Just how can you measure concentration of media ownership?
Proving that someone controls an ‘undue amount’ of a particular segment of the media market is a headache even before you start looking at the cross-media issues
ON MONDAY, Bob Collins, chairman of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, and the eight other members of the authority, will sit down to assess the media holdings of businessman Denis O’Brien and the awkward question of whether they represent an undue concentration of ownership in the market.
Turn over the exam paper, read the question carefully and make sure to define your terms. This, according to a BAI spokesman, is likely to mark just the beginning of the authority’s discussions – after all, Monday’s meeting has not been specially convened to debate O’Brien’s coup at Independent News Media (INM). Rather, it is a scheduled monthly get-together where items such as approving or rejecting the latest applications to its Sound and Vision fund will also feature on the agenda.
The authority’s workload is not the only reason why its probing into O’Brien’s media interests is likely to be slow and not entirely sure-footed. Media market concentration, never mind undue amounts of it, is extraordinarily tricky to define, both philosophically and, well, legally.
Media expert Claire Enders, founder of consulting firm Enders Analysis, teased out some of the ambiguities to the Leveson Inquiry this week. She, like the British regulator Ofcom, favours a “share of consumption” metric that calculates the number of actual minutes of viewing, listening or reading that are allocated by members of the public to each media outlet.
But this is still, Enders conceded, “a very soft imperfect measure” that doesn’t take into account the fact that not all consumption is equal – if someone drifts in and out of a radio station that’s been left on in the background out of habit, the station’s output won’t have the same impact as a newspaper story avidly consumed word-for-word. People whose eyes are glued to every flicker of a television news bulletin may perform a mere quick scan of the newspaper headlines before settling down to the real business at hand: the crossword.
When it comes to newspaper readership, it is especially difficult to separate minutes spent on news and minutes devoted to entertainment, not least because these are not mutually exclusive terms.
The BAI’s ownership and control policy does offer some hard-and-fast numerical limits in relation to radio services. Updated in April, the policy reconfirms its ceiling on the total number of services one entity can own or control at 25 per cent, and adds a number of factors that it will take into account during licence applications if the number of services owned by a single entity exceeds 20 per cent.
Audience share – that is the absolute number of listeners, viewers, readers or subscribers – come into play in its proposed test on whether someone has “an undue amount” of media ownership or control. It’s a case-by-case basis situation. The BAI also “takes the view that there is no obvious practical matrix for determining what constitutes a ‘reasonable share’ of the sound broadcasting services in all cases”.