For purposes of comparison with the systems
of other countries we propose to ignore the downright repressive
regimes of the world and indeed those countries speaking a
language other than English since some of the subtleties of
decisions get lost in translation.
That leaves four prime examples - Australia, where the Australian
Communications and Media Authority judges editorial and programming
breaches in relation to industry codes; Canada where the first
stage for a complaint is the Canadian Broadcasting Standards
Council albeit the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications
Commission (CRTC) sometimes steps in when a complainant finds
CBSC rulings inadequate; Ireland where the Broadcasting Complaints
Commission of Ireland (BCCI) deals with all broadcasting complaints
and issues adjudications; and
the UK where media regulator Ofcom issues regular bulletins
relating to complaints against broadcasters and has the power
to impose fines albeit these are only applied in cases of
more serious breaches.
All of the watchdogs concerned are complaints-driven - they
do not censor reports prior to transmission - and unlike the
US they all require broadcasters to retain a recording of
their output and may call for the recording to review what
was actually transmitted and its context rather than relying
on a complainant's version counterbalanced by that of the
They all adjudicate on the basis of similar categories - of
editorial standards including bias and offensive content and
of fair treatment of individuals and organizations. It is
not possible to gauge the degree to which their existence
"chills", to use a US expression, the freedom of
speech exercised by broadcasters but our observation in general
is that we hear just a strong reports from broadcasters of
all the countries involved as the US apart from the nature
of the language used - the US is far more intemperate - and
restrictions affecting sexually graphic or biased reports
where Canada in particular has fairly regularly ruled against
US hosts whose syndicated broadcasts had been transmitted
by free-to-listen terrestrial broadcasters: In Canada, as
in the US and elsewhere subscription and Internet services
where a conscious decision has to be made to access a programme
are not subject to the same restrictions.
So what effect do these rulings have? They certainly leave
some hosts upset that their bigotry and ignorance have been
the subject of a ruling that their station has to air and
in the case of CHOI-FM in Canada the continuing breaches of
rules by host Jean-François (Jeff) Fillion and part-time
co-host André Arthur were cites as a reason for not
renewing the station's licence (See
RNW Jul 14, 2004).
It would seem logical, therefore, to deduce that the rules
have some effect but that in general it is not a fear of financial
penalties - the CHOI case was a one-off where the hosts and
station knowingly defied the regulator- that is the determining
factor for most of the time since the main sanction is a ruling
against the station that has to be broadcast by it.
Are these countries
less"free" for broadcasters?
The argument that the rules "chill"
freedom of speech is thus valid to a degree but in practical
effect we think it more a matter of licence than liberty and
we do not consider there to be a major regulatory impact compared
to the impact of other factors and the potential penalties
that the FCC can now levy for indecent or obscene transmissions
make it one of the most restrictive regimes in this regard.
So what of politics, for example, or slandering and misrepresenting
individuals? In the first case we would point to two examples
that seem to us to exemplify pressures that are far greater
than those of the regulator.
In the UK, the government pressure on the BBC concerning allegations
that it had misrepresented Iraq's possession of weapons of
mass destruction led to government setting up the Hutton inquiry
and the regulator was virtually irrelevant compared to the
power of the state.
In the US, the Dixie Chicks comments about President George
W. Bush did not lead to official sanction but the decision
by many stations to stop airing their recordings and the abuse
piled upon them would certainly have had a far more chilling
effect than any considered adjudication by a regulator that
in the case of four we have named would almost certainly have
ruled that there was no breach of regulations - Natalie Maines
after all did not misrepresent the President or abuse, but
said " "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president
of the United States is from Texas" - very mild remarks
compared to some of the abuse heaped on, for example President
Clinton or his wife, by various hosts.
Overall therefore it seems to us that there has been little
effect of the regulations on serious discussion of issues
although the nature of those discussions are more temperate
than in the US - if indeed the term "discussion"
as opposed to manipulated propaganda to the like-minded should
be applied to much US talk radio.
Despite all the outcry by conservative hosts
in the US - maybe fearful that their incomes could be hit
- we can find no strong evidence that the US in the times
of the Fairness Doctrine did indeed operate in an atmosphere
where the regulators seriously constrained freedom to express
opinions and we would argue that other factors - racism in
the south for example - did far more to chill speech than
the fear of a regulatory slap on the wrist.
It may also be, of course, that given the penchant for ludicrous
legal cases and acceptance by many in the US that of giving
way to extortion because it is cheaper than fighting a case
did in fact introduce a multiplier effect that chilled speech
but we would contend that this is not a matter of regulations
so much as of the nature of US society.
Nevertheless given that nature it would seem that to re-introduce
such rules is and should not be on the cards albeit we do
think the US could do with a rather better system of allowing
individuals in particular to gain corrections of misrepresentation
of their views.
Finally in the context of the above,
we felt it worthwhile to reproduce some comments made by others.
First then Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone in 2004
who in defending his decision to support Bush despite admiration
for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry: "A
Republican administration is better for media companies than
a Democratic one." Not much of the public interest
Next Steve Rendall from a 2005 article posted by FAIR
(Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) under the headline "The
Fairness Doctrine. How we lost it, and why we need it back
"(available from this link)
that concluded, "What has not changed since 1987 is that
over-the-air broadcasting remains the most powerful force
affecting public opinion, especially on local issues; as public
trustees, broadcasters ought to be insuring that they inform
the public, not inflame them. That's why we need a Fairness
Doctrine. It's not a universal solution. It's not a substitute
for reform or for diversity of ownership. It's simply a mechanism
to address the most extreme kinds of broadcast abuse.
And finally from the UK Guardian two excerpts from the 1921
essay by C.P.Scott, the editor of the then Manchester Guardian
to celebrate the paper's centenary and his 50th anniversary
as editor - an essay most famous for saying "'Comment
is free, but facts are sacred."
Technology and the other options now available have changed
but the thought behind the essay remains of value:
"A newspaper has two sides to it. It is a business, like
any other, and has to pay in the material sense in order to
live. But it is much more than a business; it is an institution;
it reflects and it influences the life of a whole community;
it may affect even wider destinies. It is, in its way, an
instrument of government. It plays on the minds and consciences
of men. It may educate, stimulate, assist, or it may do the
opposite. It has, therefore, a moral as well as a material
existence, and its character and influence are in the main
determined by the balance of these two forces. It may make
profit or power its first object, or it may conceive itself
as fulfilling a higher and more exacting function."
And later, "Character is a subtle affair, and has many
shades and sides to it. It is not a thing to be much talked
about, but rather to be felt. It is the slow deposit of past
actions and ideals. It is for each man his most precious possession,
and so it is for that latest growth of time, the newspaper.
Fundamentally it implies honesty, cleanness, courage, fairness,
a sense of duty to the reader and the community. A newspaper
is of necessity something of a monopoly, and its first duty
is to shun the temptations of monopoly. Its primary office
is the gathering of news. At the peril of its soul it must
see that the supply is not tainted. Neither in what it gives,
nor in what it does not give, nor in the mode of presentation
must the unclouded face of truth suffer wrong. Comment
is free, but facts are sacred. "Propaganda",
so called, by this means is hateful. The voice of opponents
no less than that of friends has a right to be heard. Comment
also is justly subject to a self-imposed restraint. It is
well to be frank; it is even better to be fair. This is an
ideal. Achievement in such matters is hardly given to man.
We can but try, ask pardon for shortcomings, and there leave
the matter." (RNW Note: The
whole essay is available online at this link from the Guardian).
We in the end would think C.P. Scott worth all the US hosts
bundled together in terms of character but do realise that
this is not something that can be imposed by law or regulation.