October 2002
Societies' and broadcasters' news responsibilities.

Societies' and broadcasters' news responsibilities.

Stirred by the row that has arisen in the UK about comments made in a newspaper by the editor of BBC Radio 4's Today show and yet more attempts in the US to force changes on US National Public Radio's coverage of the Middle East, primarily by the pro-Israel lobby, it seemed reasonable to us to follow our September comment in the wake of the Sex in the Cathedral stunt with a look at broadcasters' responsibilities in the narrower, but to us far more important, are of news and informational programming.

We say far more important because to us, the sex stunt offended sensibilities whilst perverting news coverage perverts the very roots of democracy because it ensures that the public is not properly informed.

For a dictator there is no problem -broadcasters have to follow the party line and those who do not face severe consequences; for a democracy the matter raises far more complex issues. In the same way that a financial institution is supposed to set up "Chinese Walls" so that one part of its operations is not corrupted by another, so, we would argue, should a broadcaster be required to have similar checks and balances in place for its news and informational output.

In the US, the system would appear to have failed to a significant degree in both cases; the implications of the first have been to severely dent confidence in financial institutions whilst failure in the second threatens the proper functioning of democracy itself.

Requirements for the proper information of the public.

Perfection is not achievable but it should be possible to define some baselines that will ensure a reasonably strong and fair performance by broadcasters in meeting the aim of properly informing the public; unfortunately there are many factors militating against it.

Fist there is the audience itself, particularly in revenue-driven circumstances that mean news departments for many commercial broadcasters are now profit centres whereas at one time they were a quid-pro-quo for keeping a licence. Where this imperative has been removed, companies can cut back or even drop their own newsgathering operations with very little downside and an upside in terms of profits.

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.
Allied with the above is the return on investment factor in that, if the cost of informational programming needs to be higher to generate the same revenues as other programming, under current conditions it does not make sense for a company to devote resources to such programming.

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.

If a society wants to ensure that programming is produced, it has to ensure that the systems in operate make it essential for companies to provide it or alternatively make it more costly to choose not to.

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 would, however, depart from this where there are wilful and repeated breaches, for which we feel the ultimate sanction of removal of licences has to be available, not so much to use as to ensure that companies discipline themselves.

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 placed.

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.

Front Page About this site Freelance bulletin
Site audio files Radio Stations Other links Archives Index Comment Pages Your feedback Browsers
players, 38 Creswick Road, Acton, London W3 9HF, UK: