Media Pluralism: regulation or universal service obligation?


Concerns about media pluralism are pervasive, recurrent and remarkable. In Australia, media ownership regulation came under review in 2001 (updated in 2002, 2003 and 2006) and again in 2007 (Parliament of Australia 2001 and 2007). In Canada, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) promulgated new media ownership rules in 2008 (CRTC 2008). In October 2011, a European Commission Vice-President, Neelie Kroes, established a Committee on Freedom and Pluralism of the Media “to advise and provide recommendations for the respect, protection, support and promotion of media freedom and pluralism in Europe” (European Commission 2011) following extensive earlier studies and publications (eg Council of Europe 1994, European Commission 2007 and KUL 2009). In the USA, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began the latest of its four yearly reviews of media ownership in 2010 (FCC 2010), though in 2011 most of its earlier recommendations for liberalisation of media ownership in the USA were blocked by a judgement of the US Court of Appeals (see United States Court of Appeals for the ThirdCircuit 2011). In Germany, the Kommission zur Ermittlung der Konzentration im Medienbereich (see KEK 2010 and 2011) regulates commercial broadcasting to secure diversity of opinion (Meinungsvielfalt), and in the UK Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of Statefor Culture, Media and Sport, announced that he has asked Ofcom to look at whether or not it is practical or advisable to set absolute limits on news market share; whether they believe a framework for measuring levels of plurality could or should include websites and if so which ones; and whether or how it should include the BBC (Hunt 2011).

Hunt’s mandate to Ofcom followed numerous UK studies on media ownership (see, inter alia, House of Lords 2008) and Ofcom’s most recent report (like the FCC, Ofcom is charged with regularly reviewing media ownership rules – though triennially rather than in a quadrennial cycle) in which, like the FCC, it had recommended (modest) liberalisation (Ofcom 2009). Scholarly activity has been no less energetic – see for example the special section of the International Journal of Communication on media pluralism (IJOC 2010), Doyle 2002, Meier 2005 etc.

 Why are such concerns both so widespread and recurrent? For three reasons, first, there is abundant empirical evidence that pluralism is diminishing: in most developed countries a long established media business model, advertising finance, is eroding resulting in closures and merger. Second, in democratic societies, the mass media are supposed to have an important political role – both in their purported capacity to influence political behaviour (notably voting) and in their purported duty to hold power to account. If media ownership is wrongly apportioned, by being insufficiently diverse or/and insufficiently national, then democracy, and the social solidarity on which it is based, may be perverted. Regulation, requiring either or both national and diverse ownership, is supposed to step into the breach and mitigate these adverse trends either by making unlawful patterns of ownership deemed undesirable or by subsidising and otherwise promoting those deemed desirable. Here, we will focus on ownership regulation to secure pluralism, rather than national ownership, but observe only that in some jurisdictions a striving for national media ownership has had the unwanted effect of diminishing media pluralism.

Many theories of democracy, including those most cited in debates about media policy and regulation (notably Millian, Habermasian and Mouffian – see Karpinnen, Moe and Svensson 2008), emphasise the importance of diversity, albeit inflecting the case for diversity somewhat differently: Millians foregrounding the arguments from On Liberty "if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for ought we can certainly know, be true. " (Mill 1986: 115); Habermasians the need for an untrammelled forum for collective and rational deliberation and Mouffians the inherent pluralism and incommensurability of values in modern societies. But all these viewpoints may shelter under the umbrella of a common, core, rationale which is, as McEwan put it in a report for the CRTC (citing Bagdikian), that “Modern democracies need a choice of politics and ideas, and that choice requires access to truly diverse and competing sources of news, literature, entertainment and popular culture” (Bagdikian 1987: 3 cited at McEwan 2007).

There can be little doubt that democracy is unlikely to thrive without diverse and competing sources of news (whilst diversity in literature, entertainment and popular culture may be desirable it is not prima facie clear that such diversity is required for democracy). Moreover, diversity and competition in news may not be sufficient in themselves – accuracy, comprehensiveness and intelligibility also seem to be essential news “must haves” for modern democracies. But much is left out here: including attributes such as the independence of news and the ability of the media to hold power, whether economic or political, to account. And can there be too much diversity? This may seem a fanciful question when the contemporary media landscape is, generally, one of diminishing diversity and pluralism in news supply. But too much diversity may lead to fragmentation of the collectivity (polity, demos, state, nation or something else) in question. Indeed, this is (one of) the rationale(s) underpinning national media content and ownership rules – too much exogenous content (ownership) may lead to a lethal erosion of identification with the demos. Too much diversity may also weaken the ability of the media to hold power to account.

Further, the presumption that diversity of ownership will necessarily lead to diversity incontent has seldom been tested - and remains to be demonstrated. For example, Milyo’s recent study for the FCC found that: "local television newscasts for cross-owned stations contain on average about 1-2 minutes more news coverage overall, or 4%-8% more than the average for non-crossowned stations. Newspaper cross-ownership is also significantly and positively associated with both local news coverage and local political news coverage. Newspaper cross-ownership is also associated with more candidate coverage, more candidate speaking time and more coverage of opinion polls. With regard to the partisan slant of news coverage, there is little consistent and significant difference between cross-owned stations and other major network-affiliated stations in the same market(Milyo 2007: npp)."

It would be unwarranted to claim that Milyo’s findings, which refer to a specific United States context, are widely generalisable but they are remarkable both for exemplifying a rare empirical enquiry into the ownership/content nexus and for putting into question conventional wisdom concerning the relationship between media content and ownership. Such multiple uncertainties and contradictions may explain why debates about media ownership seem never to go away and never to reach a resolution Why not? First, any proposals for change are likely to disadvantage media incumbents, and their political allies, and they are likely to resist such changes. Those, whether businesses or politicians, likely to benefit will do the reverse. All this is simply to state the obvious: media ownership regulation is highly political and scholarship is often highly politicised. Change, at least in part, depends not on rational argument but on political interest. And this suggests that the vast, rationalist, architecture of the Media Pluralism Monitor (MPM) – the weighty fruit of a scholarship inspired by the European Commission’s most recent engagement with the media ownership question (see KUL 2009) and which, almost certainly, constitutes the most fully elaborated attempt to construct an instrument to measure media pluralism – may never be unleashed in anger.

The MPM provides an eloquent demonstration of the difficulty of reaching rational, impartial, objective and, above all, operationalisable assessments of the media ownership issue. Its 166 indices, 75 possible threats and 43 distinct risks (KUL 2009: 89, 92) testify to the heroic labour required for any actual implementation of the MPM – to reach a conclusion on one of the 166 individual indicators, that for determining the extent to which “Political bias in the media” is present, requires a “Quantitative content analysis for measuring the proportion of actors representing different political viewpoints and groupings by dividing them into 4 groups: government, governing parties, opposition parties, and other political and ideological groupings” (KUL 2009: 46). The labour involved in reaching such a judgement needs no emphasis and neither does the extent to which the judgments involved in making such distinctions are likely to be open to question and challenge. Moreover, the MPM methodology’s attribution of “equal weight to all indicators” (KUL 2009: 26) is highly contestable: are magazines, radio, television and newspapers equivalent and equal in their importance? The problem signified by this question is amplified when the importance of book publishing companies, web sites, cable stations and others (KUL 2009: 78) has to be taken into consideration. Further, the MPM’s recourse to criteria such as “excessive” and “insufficient” (KUL 2009: 35, 37) suggests that considerable uncertainty is likely to surround any judgements based on its methodology and that any real life us of the MPM is likely to provide ample employment for lawyers. Such contradictions and discontinuities in both the rationale and the means of implementing any action on media pluralism helps to explain why the issue remains, seemingly immovably, on the policy and scholarly agendas without resolution. Its high contemporary salience though may reflect recent changes in the economics of the mass media which have proven unfriendly to media pluralism.

Prof. Martin Cave, Richard Collins