CEO of U.K. Media Regulator Calls TV Industry Diversity "Woeful," Talks Fox-Sky Deal Review

Ofcom CEO Sharon White - H 2017
Courtesy of Ofcom

Ofcom boss Sharon White tells the Royal Television Society's Cambridge convention that there was a "very, very careful, detailed process" in the deal review.

Sharon White, the CEO of U.K. media regulator Ofcom, on Thursday discussed the regulatory review of 21st Century Fox's bid for full control of pay TV giant Sky and the "shocking" lack of diversity at big TV networks operators in the country.

Appearing at the Royal Television Society's Cambridge convention, White was asked about U.K. Culture Secretary Karen Bradley's plan to request from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) a more in-depth review of the Sky deal's effects on competition, or media plurality, and broadcasting standards, even though Ofcom had said it felt the latter wasn't warranted. Quizzed about being overruled by Bradley, White said: "I don't see it quite like that," highlighting Bradley had the discretion to make a final decision.

She added that "we have given out advice" after a "very, very careful, detailed process" that was "very rigorous," with Ofcom taking "the utmost care." White argued the most important thing was that there was a "transparency" of the process.

Asked if the CMA, which doesn't have special media industry expertise, could in its upcoming in-depth review reach different conclusions about the Sky deal than Ofcom, White said she wasn't sure. She also said the CMA could call on Ofcom as an expert witness of sorts in its review, but added she didn't know any details of the extended review process.

What does she make of Fox's recent decision to shutter the Fox News feed in the U.K.? "It's a commercial decision for them," said White.

Asked about threats of a possible legal challenge to Ofcom's ruling that Sky would remain a "fit and proper" media owner after the Fox deal, she said she takes public decisions and accountability as signs that the "system is working." 

She also shared that her follow-up correspondence with Bradley about the deal in recent weeks affected her summer holiday and meant she had to conduct calls from France.

White also discussed a study that Ofcom unveiled early Thursday showing that women make up 51 percent of the general population in the U.K., but have only 39 percent of senior roles at the five major TV network operators, namely the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Sky and Channel 5 owner Viacom. Overall, 48 percent of their workforce are women.

The networks are also underperforming in terms of representing minorities, which account for 12 percent of their workforces, compared with 14 percent of the general population, and disabled people (3 percent of their workforce versus 18 percent of the U.K. population).

At the Cambridge convention, White said the study showed "shocking, woeful, choose your adjective" underrepresentation of women and minorities, especially in senior positions.

She said the BBC was just "in the middle of the pack" in terms of diversity instead of leading the way. BBC chairman David Clementi had said Wednesday night that the U.K. public broadcaster wants to lead the way in closing the gender pay gap, among other issues. "They are not there yet," White said about the state of gender parity at the BBC.

White described the report as a "wake-up call" for network groups, saying disclosure was key to raising awareness and allowing companies to address problems and shortfalls. "You can't fix what you don't understand," she said.

"Television is central to the U.K.'s cultural landscape, society and creative economy, and we believe that creativity in broadcasting thrives on diversity of thinking," White had said in a statement earlier in the day. "Today's report paints a worrying picture, with many broadcasters failing properly to monitor the make-up of their employees. We're announcing a range of measures to help close the gap between the people making programs and the many millions who watch them.”

White also discussed Ofcom's new responsibility for regulating the BBC and the challenge posed by the proliferation of fake news.

When White was asked whether Google and Facebook are media companies, she said: "I think they are," but added that regulation is not the best way to go in digital media. "Companies need to take more responsibility," she argued, citing the online giants, but also content companies and advertisers working with them.

Her letters with Bradley about the Sky deal review over the summer had been published earlier in the week. Referring to allegations of sexual and racial misconduct at Fox News, Ofcom had said in a letter to Bradley: "There were alleged behaviors amounting to significant corporate failures which were very concerning. However, taking account of the nature of the failings, which did not occur in a broadcasting standards context, and the evidence before us of senior management efforts to rectify the situation, which included dismissal of those directly responsible, our judgment was that when taken together with the positive evidence of broadcast standards compliance, there were not concerns, which may justify a reference on grounds of the broadcast standards public interest consideration."

But Ofcom also confirmed in another letter that Bradley could go against its advice, saying that it "recognizes that the legal threshold for referral is low [and] you may refer as secretary of state if there are any non-fanciful concerns."

Fox in December agreed to buy the remaining roughly 61 percent stake in Sky for 11.7 billion pounds, which was worth about $14.5 billion at the time.