A missed opportunity? The Leveson Inquiry and Media Ownership

The notion of media plurality is widely seen as vital to a healthy democracy. However, since it was established in the 19th century (with the notable exception of the BBC) the mass media in Britain has been concentrated in the hands of a small number of powerful individuals. The history of the British media is the history of great, and at times monstrous, men, from Northcliffe and Beaverbrook to Murdoch and Dacre. Although this has been the cause of periodic bouts of concern amongst politicians and the public, very little has changed. Since the 1980s the growth of global media groups such as News Corporation prompted  fresh concerns. The scale of the problem in relation to the print media is set out in the table below, which is drawn largely from a report on The Ownership of the News published by the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications in 2008. It shows that just three organisations control 75% of the daily newspaper readership in the UK.

One of the other distinctive features of the modern British media which was highlighted by the Lords select committee is the extent to which media ownership may not only extend across several titles but also across different sections of the media. The primary example of this has been News Corporation which owns widely read tabloid and broadsheet newspapers but also holds a significant stake in the broadcast media through shares in BSkyB and ITV. It is also notable that the two largest publishers of national newspapers are also responsible for publishing the largest number of regional newspapers in the UK.

Table 1: Newspaper Ownership in the UK

Publisher Newspaper   titles National   market share (based on circulation) Other   major UK media assets
News International The   TimesThe   Sunday TimesThe   Sun

Sun   on Sunday

35.5%

Largest stakeholder in BSkyB and large   stake in ITV
Daily Mail and General Trust Daily   MailMail   on Sunday

19.3

Metro (freesheet)Northcliffe Media – large UK regional   newspaper publishers with over 100 titles. 
Trinity Mirror Daily   MirrorSunday   MirrorThe   People

Daily   Record

Sunday   Mail

20.3%

Largest UK regional newspaper   publisher
Northern and Shell Daily   ExpressDaily   StarSunday   Express

11.9%

Celebrity magazines including OK
Telegraph Media Group The   Daily TelegraphSunday   Telegraph

6.1%

The   Spectator
Guardian Media Group The   GuardianThe   Observer

3.4%

GMG Media – publisher of Manchester Evening News and a number   of other titles in the North.

Independent News and Media

Independent

Independent   on Sunday

1.8%

The   Belfast Telegraph
Pearson Financial   Times

1.8%

The question of media ownership also formed part of the remit of the recent Leveson inquiry.  That part of the inquiry which dealt with the relationship between the press and politicians also focused on media ownership and the final report included a chapter on plurality in the media. However, while the Leveson inquiry revealed a great deal about the culture and practices of the British media, particularly certain sections of the print media, and made significant recommendations regarding press regulation, which have been acted upon, if not adopted in their entirety, Leveson did not make any significant recommendations with regard to media ownership.

Leveson did suggest that the level of concentration of ownership which should give rise to concern might be lower than in other sectors, and also suggested the government undertake periodic plurality reviews to identify any potential problems. However, there was very little detail. What was perhaps most striking, given what the proceedings of the inquiry revealed about the closeness of politicians and media owners, and particularly the role of Jeremy Hunt, is the fact that perhaps Leveson’s only concrete recommendation in this area was that responsibility for making decisions in relation to media mergers should remain with the Secretary of State.

In a considered article in the latest edition of Political Insight magazine, Steven Barnett suggests that Leveson’s timidity in this area was perhaps not surprising ‘on the basis that one poisoned chalice was enough’. However, Barnett does express some regret that in contrast to the ‘detailed, thoughtful and highly sophisticated recommendations’ for a new system of press regulation, Leveson’s recommendations with regard to media ownership focused on ‘desirable outcomes and broad policy framework’.

Interestingly, of course, the Leveson inquiry did have one significant impact on media ownership in the UK. News Corporation withdrew it’s bid to take control of BSkyB in July 2011, in the wake of parliamentary pressure and following the Prime Minister’s announcement of an inquiry into the practices of the media. Thereby revealing a sad truism about public inquiries which is that the announcment of such inquiries is often far more significant than the findings.

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