On #Leveson and regulation (from 2004)

November 27, 2012

Switch on to reg­u­la­tion

This art­icle first appeared in the Press Gaz­ette on 22 July 2004.

Politi­cians fre­quently bemoan the pois­on­ous rela­tion­ship between them­selves and mem­bers of the press. Peter Hain asked at a meet­ing earli­er this year what could be done to rebuild rela­tion­ships between journ­al­ists and the gov­ern­ment. There is an answer, and it’s one that will stick in the throat of every print journ­al­ist. It’s reg­u­la­tion.

What is really pois­on­ing polit­ic­al life? Surely it is the kind of ran­cid edit­or­i­al dished out daily by the likes of the Daily Mail on one side and the holier-than-thou hec­tor­ing of The Guard­i­an on the oth­er. Broad­cast journ­al­ists are used to get­ting a can­ing — espe­cially at the Beeb. Part of the BBC’s self-imposed, post-Hut­ton pen­ance is the estab­lish­ment of a sem­in­ary dis­pens­ing truth, justice and the cor­por­a­tion way to every journ­al­ist who takes the licence fee-fun­ded shil­ling. But broad­cast journ­al­ism remains the qual­ity bench­mark and stand­ard-set­ter for all journ­al­ism in the UK.

The cock­tail of edit­or­i­al opin­ion and news served up in our privately owned press is unknown in broad­cast­ing. Take the Mur­doch empire. The unreg­u­lated Tre­vor Kavanagh is an out-and-out ideo­logue, albeit a bril­liant one. Adam Boulton on the reg­u­lated Sky News is an insight­ful and author­it­at­ive ana­lyst.

The reas­on for the dif­fer­ence is, I would argue, reg­u­la­tion. Reg­u­la­tion that insists on accur­acy, fair­ness and, cru­cially, impar­ti­al­ity.

The new pro­gramme code pro­posed by Ofcom devotes a whole sec­tion to impar­ti­al­ity and the code in its entirety is 35 pages. The Edit­ors’ code of prac­tice, that under­pins the work of the Press Com­plaints Com­mis­sion, is not much longer than this art­icle.

Impar­ti­al­ity doesn’t mer­it a men­tion and the PCC admin­is­ters the kind of knock-kneed dis­cip­line that tabloid lead­er-writers routinely blame for the decline of the fam­ily and the col­lapse in mor­al stand­ards.
So does reg­u­la­tion pro­duce cringe­ing journ­al­ism? Take Boulton again. He’s hardly neutered by the oblig­a­tions of fair­ness and impar­ti­al­ity. And Ofcom’s pro­posed rules for the inde­pend­ent sec­tor are light indeed when you con­sider the BBC’s policy. Its rules on impar­ti­al­ity and accur­acy only begin at page 35 of its pro­du­cer guidelines, and you have to get to page 51 before you move on to the chapter on fair­ness and straight deal­ing.

And yet Marr, Mar­dell, Trev­ely­an et al emerge from this reg­u­lat­ory yoke to pro­duce enga­ging reports.
I hate rules — some­thing about the journ­al­ist­ic psyche makes me believe they don’t apply to me. But all my work­ing life I’ve laboured under the pre­cepts of impar­ti­al­ity and fair­ness and they’ve nev­er, yes nev­er, got in the way of my journ­al­ism or that of my col­leagues. What reg­u­lat­ing does is set out the play­ing field. And that has set the tone for polit­ic­al report­ing in Brit­ish broad­cast­ing for more than half a cen­tury. That tone, even in its most pop­u­list incarn­a­tion on ITV News, nev­er stoops to pat­ron­ise or rant. Instead it offers ser­i­ous engage­ment with ser­i­ous pub­lic issues, because we — the broad­casters — are obliged to be fair.

Fair does not mean ano­dyne. Impar­ti­al­ity does not mean a 15-second sound­bite for every shade of polit­ic­al opin­ion. Nor does the tide of com­plaint, bile and whinge­ing from polit­ic­al parties and their press people
mean that broad­casters’ inter­pret­a­tions of impar­ti­al­ity are cheer­fully accep­ted. But it does mean we have a broad­cast­ing cul­ture where fair­ness is the assumed start­ing point for journ­al­ism and a genu­inely inde­pend­ent watch­dog to guard it.

The threat now is from so-called “light-touch” reg­u­la­tion. You hear it from the people at Ofcom in its multi-mil­lion pound palace of dead broad­cast tech­no­logy.

The people at Fox News know all about this. They’ve been cen­sured for breach­ing the part of the code that asks for “respect for the truth”.

Fox News presenter John Gib­son was ticked off by Ofcom for a diatribe against the BBC that made, in the words of the judge­ment, “false state­ments” for which Mr Gib­son was “unable to provide any sub­stan­tial evid­ence”. Such is the light­ness of touch, that the judge­ment is the pun­ish­ment.

No on-air apo­logy, no sus­pen­sion of licence, just a rep­rim­and. Gib­son respon­ded by mock­ing the Ofcom “bur­eau­crats” and our reg­u­lat­ory sys­tem whilst throw­ing in a few more digs at the Beeb. Ofcom’s pro­pos­al of labelling Fox News “Made in the USA” will hardly set Roger Ailes and his cohorts aquiver.

The fash­ion­able argu­ment is diversity — that people can choose their opin­ions to match their ring­tones. Tina Brown writ­ing about Fox News — again — laments that its “bril­liant bel­li­ger­ence and for­mid­able TV skills are not matched enough with reportori­al testoster­one and cre­ativ­ity else­where”. Try Al Jaz­eera, Tina.

News is import­ant not because it’s a con­sumer product but because it informs cit­izens. As the BBC is remind­ing every­one in its cam­paign for charter renew­al, there is an ideal of pub­lic ser­vice and as broad­cast journ­al­ists, thank good­ness, we’re actu­ally meant to act like there is.

If reg­u­la­tion is to con­tin­ue to prop up the pub­lic ser­vice val­ues that dis­tin­guish Brit­ish broad­cast journ­al­ism it might be that tough­er, and smarter, ways of inter­ven­ing need to be devised.

Per­haps Ofcom needs to “encour­ager les autres”. When Kur­d­ish TV sta­tion Med-TV breached the pro­gramme code in the 1990s the ITC issued form­al warn­ings, a £90,000 fine, and finally stripped it of its licence to broad­cast. Maybe now Ofcom is regret­ting let­ting Fox News off the hook for its shock-jock war cov­er­age.

When Ofcom’s pre­de­cessors com­mis­sioned the most recent study of broad­cast news that prob­ably lurks behind some of the recent pro­pos­als, they went straight to a man who’d spent almost his entire career in, you prob­ably guessed, print journ­al­ism. Former Fin­an­cial Times man Ian Har­greaves found that the pub­lic over­whelm­ingly sup­por­ted reg­u­la­tion on impar­ti­al­ity and accur­acy and wanted it exten­ded.

And what did he recom­mend? That reg­u­lat­ors should “loosen up” impar­ti­al­ity rules on some broad­casters. So at a time when polit­ic­al journ­al­ism in print has become a kind of organ­ized lob­by­ing, and where tele­vi­sion retains its cred­ib­il­ity pre­cisely because it is reg­u­lated, we’re see­ing not an exten­sion of the rules that pre­serve that cred­ib­il­ity to news­pa­pers but instead a weak­en­ing of the pil­lars that sup­port the nation’s most trus­ted media.

The gov­ern­ment knows it needs to do some­thing about the way t com­mu­nic­ates. The Phyl­lis report was an acknow­ledge­ment of that. But will it pos­sibly make the leap of ima­gin­a­tion required to recog­nise that to restore the prob­ity of polit­ic­al journ­al­ism it is neces­sary to rein­force the bound­ar­ies for it? No one is
hold­ing a breath.

The irony is that many politi­cians are not in favour of reg­u­la­tion. They prefer accom­mod­a­tion — with pro­pri­et­ors, with interest groups, with favoured indi­vidu­als who can be trus­ted mouth­pieces. And broad­cast journ­al­ism is good at call­ing to account, bad at accom­mod­a­tion.

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