The shareholder and the licence fee payer

The owner of the Western Mail, Wales’s sole national newspaper, is struggling. Yesterday Trinity Mirror’s shares fell to around 105.75p at 4pm, down from the closing price of around 151.50p last Friday. The fall followed yesterday morning’s announcement that Trinity Mirror’s full-year operating profit would be about 10 per cent below expectations. The reasons for […]

The owner of the Western Mail, Wales’s sole national newspaper, is struggling. Yesterday Trinity Mirror’s shares fell to around 105.75p at 4pm, down from the closing price of around 151.50p last Friday. The fall followed yesterday morning’s announcement that Trinity Mirror’s full-year operating profit would be about 10 per cent below expectations.

The reasons for Trinity Mirror’s troubles are numerous. As the IWA’s recent report, Media in Wales – Serving Public Values, showed circulations have fallen dramatically, even since the inception of the National Assembly in 1999. Its circulations continue to slide. Advertising is a regional newspaper’s lifeblood and in the case of Media Wales (Trinity Mirror’s company in south Wales) it has been bleeding away thanks in part to the consumer slowdown affecting both classified and display advertising and to wider challenges, including technological developments. Central to its plight, however, is shareholder pressure – the pressure to grow profit every year. In television ITV plc is scaling back its regional output across the UK thanks again to the pressure of the shareholding model. Its shares have also taken a battering in recent years, falling from 115.0p a year ago to around 47.5p last Friday. As the financial screw tightens for ITV the decline of regional programming is accelerated.

The lesson to draw from the (mis)fortunes of Trinity Mirror and ITV plc is that the conventional shareholder model just does not seem appropriate for media organisations that have such an important public service role. Choice is important for the citizen: it can promote healthy competition and media plurality; and, most importantly, gives the citizen democratic power. Whatever system we have in place must allow the citizen democratic power to choose.

Yet, in recent years many in and around the media industry have have tended to focus – perhaps too much – on plurality of media ownership rather than plurality of output. At the moment only the BBC seems immune to shareholder cost pressures. The BBC stands as the exception, with its funding by the licence fee. In Wales the BBC is the only national radio service and, if ITV plc’s decline continues, could be the only player in television media as well. This surely cannot be healthy for Welsh democracy.