From the Leveson inquiry this week:
(Tony) Blair complains about the crossover of comment and news in newspapers.
He says that this “stops being journalism. It’s then an instrument of propaganda or political power”
What exemptions should there be for propaganda?
Two currently spring to mind:
- Freedom of the press. Allows legacy print media to use media space for “political advertorial” (i.e. political journalism).
- Government press offices. Allows government to engage in “marketing” of party political policies.
Let’s ignore the second for the time and look at the first: free political advertising.
In the UK “freedom of the press” in political broadcasting has long been regulated in respect of politics. There is a legal duty on private broadcasters of impartiality (for the BBC here) that applies to all broadcast journalism — Jon Snow, Jeremy Paxman, Adam Boulton, Martha Kearney etc.
These rules allow scope for some disagreement (see Craig Oliver vs Norman Smith (video)) and, as politicians interviewed on broadcast media will attest, robust encounters.
But the BBC’s political editor cannot campaign for Scottish independence, nor can the editor of Channel 4 News declare for the Labour Party. Politics is for covering, not for contributing to. The sloppy result, of course, is that broadcasters use the print media as a proxy for opinion.
The “print” media has never been subject to these strictures. It is not obliged to present two sides of an argument, or consider fairness in its coverage. It is free to opine as it wishes, to ignore counter arguments or to diminish or ridicule them. Even when it is in a virtual monopoly position (for example, the Evening Standard in London), it can use its media space to scream “Vote X” without fear of retribution.
It is not obliged to be impartial or fair.
Consider this strange case. In the 2010 UK general election, the third biggest spender on political advertising was a magazine. Not a very widely read magazine, mind. It was Searchlight, a worthy publication devoted to campaigning against racism and fascism, and its perceived proxies (in the UK, the British National Party).
Searchlight Information Services Ltd spent £319,231 campaigning against the BNP. Searchlight could have campaigned through their own magazine and its readership. But to reach the BNP’s potential electorate meant go beyond their own constituency, and that meant advertising.
Searchlight is not obliged to be fair to the BNP in the pages of its magazine. Would we want it to be obliged to be fair?
When I ran some critical reporting on the BNP on Five News in the early 2000s on TV, I succeeded in getting a stern letter from a regulator at Ofcom’s predecessor. But the reports were judged fair. No further action taken.
I would argue that fairness and impartiality are actually a step on the road to a better public life. Polemics and newspaper politicking have served us rather poorly.
Regulation would reduce Westminster political journalism to the level of say … John Cole, or Tom Bradby or Nick Robinson (#irony). Is their style of journalism really to be preferred to that of previous Fleet Street polemicists like Alistair Campbell?
I don’t think so. But I admit my views attract bemusement and ridicule from my legacy “print” friends and colleagues.
But it’s a strange sort of press that takes its liberties from fairness, and ignores facts in favour of its freedoms.