Response to the Secretary of State (Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport): Local Media – cross media ownership rules

09 August 2010


In November 2009, after public consultation, we reported to the Secretary of State (Culture, Media and Sport) on our review of the media ownership rules, as required by statute. One of our recommendations was to significantly liberalise the local cross media ownership rules. Government now intends to implement this liberalisation.

Once this liberalisation is implemented the only prohibition on local cross media ownership will be that one person cannot own in a local radio coverage area:

  • a local analogue radio licence; and
  • a regional Channel 3 licence whose potential audience includes at least 50% of that radio stations potential audience; and
  • one or more local newspapers which have a local market share of 50% or more in the coverage area ( the Remaining Rule).

The Secretary of State (Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport) has now asked Ofcom to look at the feasibility and implications of removing the Remaining Rule. The Secretary of State is required by statute to consult with us before making any changes to the media ownership rules which Ofcom has not already recommended.

In considering this request, we have updated our evidence for changes since our November 2009 recommendation. In summary, there are two relevant developments.

Firstly, the evidence shows a significant deterioration in the revenues available for local / regional newspapers between 2008 and 2009, accompanied by continued structural pressure on television and radio as the internet increases its share in a total advertising market that has been under pressure from broader economic circumstances. While there are signs of a recovery in the general advertising market this year, as we noted in our original report, these structural challenges are unlikely to ease.

Secondly, we note that Government policy in relation to local media has changed significantly since we published our original recommendations. The Government has placed emphasis on local media, in particular making proposals for local television, which have the potential to have a positive impact on both the diversity and plurality of news and information at the local level. Although this remains in development, and is therefore speculative at this stage, it is clearly a relevant development.

The issue that we highlighted in our earlier advice was that a combined ownership of the channel 3 television licence, a local commercial radio station and the main local newspaper(s) may confer too much control over the local news agenda into the hands of one person or company. Limited plurality of news and opinion in a local area could restrict local debate and accountability. This remains a serious consideration which needs to be weighed against the arguments for further relaxation.

As this report notes, the cornerstone of plurality in this context is the combination of the BBC and the commercial sector. With a BBC service (television at the regional level, radio and web based services more locally) there is a guarantee of a minimum of at least two providers of local news.

It is also important to note that competition policy may be relevant to the extent that competition authorities prevent concentrations in local media through the merger regime. The Secretary of State (Business, Innovation and Skills) also has the right to intervene in cross media mergers where he considers that it raises public interest considerations, including considerations of the need for there to be sufficient plurality.

All three of these factors exist as safeguards in addition to the residual restriction on cross ownership of local commercial media.

Ultimately, whether the remaining rule should be removed is of course a matter of judgement and one which is rightly made by Government and Parliament.

In making this judgement the risk of the concentration of control over local commercial news provision needs to be balanced against the arguments and factors which tend towards removal:

  • Local media is facing significant economic pressure which the most recent evidence suggests is becoming more acute removing the remaining rule could allow local media greater options to consolidate to respond to these pressures.
  • While only a limited group of consumers (5%) consider the internet their main source of local news, there is a growing diversity of local news available through non-traditional media. There are therefore increasingly alternative sources of plurality.
  • As noted, there are protections for plurality which would continue to operate the combination of the BBC and the commercial sector, the public interest test operated by the Secretary of State and the merger regime would all continue to operate in parallel.

In addition, there are the potential benefits to diversity and plurality that may emerge in the coming years from the Governments policy on local television.

Finally, it is also worth noting that there is probably a reasonably low risk of the kind of consolidation that the remaining rule protects against actually occurring even if the rule was removed. At present the evidence suggests there is very limited interest in this form of consolidation.

The Secretary of State has also asked Ofcom to look at possible regulatory barriers to entry in local media. In summary, we do not consider that there are significant regulatory barriers to entry to the local media market (within our remit).
This paper is structured into four sections:

  • Section 1 Context: in this section we set out why we are undertaking this further analysis of the local cross media ownership rules and what we recommended to the Secretary of State in 2009.
  • Section 2 Updating the evidence: in this section we set out the evidence on which our 2009 recommendation was based. We also update our analysis for changes to the local media landscape since our 2009 recommendation.
  • Section 3 Advice to the Secretary of State: in this section we set out the factors to be taken into account in considering removal of the Remaining Rule.
  • Section 4 Wider regulatory issues: in this section we look at possible regulatory barriers to entry to local media, within our remit.

The full document is available below