Random Thoughts on Convergence, Plurality, Media and Education

[A post from my “drafts” queue…] …aka scribbled notes, and a bit of a sleep-deprived brain dump…

[Context: this post is a set of fragmentary thoughts/clippings built up from concerns I still need to clearly articulate routed on my feeling (i.e. I need to properly “evidence” this…) that Pearson has significant control over a large part of the school education market in terms of assessment provision, curriculum interpretation/scheme of work development and material/textbook supply; and that it is aggressively pursuing a strategy to dominate parts of the education market at global scale. I also believe that we don’t fully understand how the web is shaping and will continue to shape the way citizens (age six and up!) are informed about, educated about, learn about and make sense of the world, or the extent to which we might reimagine the distinctions between news, education and policy research and development (eg From Academic Privilege to Consultations as Peer Review). If you want a more concrete scenario to contextualise this post further, imagine News International buying Pearson, or vice versa. When things like “editorial control” are mentioned, also bear in mind things like the use of third party platforms for the delivery of informal educational content and training material (what happens if Pearson buys Coursera? When will we see the first course to be taken down from a MOOC platform because the platform provider disagrees with it, especially if it is posted by an NGO, for example (eg Red Cross launches a MOOC).]

A recent-ish post (I’ve been away from my feeds for a bit…) on the LSE Media Policy Project blog – Committee on Convergence Kicks Off with Big Policy Questions – frames a new House of Lords Select Committee on Communications investigation in terms of what exactly is meant by convergence alongside expectations about media regulation:

[A]ny inquiry into the public policy impact of convergence has to develop a definition of what convergence is. For a long time we have been discussing convergence of networks, of companies and of end user devices. But any debate on public policy must concern itself primarily with convergence of people, behaviours and expectations: of which groups of consumers are doing what, with what, and crucially what they expect to be regulated.

Research repeatedly shows that a high proportion of consumers expect television services and screens to be regulated, but fewer have the same expectations regarding mobile or internet services. The process of media convergence in recent years has seen increasing numbers of consumers accessing newspaper and video content through their mobile phones and laptops, platforms where consumers don’t expect regulation. The next wave of converged services is likely to be driven by the rise in the number of connected TV sets, along with improved speed and reliability of broadband. This is somewhat different because it is the appearance of non-regulated services on a screen – the television – where people still have a high expectation of regulation.

Broadly, my view is that the issues remain the old ones: child protection, media plurality, content regulation and regulatory reform. But we do still need to pose the questions afresh, as the Australian Convergence Commission has done. That report [Convergence Review Final Report, where convergence is convergence “of media content and communications technologies”] acknowledges a diversification of different ways of accessing content, but notes that much content is coming from the same, or fewer sources. So we do need new thinking on how to ensure plurality, and crucially transparency of media ownership, and as David Levy also pointed out we need a fundamental rethink of the role of powerful gatekeepers in opinion formation. Also in need of a revisit is the balance between different regulatory models, such as the old debate about public funding versus market-led industry growth. Is the protection of a public sphere of regulated, responsible, ethical public media a 20th century hangover, or is it something that we want to replicate for the new converged environment?

My memory of what constituted “news” way-back-when-I-were-a-lad, was the sort of thing I vaguely remember being reported in newspapers and via TV and radio news broadcasts: political stories, business and weather events, catastrophes, and so on… My everyday notion of “news” today is that what is often described as news is not so discrimatiory (if, indeed, it ever was), that it typically relates to the sharing of “novelty” or current events, shared through news organisations, social sharing, and the almost direct regurgitation of corporate and lobbiest group press releases via “news” churning aggregator sites.

To the extent that convergence relates to the of receipt of the same message through different (traditionally divergent) channels, notions of media ownership (which is to say, media plurality) are one particular area of concern. So for example, the fact that The Sun and The Times share a corporate parent may cause concern for a variety of reasons: that a naive consumer may think they are differently owned, and thereby “truly independent” of each other, for example. (In this case, the positioning of the two products may be that they are positioned to appeal to either independent segments, or to a segment aligned with the News International parental world view).

In a similar sense,we might also be wary of convergence in popular conceptions of the marketplace: the fact that Currys and PCWorld are one and the same, for example, and not independent electrical retailers that compete on price to the benefit of the consumer, is something that Currys/PCWorld try to manage through adverts that show the brands as siblings, but on the High Street (or rather, in the out-of-town retail park) it can be harder to tell that they aren’t independent; or that Heinz Pickles and Ross Pickles are independently produced). (Note there are two different models at play here: DRG and News International both own brands that serve different segments of the same market, although there may be some overlap. In news terms, The Times and The Sun are marketed to different social classes; in the electrical retail space, Currys and Dixons segment along product lines, although with some overlap (TVs, computers, communications devices. In the food space, Greencore produce products in particular facilities but often under license, as do Hügli (any others to track down? eg Goldenacres pet foods;). The convergence here is not one of brand ownership, but convergence, or centralisation, of production; a bit like the use of contract newspaper printers by independently owned and branded titles. In the food space, concentration of production may cause concerns when you start to think about independence of ingredient supply, or cross-contamination across apparently different food product lines. See also: generic products vs. branded products (same product, different badge); own-brand products produced by premium brand producers [need refs of good examples; is there a directory of equivalences anywhere? So for example, known brand producers who also produce similar lines under license as supermarket own brands?]. )

OfCom’s June 2012 report on Measuring media plurality, summarising the goals, definition and scope of plurality as follows:

• Plurality matters because it makes an important contribution to a well-functioning democratic society through informed citizens and preventing too much influence over the political process.
• We have defined plurality as a) ensuring there is a diversity of viewpoints available and consumed across and within media enterprises and b) preventing any one media owner or voice having too much influence over public opinion and the political agenda.
• Plurality needs to be considered both within organisations (i.e. internal plurality) and between organisations (i.e. external plurality).
• In terms of scope, a review of plurality should be limited to news and current affairs but these genres should be considered across television, radio, the press and online.

Picking those points apart a little more:

… plurality contributes to a well-functioning democratic society – through the means of:
i) Informed citizens – able to access and consume a wide range of viewpoints across a variety of platforms and media owners.
ii) Preventing too much influence over the political process – exercised by any one media owner.

Based on the public policy goals highlighted above, and consistent with precedent, we have defined plurality with reference to desired outcomes of a plural market:
• Ensuring there is a diversity of viewpoints available and consumed across and within media enterprises.
• Preventing any one media owner or voice having too much influence over public opinion and the political agenda.

We note that a diversity of viewpoints can be formed within an organisation and between organisations. Both are relevant to the question of plurality; throughout this report, we refer to these as internal and external plurality respectively – which we defined in our PIT report as set out below.
• External plurality: the range and number of persons having control of media enterprises in the context of their ability to influence opinions and control the agenda.
• Internal plurality: how far the range of views expressed within media enterprises may ensure sufficient plurality, including the effects of the impartiality rules for broadcast news, the culture of newsrooms and audience expectations.

…we remain of the view that news and current affairs play the primary role in delivering the public policy goals set out earlier.
We believe news and current affairs are the most relevant forms of content for the delivery of the public policy goals.

We recommend that flexibility is required to consider at which points in the value chain editorial control is most likely to be exercised, and therefore how best to measure diversity and influence.

The existing plurality public interest consideration for media enterprises is only about “the need, in relation to every different audience in the United Kingdom or in a particular area or locality of the United Kingdom, for there to be a sufficient plurality of persons with control of the media enterprises serving that audience”. On its face, this appears to be only about the number of persons having control, and the argument was put to the Court of Appeal in litigation following the decision in the Sky/ITVmerger that number was all it means. However, the Court of Appeal agreed with the Competition Commission that “plurality” in this context carries an implication of range and variety as well. We think it right for this broader idea of “plurality” to be retained in any future framework.

We … recommend that consumption metrics (in particular share, reach and multi-sourcing) form the foundation of a plurality assessment:
• Share of consumption (using single-sector measurement systems, where this is possible, and bespoke cross-media ‘share of references’) is a good proxy for measuring influence in the news media market.
• Reach (particularly cross-media, using bespoke quantitative research) and multi-sourcing (using the same) are good proxies for diversity of
viewpoints consumed.

We recommend that proxies of impact (and particularly perceived ‘importance’) should play a part of a broader assessment of plurality, noting that they are imperfect because one can only measure people’s conscious articulation and not actual effects.

As access to the web matures, and individuals perhaps start to consume longer-form material not from news documentaries or feature articles, but “educational” content, will it really be the case that “news and current affairs [as mediated by the “news media”, will continue to] play the primary role in delivering the public policy goals [of shaping a well-functioning democratic society]”?

In a 2003 Lords Debate on the Communications Bill, the OU’s now Chancellor Lord Puttnam declared, “our key aim is to ensure that there is a range of competing voices available to citizens so that they are free to form their own opinions”. (How might he define the aim of “education” I wonder, especially when placed in the context of commercial entities delivering all parts of a person’s education?). Furthermore:

In a period of rapid economic, technological and ownership change, the one thing we cannot do is even begin to guess at who might or might not attempt to control this or that element of the media. What we can do, however, is refuse to contemplate any broadly unacceptable level of media concentration where each of the component parts is of significant size and reach in its own right.

What we need, therefore, is the ability to identify these concentrations as and when they occur, examine them in an analytical, fact-based way and ask whether they fit our definition of “unacceptable”. The drawback of relying on cross-media ownership rules is that they can all too easily be overtaken by changes in market circumstances, as Dr Howells acknowledged in response to a question from Andrew Lansley, the MP for South Cambridgeshire, during the Committee stage. We must also dispel the current fantasy that should unacceptable levels of ownership emerge, regulators can move swiftly to put the genie back in the bottle.

There are two ways of accomplishing what we propose, and we need both of them. One looks from the viewpoint of the consumer; the other from the viewpoint of the citizen. For the consumer, we have competition policy, and that is already built into the Bill. For the citizen, we have the public interest plurality test. Together, they represent a formidable duo, and they are both flexible and future-proof.

How does that read if we replace the media with formal education? How does that read if Coursera continues to grow, Pearson buys it, and then merges with News International?

If that scenario is too far off, consider one closer to home: the market-share that Pearson has over the delivery of educational content to schools and way it is assessed?

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

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