The Media Reform Coalition (MRC) marked the launch of its Media Democracy Festival this week (see: https://www.mediareform.org.uk/blog/media-democracy-festival-2021) by publishing a new report on media ownership in the UK. It makes depressing, although predictable, reading. The MRC produced its first report in 2015 when they argued (along with many others) that concentrated ownership of the media was a significant problem for any modern democracy. Four years later an updated report showed that not only did concentrated ownership persist but that the problem was getting worse. Since then the situation has deteriorated.

Their latest report, published in March 2021, (see: https://www.mediareform.org.uk/media-ownership/who-owns-the-uk-media ) shows that just three companies (News UK, Daily Mail Group and Reach) dominate 90% of the national newspaper market, up from 71% in 2015. When online readers are included, these same three companies dominate 80% of the market. In the area of local news, just six companies (Gannett, JPI Media, Reach, Tindle, Archant and Iliffe) account for nearly 84% of all titles. Two companies, Bauer and Global, now control nearly 70% of all local commercial analogue radio stations and 60% of national commercial digital stations.

It shows that the digital landscape is hardly less concentrated. Facebook controls three of the top five social media services used to access online news in the UK while traditional news organisations account for 48% of Facebook users’ news sources, expanding the online market reach of a few already-dominant publishing companies. New, digital-only news sites have emerged as a significant force since their last report but these are overshadowed by the continuing grip of legacy (pre internet) news and, especially, national newspaper titles.

According to the report, the BBC remains a powerful presence in online and broadcasting but its budget has been massively cut by the last two licence fee deals and its room for manoeuvre has been limited by commercial competition and political pressure to be mindful of its impact on the wider commercial market.

The MRC believes that concentration in news and information markets in particular has reached endemic levels in the UK and that we urgently need effective remedies. Concentrated ownership creates conditions in which wealthy individuals and organisations can amass vast political and economic power and distort the media landscape to suit their interests. Urgent action is needed in order both to address high levels of concentration in particular media markets and to protect against further concentration in others.

They hope that the report will provide data and arguments that will be useful to all those who want to campaign for a more pluralistic media in which a genuine diversity of views, voices and opinions are aired.

Meanwhile on 18 March the BBC announced more job cuts as part of 520 post closures across News that were announced last year and are part of a £800m savings package across the whole of the BBC. News has been set a savings target of £85m.  As part of its drive to move out of London a Climate and Science team will move to Cardiff, a Learning and Identity team will move to Leeds and World Service current affairs to Salford. There are also proposals to launch six new peak time local radio services in communities facing some of the biggest social and economic challenges. Director-general Tim Davie told staff that hundreds of their jobs will be relocated so the broadcaster can better connect with audiences and tell stories “from all corners of the UK”.

Redundancies over the past year at BBC News and teams across the UK mean the public service BBC is smaller by more than 900 people than this time last year. The BBC has been under heavy financial pressure from government, who determine the level of the licence fee, and are also paying the price for agreeing to fund the free licences for the over 75s – previously a government responsibility at an annual cost of £745 million. In 2015, the government announced the BBC would take over the cost from 2020 as part of the licence fee settlement. Under the new rules, only low-income households where one person receives the pension credit benefit are eligible for a free licence at an estimated cost to the BBC of around £250 million depending on the take-up. To pay for this, cuts in programming and other budgets had to be made.

Other sections of the media don’t seem to face such financial constraints. Take GB News. It will be the biggest news TV channel to launch in the UK since Sky News 30 years ago and promises US style news programming built around politically right of centre presenters. Headed up by Andrew Neil it has at least £60m to spend and is backed by the Dubai based Legatum Institute as well as Discovery, the US cable giant, and Sir Paul Marshall, one of the UK’s most prominent hedge fund managers and worth £630 million according to The Sunday Times 2020 Rich List.

Neil will present a nightly news programme on the channel containing “Wokewatch” and “Mediawatch” segments, and told Press Gazette (GB News briefing 18 March 2021) it “will not be shouty, angry television” and insisted it will conform to Ofcom (the regulator) rules on impartiality. Ofcom has a requirement that news channels show due impartiality when covering political issues (section 5 of the Ofcom code see: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/tv-radio-and-on-demand/broadcast-codes/broadcast-code/section-five-due-impartiality-accuracy). If Paul Dacre former editor of the Daily Mail becomes chair of Ofcom as hinted last year (but not yet confirmed) by Downing Street, GB News may believe that they will have little to fear from that quarter, although he does not have the power to rewrite the code. That’s not to say that the Tory government, so keen on deregulation and ‘reducing red tape’ may, in the not too distant future, seek to limit its regulatory powers!

The channel plans to air 6,500 hours a year of “original news, opinion and debate”. They also have a clear vision of what ground the new TV station will occupy, somewhere between US Fox News and the UK broadcasters. It expects to reach 96 per cent of the UK via Freeview, Sky and Virgin Media. All of this will be music to the ears of former government chief advisor Dominic Cummings who is on record as seeing the BBC as a ‘mortal enemy’ of the Tories.  He supported the creation of a ‘Fox News equivalent’ where in the US opinion hosts attempt to shape public opinion, often by dressing up opinion as news.

In case you want to know when it all kicks off, the channel’s launch date has not yet been confirmed, although sometime in this spring is anticipated.

Source for the report Who Owns the UK Media? Media Reform Coalition.