Posted by Leigh Holmwood
Lord Carter, the new minister for communications, technology and broadcasting, is expected to approve consolidation in local media markets in order to save further jobs from being cut. His interim 'Digital Britain' report is due to be published this month. MediaGuardian.co.uk understands that one of it main recommendations will focus on helping newspaper groups by allowing them to acquire local radio and TV stations as well as expanding their online presence.
Regional newspapers have been particularly hard hit by the recession, with advertising revenues down, while readers have continued to move to the internet, prompting hundreds of job cuts in the closing months of 2008. Newspaper publishers claim existing UK media ownership rules have hindered them, in some cases forcing the closure of titles. The slow decline of regional media has also become an increasingly important issue for MPs, who rely on local papers to speak directly to their constituents.
Existing media ownership rules, enshrined in the 2003 Communications Act following a major review, are designed to “strike a balance between ensuring a degree of plurality on the one hand and providing freedom to companies to expand, innovate and invest on the other". They aim to “prevent/limit consolidation within a media market or between markets to decrease the likelihood that any one owner wields too much power".
The 2003 Act introduced a complicated points system to prevent local newspapers with a market share of 50% or more and ITV regional licensees from holding local analogue radio licences in the same area. A media owner may also not acquire a regional ITV licence if it runs one or more local newspapers with more than a 20% market share in the same area. The rule governing local radio states that there should be at least two separate owners of local commercial radio services in addition to the BBC in any defined area.
Media regulator Ofcom is also obliged under the 2003 Act to review the ownership rules at least every three years, with the next report due in 2009. If Ofcom feels there should be any changes it then makes recommendations to the secretary of state for culture, media and sport – currently Andy Burnham.
The last review in November 2006 found no need to alter the existing rules, although sources expect changes to be recommended in the forthcoming review. Newspaper groups have called for the current rules to be reformed, with Trinity Mirror chief executive Sly Bailey saying the “outdated" system could lead to further titles closing and jobs being lost if they are not changed."Competition law as it applies to newspapers has to be reviewed because it ignores the modern, broader media landscape," Bailey told the Society of Editors conference in November."My fear is that by the time this is properly recognised it may be too late and the very things we wish to protect – plurality and diversity – are destroyed by cumbersome, outdated regulation."
In June 2008, members of the House of Lords communications committee proposed easing ownership restrictions relating to local newspapers and radio.
The BBC Trust recently axed its proposed £68m network of local news websites following intense lobbying from regional newspaper groups (see Free Press 167).