The Government ought to take a look outdoors

Outdoor is conspicuously absent from recent Government pronouncements on media. It may not carry editorial content, but it is important.

In the well-documented reactions to the recently released Government paper “Consultation on Media Ownership Rules”, there has been much complaint that the needs and concerns of advertisers have not been fully considered, if they have been considered at all. But spare a thought for one very significant medium that does not even rate a mention in Government thinking. I refer, of course, to the outdoor media industry – although cinema is also excluded.

It may be tempting to explain away this omission with the excuse that outdoor and cinema are pure advertising media, with no editorial content as such (cynics may argue that the Government is only interested in this aspect of media output). This explanation is suspect, however, given that one of the twin pillars upon which policy rests (plurality) is media ownership. And outdoor media ownership has already been consolidating, with much overseas investment. The majority of this medium is now owned either by American (Viacom and Clear Channel) or French (JC Decaux) companies.

Some of these companies are already involved in multi-media ownership, and the likely effect of the new rules is that the mainstream out-door industry will end up totally under foreign ownership, following further consolidation. Clear Channel’s recently announced acquisition of two regional poster companies (Score Outdoor and CB Advertising) suggests this process is underway, leaving just Maiden Outdoor flying the UK flag. But the proposed new rules will, if anything, enhance Maiden’s desirability, not just to existing outdoor companies, but perhaps to radio or TV owners, or even publishers.

If the Communications Bill does, as it claims, intend to preserve “choice between different providers” (plurality), surely a multi-media owner’s ability to include outdoor, or cinema, in its portfolio should be taken into account. For, although these two forms of communication do not carry editorial content, they nonetheless have the capacity to influence opinion by delivering messages or views to the public. And should, for instance, Rupert Murdoch or Associated Newspapers acquire significant ownership of outdoor to add to their other interests, it will give them another opportunity to broadcast their particular doctrines. After all, the front page of The Sun or the Daily Mail reprinted on posters throughout the country could generate by extension even further “editorial” influence on the public. Politicians surely cannot doubt the effectiveness of outdoor in achieving this, given their extensive use of the medium every time there is an election.

So, if the Government’s intention is to preserve a wide choice of providers and, by extension, opinion formers, it should not exclude a medium as persuasive as outdoor.

Alan Simmons is chairman of Concord and the Alban Group

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