Does Ofcom Offer a Credible Solution to Bias in Media Public Interest Mergers in the United Kingdom?

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David Reader, Apr 14, 2014

In the wake of a high-profile public inquiry into media culture and an on-going court case regarding phone-hacking, the state of the U.K. media has rarely featured so prominently on the political agenda. One of the key debates to have emerged regards the ownership of the British media and, in particular, how ownership can be regulated in a way that facilitates diversity and media plurality.

On February 4, 2014, the Communications Committee of the House of Lords-the Second Chamber of the U.K. Parliament-published a report, Media plurality, in which it proposes a number of changes to the regulation of media ownership in the United Kingdom.Among the most notable of these is the proposal to grant decision-making powers to the national media regulator, Ofcom, in respect of mergers that raise potential media plurality concerns. At present, this power is conferred on a government minister-the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

However, owing to some recent controversies, the ability of politicians to undertake this role impartially has been called into question.The NewsCorp/BSkyB case, in particular, is a testament to the potential for politicians to be exposed to undue influence and bias in the media sector. Re-allocating the decision-making role to Ofcom could overcome this risk of capture, but it could equally amount to substituting one problem for another. This article therefore explores the current assessment relating to media mergers in the United Kingdom and proceeds to scrutinize the House of Lords’ proposals to amend this procedure.