Review of Lunt & Livingstone’s Media Regulation

Media Regulation book cover

Here’s my review of Peter Lunt & Sonia Livingstone’s Media Regulation: Governance and the Interests of Citizens and Consumers (2012). It was published in Media, Culture & Society (35.2) in 2013.

 

“The final, definitive version of this paper was published in Media, Culture & Society (35.2) in 2013 by SAGE Publications Ltd (http://online.sagepub.com), All rights reserved. © [Simon Dawes]”

For those who have access and would like to read this ‘Version of Scholarly Record’, go here: http://mcs.sagepub.com/content/35/2/278

For everyone else, here you go…(this is the version that was accepted, prior to proofing)

 

 

Book Review: Peter Lunt & Sonia Livingstone, Media Regulation: Governance and the Interests of Citizens and Consumers. London: Sage, 2012

 

Media Regulation: Governance and the Interests of Citizens and Consumers charts the history of UK media and communications regulator Ofcom (the Office of Communications) under the New Labour governments (1997-2010), from the policy documents and debates leading up to the passing of the Communications Act 2003 that established Ofcom, to the transition in 2010 to the Conservative-led coalition government which has threatened to reform it. Covering a ‘key decade in the history of the digital age’ (x), Lunt and Livingstone present Ofcom as a new breed of regulator for new times – the embodiment of a social democratic response to changes in the ‘relations of power and legitimacy in representative liberal democracies’ (20) brought about by economic convergence and globalisation, on the one hand, and technological convergence and digitalisation, on the other. The distinctive focus of their book is to assess the extent to which Ofcom performs the function of an institution in the public sphere, principally in terms of its role in relation to the public interest, and the rather peculiar way in which the public interest has been framed (and reframed) over time by government and regulator in terms of the interests of citizens and consumers.

 

The book’s significance is in the findings of the four case studies, chosen for the ways in which they reveal how Ofcom’s purposes and structures work in practice, particularly in terms of their effect on public deliberation in ‘areas of regulation that matter to both citizens and consumers’ (xi). Some of their findings demonstrate the ways in which Ofcom’s aims and outcomes, already inconsistent from one policy area to another, evolve over time in not always coherent and often contradictory ways. While their study of Ofcom’s efforts to promote media literacy, for example, shows how what began as a technocratic rationale to deregulate grew over time into a policy to strengthen the democratic infrastructure of society (140), their analysis of Ofcom’s approach to community radio reveals how, even in such a citizen-focused area of regulation, the outcomes can still be shaped and constrained by consumer interest and market logic (192). Other studies are more significant for what they reveal about the role of the regulator. Contrary to Conservative criticisms of Ofcom’s unaccountable independence, the study of the regulation of advertising to children, for instance, demonstrates both how an evidence-based regulator can be forced to rethink its objectives when the evidence challenges its expectations, and how the state continues to intervene when the regulator is heading in a direction that contravenes its interests (191). The most significant of the case studies, however, evaluates Ofcom’s reviews of public service broadcasting (PSB), in which are demonstrated both the changing balance of citizen and consumer interests, and the changing role of the regulator. The comparative analyses of the two reviews reveals a shift in the importance given to PSB’s ‘public value’, and a more even balance between the interests of citizens and consumers (where the interests of the latter had been more prominent in the first review), as well as a shift in Ofcom’s role, from that of a confident and independent regulator pushing forward its own radical agenda, to that of a mere evidence-gatherer, acting ‘neutrally’ on behalf of government (113).

 

Ultimately, in applying Habermasian criteria to their evaluation of Ofcom as an institution in the public sphere – assessing it in terms of its success at articulating the public interest, balancing conflicting requirements, combining effectiveness with legitimation, and acting reflexively (10) – the authors conclude that the regulator has not been entirely successful. Their criticism focuses, in particular, on the unconvincing influence of consultation exercises upon the decision-making process, as well as the tendency to weigh consumer interests over those of citizens, and to weigh business interests over both (189). That being said, they nevertheless praise Ofcom as a ‘neutral, independent, principled regulator’, and stress that the balance struck between citizen and consumer interests is never disastrous, even if sometimes unsatisfactory (192).

 

But although the authors demonstrate the interplay between discursive debates and practical activities, and the complex ways in which these develop over time, they seem to stop short of explicating the significance of the tensions they identify, or of extrapolating the wider consequences for governance and regulation. Despite identifying the cause of tensions in the very setup of Ofcom as a hybrid between an economic regulator and a proactive consultative body with its own ‘philosophy’, the authors’ conclusion that it represents an ‘uneasy compromise’ between free market and state intervention approaches (35) says nothing about the tensions within New Labour’s third way politics itself. Further, there is an inconsistency throughout the book in the way that Lunt and Livingstone distinguish between the social value and economic perspectives of Ofcom, leading to a conceptual confusion that undermines attempts to make broader claims. Although they make a fairly standard distinction (37) between civic republicanism (which they suggest underpins expectations regarding the citizen interest) and liberalism (which they link to the consumer interest), civic republicanism is sometimes presented as a synonym for social democracy (19; 192), and sometimes as a particular form of social democracy (37), despite the fact that social democracy incorporates the liberal view that markets must be deregulated (20). Likewise, Ofcom is held to be the embodiment of social democracy because it balances the free market with state intervention (20), whilst also displaying a liberal-pluralist tendency because it generally favours the former over the latter (39-40). But doesn’t this suggest a tension and liberal bias within social democracy itself? And couldn’t this confusion of public and private interests potentially threaten the public sphere, even as Ofcom tries to engage public deliberation? A clearer delineation of civic republican, social democratic and third way perspectives could have facilitated a more nuanced grasp of the significance of the tensions identified, and prevented the authors from innocently repeating Ofcom’s own strategic conflation of incommensurable approaches.

 

There is, furthermore, little elaboration on the types of citizen and consumer envisaged by the regulator or government, beyond comparisons of liberal and republican archetypes; nor is there any engagement with the literature on either citizenship or consumerism, or much of a sense of the complexity of either concept. The engagement with public sphere theory is as light as the appropriation of Habermasian normative criteria is heavy, while an elaboration on the concept and role of discourse is completely absent, which is a pity considering the ‘discursive power’ of such terminologically charged debates (191).

 

All these omissions (which are perhaps better addressed elsewhere) help focus the book on the study of Ofcom, of course, which serves nevertheless as a valuable and timely snapshot of an important aspect of a key moment in media regulation, which will be an important resource for scholars of media policy and audiences, if not for theorists of discourse, citizenship, consumption or the public sphere. It is valuable for its analysis of discursive and non-discursive elements; that is, practice and outcomes as well as the purposes and structures of Ofcom. And it is timely because it highlights the (albeit limited) accountability, transparency and legitimacy of independent regulation at a time when government is threatening to reign in the independence and public sphere aspirations of quangos such as Ofcom, precisely because of their alleged unaccountability, lack of transparency and illegitimacy. Whether or not the public sphere will be affected by the proposed weakening of Ofcom’s public-facing (but consumer-oriented) duties, however, remains to be seen.

 

 

 

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