Media regulation – battle lines drawn?

9 February 2007 – The newspaper industry has vastly extended the remit of the Press Complaints Commission to include ALL content published (or should that be broadcast?) by online versions of newspapers and magazines. In effect it has pre-empted any recommendations that might emerge from the recently announced inquiry by the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee into press self-regulation.

Sparked off by the controversy over the illegal gathering of personal information by journalists revealed at the trial of News of the World Royal editor Clive Goodman and in two reports from the Information Commissioner, the inquiry is seeking views about what form of regulation, if any, should apply to online news provision.

This deft move by the industry should come as no surprise. The PCC was set up in 1991 to forestall statutory regulation at the time of the Calcutt inquiry into press invasions of privacy. In 1996, on the morning the PCC and its industry paymaster PressBof were to face a Select Committee inquiry into payments to witnesses, they announced a tightening of the editors’ Code to silence critics. Indeed, although it was not much commented upon at the time, the PCC agreed to police online versions of print publications when its former Chair Lord Wakeham announced reforms in the wake of the furore about press behaviour at the time of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

There are some who believe that the time has come to make a reluctant Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator, take responsibility for podcasts and streamed video. Others believe that regulation should be abandoned altogether. In a recent report commissioned by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, Robin Forster envisages ‘a reduction in regulation and its associated costs – for example with greater reliance on self-regulation, and the exercise of individual consumer responsibility to address concerns about undesirable content’.

No doubt that would please those publishers who straddle both print and broadcasting. Online versions of Rupert Murdoch’s papers are further down the road than many. The online News of the World incorporates video into its news stories; the online Sun’s video section re-broadcasts bulletins from Reuters; The Times website has a section called ‘Times online TV’. Elsewhere the Telegraph online re-broadcasts news clips from ITN among others; the Daily Mail runs it own online showbiz news mini-programmes alongside trailers for the latest movies; and visitors to the Daily Mirror site can access its Showbiz and Sports video newscasts.

The link up between Virgin, NTL and Telewest with their all-in-one telecommunications, broadband and entertainments packages is just the latest evidence that cross-media ownership and technological convergence require a complete rethink of media regulation.

Stuck in the middle of this mess are journalists, expected to be multi-skilled and produce copy for all forms of outlet owned by their employers and being outflanked by so-called citizen journalists; whose ‘blogs’, mobile phone pictures and film clips have become a significant element in news gathering process. To which regulatory framework are they supposed to operate – Ofcom or the PCC?

Broadcasters retain public confidence because they are obliged to function under extensive but reasonable regulations. Print publishers believe that ‘press freedom’ requires them to be exempt from all but the limitations they are prepared to place on themselves. In our view press freedom is a responsibility exercised by journalists on behalf of the public, and the public has grown increasing sceptical how much trust they can place in newspapers.

Meanwhile the PCC, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express have just received a roasting from the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights for their attitudes towards the coverage of refugees and asylum-seekers; the Home Office, dissatisfied with the PCC’s rules about payments to criminals, is considering the retrograde step of making it a criminal offence which could apply to book publishers and film-makers too; and the Information Commissioner wants tougher measures to prevent the media from obtaining personal information by illicit means.

All of which argues for a full-scale, coherent and open-minded public inquiry into the role and function of the mass media and its regulation, rather than piecemeal and incoherent reform. PressBof, the PCC, Ofcom, the Information Commissioner, editors’ and journalists’ organisations, parliament and civil society groups should be sharing the responsibility of devising ways in which media freedom, privacy rights and the public’s right to know can be enhanced by common and enforceable standards of behaviour rather than trammelled by unnecessary legislation.

Mike Jempson
Director, MediaWise Trust

(Bulletin No 131)

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