Tessa Jowell: We must protect plurality

'We need competition to make Britain's the most dynamic media market in the world'
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The Independent Online

Communications industries are in revolution, and we are sometimes told that this revolution will bring an end to the particularities of traditional media. People are already reading newspapers on the internet. Before long, they may be watching TV on their mobile phones. However, most people seem to want to continue to read their newspapers on paper, and watch their television on TV screens.

So we need to move with care when assessing the impact of converging technologies. The reforms we introduce must not be driven only by technological change. We have to legislate for the present as well as the future, and recognise that the majority of the population still relies on the traditional media sources. The policy we adopt on media ownership has to be able to protect the citizen, as well as allowing room for commercial expansion.

From the citizen's point of view, it is particularly important to preserve three aspects of the service we get from the media.

First, we need to make sure that there is a diversity of content available. To some extent, we can guarantee this diversity by means other than media ownership rules – content regulation, and the requirements we place on public service broadcasters, for example.

It is the second principle of a plurality of sources of content that ownership rules should shape. A plurality of media owners is important for a number of reasons. It contains the influence that those owners have over the political process. It ensures a plurality of news providers, maintaining the culture of dissent and debate that, in a democracy, allows us to shape our national identity, and limiting the control that any one proprietor or corporation has over the news agenda.

Third, plurality drives our cultural vitality. Different media organisations bring a variety of programming and publishing styles and formats to the media ecology, complementing the contributions of public-service broadcasters and ensuring that competition exists to raise standards.

Internationally, the model is one that combines competition rules with those concerned with diversity and plurality. That is why so many countries have imposed special rules on media ownership.

It is often suggested, however, that the British system, compared to those of other countries, goes too far to ensure plurality, that it is overbearing and restrictive. But the US, Australia, Germany, France, Italy, Greece, the Netherlands, Ireland, Austria, Belgium, all impose specific limits on cross-media ownership, and almost all of them have additional rules applying to single media. Such rules, more restrictive than ours, don't seem to have limited the ambitions of Vivendi or AOL Time Warner.

When you look across the developed world, different countries are using all sorts of different means to limit media ownership. The only real trend lies in the number of countries that are reviewing their legislation at present.

That is why Patricia Hewitt, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, and I will shortly publish a consultation document on media ownership.

We have two main aims. First, we need to uphold the interests of our citizens, for the sake of our democracy and our cultural vitality. Second, we want to encourage competition and make sure we have the confidence of industry, to make Britain home to the most dynamic and competitive communications and media market in the world.

We will try to be deregulatory where possible. We will give as much predictability and clarity for business as possible. Clarity and certainty, however, must also be matched by a degree of flexibility.

If we can find rules that uphold all these principles, we should have gone a good way towards a framework that can last 10 years in rapidly changing market conditions.

The balance is between economic growth and our nation's democratic health. We need both if we are to preserve the unique culture of dissent, debate and public service that is our media, the strength of which has been made so clear by recent events.

This is an extract from a speech given to the Society of Editors in Belfast yesterday by Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport