The Select Committee on Communications recently published a report on Media Plurality, that is, the need to secure many different voices and owners in the news output: as we put it –
“achieving a workable approach to plurality, particularly in provision of news and current affairs, is generally considered fundamental to a well-functioning democratic society, ensuring as far as possible informed citizens and a media without any single set of views or individuals wielding too much influence over the political process.”
This important subject was allocated a one-hour time slot for debate in the Lords today. Seventeen speakers signed up, and were allocated two minutes each! The government spokesman summed it up as a “quick yomp through plurality”. I decided that it was not worth joining in for such a short time, and withdrew. So here is what I would have said had there been time.
I grew up in a journalist’s home where eight newspapers were delivered every day, and I took that as normal, indeed it was my window on the world. It is hard to believe that anyone is deprived of a choice of news in this era of internet and social media, where the UK is a leader in news online. Nevertheless TV is still the main medium of news for most, and there is a fear, not evidence based, that unseen hands have too much dominance. We cannot force the public to take in a wide variety of news sources, but we can try to ensure that influence is not in fact concentrated in too few hands, for the real danger is the influence of newsmongers on politicians, rather than on the public. It is vital that citizens be informed, whether they read only the local news, or they are the young taking it in on line, or the political classes tuning into Radio 4 first thing in the morning.
The report from the Select Committee, of which I have the privilege to be a member, recommended the undertaking of a plurality review on a predictable periodic basis, which should set the context for a modification of the existing arrangements for a review of specific transactions which occur in the interval between the periodic reviews. The report has been criticised for being too radical, and also for not being radical enough, so I guess we got it about right! The Committee pointed out that it was essential that the metrics should not be set in stone, but that in the fast moving media world of today, Ofcom should select the metrics that are appropriate at the time of the review. Availability, consumption and impact are always going to inform the choice. I suggest that the government’s response, to call on Ofcom to develop a suitable set of indicators and a framework, does not move us much forward. Before we know where we are, another major takeover or merger in the media world might present itself and we would not be ready to assess it. Nor did the government commit itself to our view of periodic and transactional reviews. Moreover, where our suggestions relate to the BBC the government’s response is to wait for the next Charter review. I would urge the government to move more quickly than that and ensure that the mechanisms for review are ready as soon as possible, fit for this fast changing and commercial media world of today.
All who responded to the government’s own consultation on plurality, and to the Select Committee’s, were agreed that the BBC was an important element on the scene, but not one to be controlled by these plurality mechanisms since it has its own internal and external control measures. In view of its dominance as a news source, we suggested that its website could usefully point readers to other external and supplementary news sources. The BBC Trust should ensure plurality of views within the BBC. One understands that it is wasteful to duplicate news reporting, but there is much to be said for discrete news gathering and reporting, in order to ensure a variety of views emanating from the BBC itself, and the avoidance of a monolithic worldview on important topics, such as global warming and the Middle East. The BBC itself tends to explain the popularity of its news in terms of trustworthiness. It points out that 58% of the UK public choose the BBC as the most accurate and trustworthy source. But trust is not the same as accuracy. One can trust a familiar and authoritative voice without realising that that voice may sometimes be partial or inaccurate. Given its strong position in the plurality debate, it is the impartiality and accuracy of the BBC that need constant vigilance.
A final word about OFCOM. While we all agree on the virtues of plurality, there is only one OFCOM. More and more responsibilities are being placed on it. We need assurance that it is not too close to government, for its non- executives and chairman are appointed by the Secretary of State, and it is peopled to quite an extent by former BBC employees. OFCOM needs plurality within itself in order to police the plurality of others.
And a footnote, a crucial one. When this debate was scheduled, no one could have foreseen the tragedies that unfolded in Paris last week. Those events highlighted, if it needed highlighting, the importance of a plurality of voices in the media – no censorship – no dominance of one perspective – freedom to criticise and satirise those in power. The British press has been celebrated for centuries for its boldness, intelligence and influence. Long may it remain so.