This is the first column from journalist and publisher Peter Kirwan, who will write media analysis pieces for TheMediaBriefing.com on a monthly basis, focusing on the deeper, strategic issues facing our industry. Follow him on twitter Loading... as @petekirwan.
It’s barely six months since Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, promised to spend the next four years “redesigning” media regulation “from scratch if necessary”. The result will be a new Communications Act that’s “fit for purpose”, providing “certainty” until 2025.
Should anyone take Jeremy Hunt seriously? Do we need another vast orgy of policy-making so soon after Lord Carter’s Digital Britain report, which resulted in the damp squib of the Digital Economy Act during the dying days of the last government?
DCMS - too much on its plate?
Maybe. There are some arguments for taking Hunt at face value. The minister has two of the coalition’s overriding priorities in mind: deregulation and economic growth. This suggests that his aims are durable. And to the extent that it matters, the lobbyists have already passed “Go”. At a recent policymakers’ forum in London called “Dear Jeremy..”, the BBC Loading... , BT Loading... , Channel 4 Loading... , Google Loading... , The Guardian Loading... , ITV Loading... , Sky Loading... and Virgin Media Loading... lined up to describe their wishlists.
There are more than a few things to sort out. Big questions involving broadcasters, newspapers and online media owners need settling. The stakes already feel relatively high. A double-dip recession will increase them.
On its own, the vexed question of how to regulate the newspaper industry could keep a regiment of lobbyists and civil servants busy for years. The Leveson Inquiry will run parallel with Hunt’s Communications Review. It may well climax on a similar timescale.
By common consent, Hunt is a principled politician, equipped with a keen mind. He’ll need it to avoid being tripped up by a key challenge: what constitutes a “sufficient plurality” of media ownership?
When Lord Puttnam inserted this diffuse phrase into the 2003 Communications Act at the last minute, Parliament’s reserves of time and political will were insufficient to insist upon a definition. Today, the job is more complex:
does the web boost plurality, as News Corp argued when trying to acquire Sky? Or is the opposite the case, as Ofcom pointedly argued in response? Either way, we probably need a definition. One day, the News-Sky deal may be revived.
Fit and proper legislation
While he’s at it, Hunt will need to reconsider the “fit and proper” test for broadcasters, which Ofcom is still mightily relieved it didn’t need to apply to News Corp (or for that matter, Richard Desmond).
The language – enshrined in the 1990 Broadcasting Act — is a relic of the days when gentlemen in clubs on Pall Mall pondered whether arrivistes could be trusted to become “one of us”.
According to Ofcom, a criminal conviction is “not necessarily” evidence of unfitness and impropriety. But being an undischarged bankrupt is. Clearly, the law is an ass. The rise of the connected living room, in which anyone can become a broadcaster, will only increase the resemblance between statute and beast.
But are we ready to jettison the notion that broadcasters need to be morally vetted in some way? Some members of Jeremy Hunt’s party will have doubts on this score.
Clearly, Hunt feels the need to level the playing field between broadcasters, newspapers and online publishers. His codewords for such market-shaping exercises include “growth” and “innovation”. Deregulation may be necessary, but it’s easier said than done.
Should broadcasting regulation be leveled down to the free market norms of newsprint? Or should newsprint become more heavily regulated? Is it the case, as Alan Rusbridger Loading... has suggested, that regulation of broadcasters (from which the majority of Britons get their news) is a necessary counterweight to partisan national newspapers?
The BBC can expect further aggro. The Corporation’s sprawling online estate can only become more of a threat to publishers as their print-based revenues dwindle. Rebuffed already by the Competiton Commission, ITV would like to see an end to Contract Rights Renewal.
Dying on their feet, the big local newspaper chains urgently need to consolidate. Hunt has already abolished local cross-media rules. But helping local newspaper groups to merge will not be universally popular. Consolidation will reduce pluralism, rather than enhance it.
One act to rule them all?
Clearly, Hunt has plenty to think about. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that his thinking should result in one giant Act. According to one analyst I spoke with this week, there isn’t “anyone in the industry who actually wants this law”. Isolated “single bits of legislation and regulation” are “just as likely”.
There’s a good reason for thinking this way. The notion of building a regulatory framework that will last until 2025 is like trying to guess the outcome of a massively multiplayer online game scripted by MC Escher Loading... to take place on an industry-wide basis. In the background, accelerating technological change looms as a random variable. Omnibus law-making on a such marathon timescale feels vainglorious.
The huge workload caused by the Olympics may slow down progress inside DCMS. Setting up a joint Commons/Lords committee to scrutinize Hunt’s bill could cause further delays. There’s also the prospect that Hunt will be reshuffled in late 2012, after the Games. His successor may have different priorities.
It also would be remarkable if Lord Leveson completes his inquiry to everyone’s satisfaction during 2012. Some inside News International Loading... think that the investigation may run for three years. There may not be sufficient time to wedge any recommendations into the Communications Act.
Some measures, such as the renewal of broadcasting licences, can be achieved by administrative means, via a special order. The Hargreaves review of copyright law will trundle along in parallel, towards its own solution. The rules on media plurality could be addressed separately, too.
Cabinet ministers like to be remembered as the authors of major laws. These are the notches on the bedposts that define their careers.
It’s not yet certain that Jeremy Hunt will get to carve his very own notch commemorating the passage of the Great Communications Act of 2015.
Separate measures may prove easier to manage than an omnibus law. More durable in the face of profound technological change, too.
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