The ways in which people interact with news media have changed dramatically in recent years. New technology has enabled people to engage with news in completely new ways and has challenged the business models of traditional news media organisations. Against this backdrop, media plurality remains the cornerstone of a well-functioning democratic society.
Ofcom has a statutory duty to secure and maintain a sufficient plurality of providers of different TV and radio services. It also has a duty to review the operation of the media ownership rules listed under section 391 of the Communications Act 2003 every three years. It has published a statement which sets out its recommendations following its most recent review of those rules.
Alongside the review of the rules, Ofcom launched a programme of work in June 2021. This started with a call for evidence to understand what impact changes in the market for news might mean for media plurality, looking beyond the existing media ownership rules. Ofcom has set out a summary of the responses received to the call for evidence, its reflections on those responses and its proposed next steps.
The future of media plurality in the UK
Ofcom considers that there are three features of the modern UK media landscape that may present a risk to media plurality, but are not captured under the existing regulatory framework:
- Online intermediaries and their algorithms control the prominence they give to different news sources and stories.
- The basis on which online intermediaries serve news via their algorithms is not sufficiently transparent.
- Consumers do not always critically engage with the accuracy and partiality of online news.
Ofcom will now progress work to establish whether and how these issues present concerns for maintaining media plurality in the UK, and to consider what, if any, the potential options for addressing these concerns might be. It plans to provide its view on these points by summer 2022. It is coordinating its work on media plurality with other members of the Digital Regulation Cooperation Forum.
Media Ownership Rules Review: Recommendations to the Secretary of State
Four media ownership rules aim to promote plurality and prevent undue influence over the political agenda and process. Ofcom is recommending to the Secretary of State that some of those rules should be retained as they are, and some should be modified.
Rules relating to Channel 3: Cross-Media Ownership and Appointed News Provider rules
Ofcom recommends that the Cross-Media Ownership Rule and the Appointed News Provider Rule are retained as they still play an important role in protecting plurality.
The Media Public Interest Test
Ofcom recommends that the Secretary of State should broaden the scope of the existing Media Public Interest Test framework beyond print newspapers and broadcasters to capture a broader range of “news creators”. It says that this would be more reflective of the way in which people access and consume news today.
The Disqualified Persons Restrictions
These are a series of restrictions on certain entities holding broadcasting licences, introduced to prevent undue influence over broadcasting services by these bodies. Ofcom thinks that certain restrictions on entities holding broadcasting licences should be retained, as the rationale for which they were introduced still holds. It recommends that the Secretary of State should retain the non-discretionary prohibition for religious bodies, the prohibitions for political bodies and local authorities; and the prohibition for the BBC, S4C and Channel 4 Corporation, and the restrictions on who can hold analogue community radio licences. However, significantly increased consumer choice, wider availability of spectrum and protections provided by other parts of regulation mean that some of the restrictions on certain entities holding broadcasting licences are no longer required to prevent undue influence. It recommends that the Secretary of State should remove the discretionary prohibition for religious bodies, the prohibition on advertising agencies, and the prohibitions for publicly funded bodies.
Media plurality supports democracy by ensuring that people can receive a wide range of viewpoints from a variety of different sources and that no one media owner has too much influence over public opinion and the political agenda