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Communications Act 2003

Section 375: Media public interest considerations

797.Under the EA 2002, the Secretary of State can only intervene in mergers which satisfy the jurisdictional criteria (i.e. where there is a “relevant merger situation” pursuant to section 23 EA 2002 or a “special merger situation” pursuant to section 59 EA 2002) if she believes that a public interest consideration specified in section 58 EA 2002 is relevant.

798.Currently, only national security is a specified consideration in section 58 EA 2002. This section inserts new sections 58(2A) to (2C) into the EA 2002, which provide for media public interest considerations to be specified in section 58 of that Act, thus giving the Secretary of State the power to intervene in a merger which satisfies the jurisdictional criteria where any of these media public interest considerations are relevant. It also inserts a new section 58A into the EA 2002 for the purposes of construing new section 58(2C).

799.New subsection (2A) specifies the need for accurate presentation of news and free expression of opinion in newspapers. This carries forward (albeit in a slightly different context) the specific reference to these two factors in the public interest test that is currently applied by the Competition Commission when considering newspaper transfers under the special newspaper merger regime of the FTA 1973 (see section 59(3) FTA 1973).

800.New subsection (2B) specifies the need for a sufficient plurality of views in newspapers. This is intended to enable a number of plurality issues going beyond free expression or accurate presentation of news to be taken into account, in particular the structural impact of a transaction on the overall range of views and distribution of voice within the market. The test of a sufficient plurality of views is intended to enable regard to be had not only to the need for a sufficient number of views to be expressed, but also to the need for variety in those views, and for there to be a variety of outlets and publications in which they can be expressed. There is a qualitative element to the plurality assessment that requires account to be taken of the context in which titles circulate and the nature of those titles – for example, one title in a particular area may be of greater significance for plurality purposes than another.

801.The newspaper plurality consideration in subsection (2B) is qualified by the reference to reasonableness and practicability of securing a sufficient plurality of views. This reflects the fact that although plurality in each and every market (which may be different to the economic market used for competition assessment) is the ideal goal of the regime, it may not be reasonable to seek to achieve this in relation to a particular part of the market – for example, because of the associated costs. Moreover, the level of plurality that may be considered reasonable in a large urban area may be different to that which is practicable in a small rural community. In making this assessment the Competition Commission will be able to take into account all relevant circumstances. It will be able to consider, for example, the size and location of the relevant area, and the extent to which other newspapers in the same area contribute to the level of plurality.

802.New subsection (2C) has three elements: (a) the need in relation to every different audience in the UK or in a particular area or locality of the UK, for there to be a sufficient plurality of persons with control of the media enterprises serving that audience; (b) the need for the availability throughout the UK of a wide range of broadcasting which (taken as a whole) is both of high quality and calculated to appeal to a wide variety of tastes and interests; and (c) the need for persons carrying on media enterprises, and for those with control of such enterprises, to have a genuine commitment to the attainment in relation to broadcasting of the standards objectives set out in the Communications Act 2003. The first limb of this subsection is concerned primarily with ensuring that ownership of media enterprises is not overly concentrated in the hands of a limited number of persons. The second and third limbs of the test look at the content of the media enterprises involved and the extent to which media owners demonstrate a genuine commitment to complying with the standards objectives – i.e. complying with the spirit and not just the letter of the objectives.

803.Section 375 also inserts a new section 58A into the EA 2002. New section 58A contains provisions relating to the operation of the public interest considerations set out in new section 58(2C). Section 58A(1) states that for the purposes of section 58, a media enterprise is one that consists in or involves broadcasting. Section 58A(2) provides that a newspaper enterprise may also be a media enterprise for the purposes of section 58 if it is involved in a merger with a broadcast media enterprise. This enables cross media mergers involving newspaper enterprises to be assessed against the public interest considerations specified in subsection (2C). Section 58A(3) clarifies that a newspaper enterprise is one consisting in or involving the supply of newspapers.

804.New section 58A(4) makes clear that where a merger situation (i.e. a relevant merger situation or a special merger situation) involves two media enterprises serving the same audience, then there is deemed to be a reduction in the number of such media enterprises for the purposes of the plurality assessment in subsection (2C)(a). This means that all such mergers, including those involving an increase in levels of control of such media enterprises, may be scrutinised for the purposes of subsection (2C)(a), even though the number of enterprises may in fact be unchanged.

805.New section 58A(5) ensures that the authorities can look at the substance of who controls media enterprises when carrying out a plurality assessment.

806.New section 58A(5)(a) provides that, for the purposes of section 58, where a number of media enterprises would fall to be treated as under common ownership or common control for the purposes of section 26 of the EA 2002, they are treated as being controlled by one person. This is because, in assessing the effect of a merger on the sufficiency of plurality of persons with control of media enterprises, the decision-making authorities need to assess the total number of persons with control of media enterprises and what effect the merger will have on the plurality of media as a whole. Apart from the merging media enterprises, in order to get an accurate picture of who has control of the remaining media enterprises, it is important to be able to look not just at the owners of those entities, but at the persons with ultimate control of those entities.

807.New section 58A(5)(b) provides that where a number of media enterprises are otherwise under the same ownership or control, they are treated as being controlled by one person. This is intended to cover any situation where the other media players may have never been “brought” under common ownership or control at any point in the section 26 EA 2002 sense.

808.New section 58A(6) gives the decision-making authorities discretion to determine what is meant by the “audience” of a media enterprise for the purposes of subsection (2C) and section 58A in whichever of the ways specified in subsection (6) they considers appropriate. This enables the decision-making authority to treat different audiences as separate or to group them, or any of them, together. This is modelled on the discretion given to the decision-making authorities in assessing whether the share of supply threshold under the standard merger regime is satisfied. Subsection (7) builds on this by making clear that the criteria for deciding the composition of an audience shall be such as the decision-making authority considers appropriate and may include potential members of that audience.

809.New section 58A(8) clarifies that audience includes readership. This will be relevant in the context of cross media mergers involving a newspaper enterprise.

810.New section 58A(9) extends the power in section 58(3) to modify the public interest considerations specified in section 58 so that modifications can also be made to the provisions of section 58A which construe section 58(2C). Any order made pursuant to section 58(3) to add, remove or amend a public interest consideration in that section is subject to the affirmative resolution procedure (see section 124 EA 2002).

811.Section 375(3) amends section 127(1) of the EA 2002 so that, when determining whether enterprises are under common control for the purposes of new section 58(2C), associated persons are treated as one person. This provision enables interests held by family members, business partners etc to be aggregated.

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