Payola in music it seems to us is almost a
side issue as far as its main purpose is concerned: The problem
is the side effect and the dishonesty.
That effect is that music that might otherwise get a fair
shake doesn't get a play and thus both musicians and public
are deprived of proper choice. That may effectively prevent
the emergence of major talent.
The main purpose - to sell music - can only be achieved either
if those who buy the recordings like what they've heard on
the radio or alternatively have such a herd instinct that
they purchase recordings they don't like.
In neither case is harm is done in the first case purchasers
are presumably happy with what they have bought and in the
latter happy with fitting in.
Looked at in this light the problem appears to us limited
in its practical dimensions but not in the moral sphere albeit
the corruption of the individuals concerned in many cases
is significantly less than that by lobbyists of many a US
The point here is, of course, not to defend the corruption
but put it in a context and what we think is needed is in
effect a widening of the "payola" concept - and
probably legislation - to cover other spheres.
Not that the idea will go far, of course: In terms of what
many lawmakers gain from lobbyists and special interests it
really would be a case of turkeys voting for Christmas: Nevertheless
the idea is worth considering in terms of wider media application
A wider media concept
Compare for example the likely pernicious
influence of the broadcast as news of a report that makes
it to air because of indirect payment or benefit: This could
be obviously corrupt as in paying a host who then gives favourable
and misleading reports but does not declare an interest -
shades of the Australian cash-for-comment scandal - or less
obviously so but nevertheless pernicious as in broadcast of
a report because its been provided free by a PR company but
is not identified as PR.
In all these cases open declaration of interest would allow
listeners or viewers to make up their own minds within a reasonable
context and we see no infringement of freedom of speech in
insisting that there should always be a declaration of interest
where there is payment in cash or kind.
That to us is the best way forward but it will only be effective
if the penalties are sufficiently draconian since there are
so many ways to seemingly comply with rules whilst in fact
In the current cases - and there are bound to be many more
to come - retrospective changes do not seem to us to be needed
but the Federal Communications Commission in
our view should have the courage to make it clear that licence
renewal for any station found to have been involved will not
be automatic when it is next due, thus putting the stations
on notice that they're going to have do quite a lot of work
in justifying retention and also under the gun with a clear
probability that if they don't immediately clean-up their
act they will be out of business.
We doubt that any would be and the evidence to date is that
amongst the two big players - Clear Channel and Viacom's
Infinity division - there have already been
changes and a tightening up as far as pay-for-play and accepting
gifts is concerned.
That evidence leads us to also think that when push came to
shove there might be kicking and screaming US broadcasters
would accept tighter rules in this area.
Our attitude is very much one not of restricting
what can be aired but of ensuring that people know what they
are getting or are going to get and can make up their own
minds but with as far as possible a full picture of any likely
bias as a result of payments.
We would therefore feel it quite reasonable that in all cases
where there have been payments to broadcasters, announcements
of a vested interest should be mandatory before an item is
broadcast and probably if there's a particular issue where
payment would be thought to affect judgement consideration
of a back-announcement as well.
We also think that the system adopted in Australia where details
have to be posted on web sites of a host's sponsorship deals
would be appropriate in the US. The issue is therefore not
one of censorship of free speech but of giving the audience
a means of determining where they might be bias.
The situation is a little more difficult when it comes to
news releases although even here it seems to us not unreasonable
that information should carry some form of attribution as
a matter of course. It might slow down a report but it again
gives the audience a proper perspective from which to make
The question then is what should be done in case of breaches.
Our view here is that there are enough organizations in the
US that could monitor for compliance and thus it should become
apparent where there is a question of a pattern of disregarding
In such cases we'd favour a graduated system of warnings with
some form of points system - if no notice is then taken we
would have no problem with forfeiture of licences where there
is deliberate flouting.
We'd also like to see a requirement, as exists in other countries,
for broadcasters to keep copies of their output for a defined
period - a couple of months should be sufficient when allied
with a requirement to provide copies to the FCC if there is
a request: At one time this would have been far more expensive
but with digital technology the resources required to provide
a useable monitoring record - which need not be of broadcast
quality (Streaming audio and video is certainly not up to
traditional broadcasting standards but is of sufficient quality
to allow a check of what is said or shown to be carried out
) - are now much reduced.