Societies' and broadcasters' news responsibilities.
Requirements for the proper information of the public.
Should the news audience be low because entertainment
on other channels grabs a large share, or should the news audience
be higher where trivia and gossip rather than what, for want
of a better term, we would describe as "serious news",
current commercial considerations demand going for the mix that
produces the money rather than one that is, however imperfectly,
thought of in terms of "public interest."
It's the classic difference between that which
interests the public and that which it is in the interest of
the public to know.
Many regulators and broadcasters, both public
and commercial, have produced soundly thought through guidelines
in terms of balance and accuracy and lack of bias in informational
programming but the guidelines are of little value unless there
are motives to devote proper resources.
We thus conclude that in terms of most countries,
it should be reasonably straightforward to develop guidelines
in terms of content should it not have been done, and indeed
in terms of what should be provided but there is a primary problem
relating to the necessary finance to ensure that broadcasters
actually produce the programming as well as secondary problems
of enforcement of the guidelines.
Ensuring programming is produced.
To those who would cry "Market Forces"
in response to the above, our response is say that companies, like
individuals, have responsibilities to the societies that ensure
a framework for them to pursue their interests. Should a society
believe in the idea of democracy, it must necessarily also have
to believe in having an informed public.
We therefore see no problems at all in an insistence
that, just as an individual should pay taxes for services that a
democracy considers necessary, so a society has every right to insistence
that a company pay its dues should it wish to trade in that society.
Considering information to be essential to the functioning
of a democracy as we do, we therefore see no difference in requiring
that media companies make a just contribution in information terms
to requiring other duties, such as complying with safety regulations
for other companies.
In this case, we would favour setting a benchmark
in terms of percentage of revenues that a media company must spend
on such services. If it spends this much or more, we would consider
that this discharges all obligations. If, on the other hand, it
does not, we feel the best approach would be to provide a motive
for so doing and would suggest that the best approach would be governmental
charges of say one and a half times the shortfall. This could go
to a regulator or general tax revenues or industry fund or whatever,
its essential purpose, however, remaining not to raise funds but
ensure proper provision of informational content.
Regulating editorial content.
As regards the regulation of editorial
comment, we do not see this as an area where regulators should
interfere in general although we think it reasonable to have regulations
enforcing reasonable broad principles of overall fairness, accuracy
and balance; however we think operation of these should be left
to the broadcaster once they have been agreed and set down with
a regulator only stepping in when there is a clear pattern of
wilful breach of the rules.
Should there be subsequent breaches
of the agreement, we would normally favour a "name and shame"
policy similar to that of the Canadian Broadcasting Standards
Council, which requires offending broadcasters to publicize judgments
made against them.
We also feel that, if a society is
serious about democracy, it should reasonably be able to impose
sanctions in two other specific instances. One concerns a company's
reporting of events and issues that bear on its own financial
interests and the other is where pressures are put by an advertiser
on a company to toe a particular political line.
In the first case, we think guidelines
have to be set on similar principles to those that apply to financial
companies' dealings, with violations of these by a media company
attracting fines of similar levels.
In the latter, overt pressures by
the advertiser will be difficult, if not impossible, to prove.
This leaves us either to accept that such pressures cannot be
controlled or decide that in the rare cases where they are proven,
the sanctions applied be most severe. The pragmatic in us tends
towards the first option, the democratic one to allowing the public
to impose its own sanctions.
To do this, we would consider a severe
form of name and shame in the occasional cases where it can be
proven such as, for example, requiring a broadcaster to publicly
state before every programme for a period that it allowed its
output to be perverted and every media outlet used by the company
or companies that put on the pressure to also have to make for
a similar period a similar declaration with every advertisement
Any views? Please comment
on the above. For that matter, if you can put the time aside,
we'd like your "Guest comment" pages this year to stimulate
more feedback and dialogue.
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