How can local newspaper launches compete with big boys if OFT ignores monopoly tactics?

When I first bumped into Chris Bullivant and he told me of his concerns about Trinity Mirror’s alleged predatory pricing, I was in two minds about whether I should get involved.

After all, as a former editor of the Birmingham Mail – a paper I also worked on as a reporter, news editor and deputy editor – surely Bullivant and his mini media empire had been an anathema throughout my career.

It was Bullivant who first launched the free Daily News in the 1980s, a paper that took huge chunks out of the Mail’s readership, a physical premonition of today’s Metro network of free newspapers.

It was Bullivant who was constantly snapping at the heels of my then company – Trinity Mirror – with his weekly titles in Coventry, Solihull, Redditch and Bromsgrove, always seeking ways to invade the West Midlands marketplace.

And it was Bullivant’s Birmingham Press that collapsed in 2010, owing many former colleagues a total of £37,000 in unpaid freelance invoices.

But when I perused the full detail of Bullivant’s allegations, I didn’t feel comfortable about not being able to answer the awkward questions that emerged:

  • What levels of anti-competitiveness are legal in the local newspaper industry?
  • Exactly what is predatory pricing, and what levels of this are allowed?
  • And did Trinity Mirror’s strategy in its mini newspaper war against Bullivant’s Birmingham Press really amount to ‘exclusionary conduct’ under the Chapter II prohibitions of the Competition Act 1998?

By declining to investigate because of ‘administrative priorities’, I felt that the Office of Fair Trading – now the Competition and Markets Authority – had left all these questions unanswered.

And this inaction meant, I felt, that there was no longer any clear definition of what ‘anti-competitiveness’ was, and therefore a concerning indication that the government is starting to tolerate media monopolies.

For those reasons, I felt a light should be shone on what big publishers are allowed to do when little publishers try to compete.

Competition in all marketplaces should be welcomed, but monopolies should not be encouraged – and the government watchdog responsible needs to offer clarity about what is, and what isn’t, acceptable.

We all know that the big publishers don’t want too much interference from competition watchdogs, as they feel this could hamper what are already challenging times as they go through huge print-to-digital change programmes.

But the future of local media is not just about big publishers: any business sector surely needs entrepreneurs to be treated fairly.

And without proper regulation, so that everyone knows where they stand, how are any future newspaper launches by local entrepreneurs ever going to get off the ground? The industry needs distinct answers from the regulator.

Picture of Birmingham, credit: Shutterstock.

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