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.

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