Impartiality – Ofcom retreats from a Fox News future

November 23, 2007

Remember these headlines?

TV news ‘a turn-off for young and ethnic minorities’: Ofcom says solution could be to axe impartiality rules: BBC fears lost generation as audiences dwindle – The Guardian

Ofcom may give all-clear for politically biased news – The Times

US-style TV news to pull in younger viewers – The Evening Standard

Yes. Even if you were the media village idiot, you might have thought that UK TV regulator Ofcom was going to rid of impartiality.

For a long time now, kites have been flown by Ofcom to the effect of loosening the ties of impartiality which bind television. Today those kites were shot to ribbons.

The centre piece of the day was a debate in favour of dumping impartiality where former Ofcom content partner Tim Suter – appeared (in what he said was a personal capacity) speaking in favour. The motion was comprehensively defeated.

One of those Ofcom kites had fluttered on page 10 of the New News, Future News report in July, where the Ofcom authors had put these words in bold type:

1.68 …it is possible that universal requirements for due impartiality may actually impede the expression of genuine diversity of views, and that a less rigid approach might – in future – encourage greater engagement among those not currently inspired by mainstream sources

That report generated the headlines above, and the first debate of the day (quite fallaciously, as Westminster’s Steve Barnett pointed out) tied disengagement to impartiality.

But it was a contribution from Channel 4 news and current affairs Dorothy Byrne that really underlined the dramatic consequences of abandoning impartiality. Byrne outlined the possibility of an Islamist channel peddling conspiracy theories and biased news with no obligation to redress the balance.

It’s a vision Ed Richards and Ofcom appear to have only just woken up to. I think their judgement on Undercover Mosque marked a sea change in the way they look at regulation. Certainly the appointment of an industry figure as serious as Stewart Purvis (disclaimer: my former boss, current colleague and one of the most respected figures in UK TV journalism) can only mean that they intend to step up to the plate in respect of the public service/public interest aspect of their role.

For Richards, the consultancy wonk, it means a retreat from the cosy reassurance of metrics measuring public service to looking at the political consequences of dismantling a broadcast regulatory framework that provides an important bastion against extremism.

Looked at through that lens impartiality suddenly appears less anodyne than its detractors claim, and looks – let’s say it – sensible.

So we had an extraordinary day where the regulator – having attempted to lead us all to an unregulated nirvana, having commissioned research that led inexorably towards abandoning impartiality – stepped back.

And all of us were party to a strange piece of theatre, transformed by the realization that one way to engage young people from minorities may be to produce television news that deliberately misrepresents the world around them and calls it journalism. And that engagement may come at a price no strategy consultant’s metric would be fit to measure.

Previous post:

Next post: