A reply to Alan Rusbridger on convergence, plurality and regulation

The Guardian’s editor-in-chief, Alan Rusbridger, has asked important questions about plurality and the news media in a recent longform blogppost. To make much sense of this post below you need to read Rusbridger first; this is an an attempt to reply to the issues he’s raised.

Rusbridger sees a media mixed economy now divided into three parts: the printed press (light, much-criticised self-regulation), public service broadcasting (heavily regulated) and social or new media (unregulated).

I agree that this three-way mixture manages to be, to a remarkable if accidental degree, all things to all people. A combination of regulated journalism with the wilder flights and fancies of both print and the web balances reliability with disclosure, provocation and an array of voices. It’s not anarchy, nor is it over-controlled and the range of possibilities is wide.

“Can regulation of itself help protect this delicate balance?” Rusbridger asks. This seems a very Japanese way of looking at it. A number of opposing forces fight themselves to a standstill; regulation then freezes the status quo. Never mind how we got here, we are where we are; let’s preserve what we have. Nothing dishonourable in that approach; it’s use has averted many a disaster. But might it not be better still to go back to first principles?

Here are some assumptions from which to start:

1.       This is about news and journalism, and not about media in general – or it should be. You can question whether news and journalism still exist as distinct and definable things, but I’d argue that they do. I’ve elsewhere whittled down four core tasks for journalism: verification, sense-making, eyewitness and investigation. Use a broadcaster’s term and call them “factual” if you prefer. Plurality matters in news; it matters more than in, say, the matter of how many people compete to make Strictly Come Dancing.

2.       Plurality is not the same as quality. The state or government can set rules or incentives for either or for both, but neither the intentions behind them nor the instruments to enforce them need be the same.

3.       I’m starting from a “liberal pluralist” viewpoint, which stresses the importance of keeping what is on offer to society as richly varied and plural as possible. Whether people listen to those voices and whether some voices survive and some fail, is less important than the range of possibilities. I’m contrasting this with what a wise man once called the “civic republican” outlook which not only stresses plurality but also high-quality outcomes and is prepared to maintain high-quality output in defiance of whether people like it or not. Minimum standards may well be good; trying to legislate a gold standard of quality isn’t.

4.       Plurality means competition. Competition can mean that organisations both win and lose.

5.       The  nature of the public space is undergoing radical change and there will be fresh waves to come. The change will be slower than the geeks predict; they always are. Personal digital communication in the form of mobiles, email and the internet does not render one-to-many “mass” communications irrelevant or unimportant but alters how they are seen and consumed. Information, once scarce, is now in glut.

6.       If we believe that “the subsidy model” is the only one that works for serious journalism – and it’s certainly in frequent use – then any form of regulation should logically encourage companies large enough to cope with cross-subsidising news. That involves writing rules which reward risk and innovation.

Even if I thought that it was desirable to regulate to preserve Rusbridger’s three-way mixture (I don’t), I doubt if it would be feasible. There are formidable problems in regulating anything that happens on the web.

But step back and think back. The distinction between regulated public service broadcasting and unregulated print and internet rests on the difference between the platform on which they are carried. Television regulation was founded on social control of a scarce asset: the right to use the TV spectrum to broadcast; the rules grew from the technology.

Now think forward a few years. Is someone who is now 15 going to see those different channels in 10 years time? You can already watch video on your iPad or smartphone. The printed page is morphing by degrees into the flexible, lightweight touchscreen that designers dream of. The audio-video-words torrent won’t be labelled according to which kind of capital-intensive organisation produces them.

But you will want to know where the words and pictures come from because you may be interested to know if you can rely on them. Because the shape and nature of the public sphere has been changed by new communication technologies, journalism’s position in that public space isn’t the same. The mainstream media once were the public space: now they’re just part of it. Journalism, in my view, still retains a vital public function, but I’m well aware that the case for defining and defending that has to be made all over again in a new context.

The altered sphere in which news circulates and the convergence of technologies suggest that governments might think differently about the constitutive choices they make and what regulation might flow from that. What principles might be useful?

  • Plurality means avoiding a dominant power to influence.
  • Since technologies converge, there is no point in measuring plurality in a market defined by a particular platform. Rules against “cross-ownership” have been overtaken by convergence.
  • The influence which it matters to measure is the capacity to produce original journalism.
  • It’s unlikely that a single measure of plurality will work. Opponents of the News Corp bid for Sky use financial turnover as their benchmark since that makes Sky bigger than the BBC. They rarely mention the measurement of “reach”, by which measure the BBC dwarfs Sky.
  • The judgement about how much influence is too much must lie in some combination of reach (how many people consume it), engagement (how deeply people consume it) and financial clout (how much would one player be able to push others around). But the means of measurement must aggregate all channels owned by the same company.
  • The idea that internet channels make no difference to plurality is absurd. Control of internet publishing might score very low on engagement (as opposed to volume), but it goes into the mix because it’s a part of the picture people see.
  • All of the above leaves the BBC, much-loved market dominator, as an exception perpetually being examined to see whether dominance being overdone or making life impossible for others. Quite right too.

If you assume a changed system on the lines above, it wouldn’t allow the News Corp bid for Sky. Whatever percentage of the total, all-channel market New Corp was calculated by the wonks to hold, it would be too much. (That does not necessarily mean that the bid will be stopped by present law. I’m not a competition lawyer, but the case for preventing the bid as the legislation stands now seems weak).

Such a system would also get the government and the regulators out of the business of local news, particularly broadcast news. Local news, in far greater danger than national news media, needs innovation, experiment and cross-subsidy. It needs refereeing to ensure that leading local market positions are not abused. It does not need grand plans and the government probably can’t afford much subsidy. Let us see what private energy and enterprise can come up with.

To sum up:

  • You can’t artificially protect news media whose business model doesn’t work.
  • Taxpayer-funded media, unlikely to be innovators or risk-takers, should not inhibit others in these areas.
  • Governments can protect and promote plurality.
  • The measurement of plurality needs an overhaul.

Update 22/11/10: Alan Rusbridger’s original post was a draft of some thoughts for a lecture. The lecture itself is here.

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1 comment

  1. I would like to see the print press divided further into two, the tabloids and a more public service possibly regulated broadsheet press – (if any broadsheets remain in the current drive to tabloidise them all). The public need some print output they can actually trust and depend on. It is interesting that the correlation between consumer dependency and trust of journalistic output, and regulation is so high. Perhaps print press should take note, in their own interest, that far from curtailing and limiting broadcast output, the broadcasters are thriving with their imposed commitment to honesty and responsibility…..