and grow - and, crucially, granting media companies the economies of scale they need to continue providing the public with entertaining and informative content.

He explains: "The radio industry is a good example of a market that needed to change in the face of rapid fragmentation and now benefits from consolidated ownership at UK level, but with geographical plurality intact."

Some, particularly in the regional newspaper industry, might take issue with Hobbs' notion that the right balance has been struck. In October last year, for instance, when Kent Messenger Group's bid to buy Northcliffe Media's Kent titles was blocked, closures followed.

And in any case, Tim Irwin, the chief operating officer of Maxus UK, argues, the blurring of the distinctions between onand offline media sectors is continuing to change the parameters by which we judge competition issues.

He states: "In traditional media, the current laws maintain competition within channels. In areas such as search and social media, dominant players have created their own monopolies. It would be impractical and unreasonable to make changes now to one area and not the other."

That time may come soon, though, he argues. And Mark Jarvis, a founding partner at the7stars, while partially agreeing with Irwin, concludes: "Over time, the influence of established news organisations will further decline as social media grows, giving ordinary people more of a voice. You just need to look at the Arab Spring uprisings to see where the balance of power will lie in the future."

NO - ALEX ALTMAN, CHIEF EXECUTIVE, INITIATIVE

"It is not easy to imagine circumstances in which someone can subvert the regulatory process. There are just too many independent-minded people involved. In short, I have faith and confidence in the system."

NO - STEVE HOBBS, DIRECTOR OF MEDIA OPERATIONS, AEGIS

"No-one thinks a monopoly within or across media is a good thing, but I believe that the current rules are well set up to protect plurality while also giving the market the flexibility to adapt and grow."

MAYBE - TIM IRWIN, CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER, MAXUS

"As we move towards a wholly ad-served media world, the distinction between online and offline (in which the competition issues are very different) will recede. That's the time to relook at ownership, not now."

NO - MARK JARVIS, FOUNDING PARTNER, THE7STARS

"The Leveson inquiry has really been about exposing criminal activity, and the law is more than capable of handling organisations and individuals who transgress. And in a digital world, ownership in the context of old-fashioned control is becoming an irrelevance."

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