Convergence, impartiality, bias

Robert Beveridge raises serious concerns about the impartiality of broadcast news if content is produced by newspapers – and for the ability of news providers to upset the government of the day

As you read this, we will be in the post 2010 UK General Election period and much that was not known to us will be known. It may be that there is a hung or balanced Parliament, a minority or coalition government or even a government with a small majority. Whatever has happened, media policy will not be at the top of the agenda which is both a pity and a blessing.

A pity because the challenges being faced by the media and creative industries and the policy frameworks and solutions (if any) or more likely settlements have the potential to have a considerable influence on our democracy, economy, society and culture(s). A blessing because the record of many politicians from a number of parties during the 1997-2010 Labour governments and in the run up to the election was little short of disgraceful. The BBC and its future became a political football and while no one would deny the right of parliaments (plural) to discuss and legislate for the media ecology, the BBC is a special case given its importance, its history and place in the broadcasting firmament and position in the unwritten constitution of the UK. Consider , for example the stupidity of the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Bradshaw (hopefully he has lost his Exeter seat or at the very least his office) when he stated on the record that

“I’d far rather have BBC management that was proud, robust, going out there fighting the Murdochs, fighting the Tory party, fighting
the enemies of the BBC” ( April 29th 2010 )

Is this what the Labour party and its cabinet ministers came to? Is it possible to conceive of a DCMS Secretary of State who can be so ignorant and limited in an understanding of the principles of independence and political impartiality of the BBC that he thinks it is the role of the BBC to fight the Tory Party? Add to this his ill-thought-out proposal to have independently-funded news consortia (IFNC) pilots to be funded by top slicing the BBC licence fee thus further risking and compromising the independence of the Corporation and indeed public service broadcasting as a whole by giving politicians the possibility of more direct financial control over the funding of news provision.

Readers of SLR will be aware that the Digital Economy Bill was pushed through just before the election but without a number of clauses, one of which was to enable three pilot consortia to be established although Bradshaw continued to claim that he needed no specific statutory powers to go ahead on these. What are they and why do they matter so much? The IFNCs were partly designed to deal with the travails of STV/ITV. For example, STV under Rob Woodward has made good progress in making more Scottish-themed programmes in Scotland but has been lobbying for public funds to enable it to offset the costs of programming like Scotland Today. This was claimed to be around £5m-£7m per annum and STV stated that this was too much and they needed regulatory relief or some other form of financial support. At the same time, local and regional newspapers have been facing a financial storm with declining readerships, transfer of advertising income to the internet at the same time as the recession etc.

Apart from the dangers of top slicing the BBC licence fee and making it available to its competitors, we need to also think about what kind of media policies, funding models and regulatory and governance structures are best able to provide us with quality and diversity, with pluralism and impartiality, with a public space in which a public space and the public interest are upheld and secured?

The Labour government sought to find a way of supporting newspapers- ostensibly in the interests of democracy – by offering them the chance to group together in consortia and bid for the opportunity to produce and then have STV broadcast the main competitor to the BBC’s Reporting Scotland -albeit with added value – online, local and innovative, though we have yet to see the reality of these ideas. The Scottish News Consortium Johnston Press, Herald & Times Group and DC Thomson and TV company Tinopollis was chosen as the preferred provider of the IFNC news pilot programme on channel three in Scotland and will provide the early evening news programme and content online etc. STV was joined by Bauer Media and ITN in its bid to run the pilot but came second and is now only the reserve bidder. How are the current employees in the STV news operation feeling as they consider a future in which – should this idea come into operation – STV will no longer make its own news? At the time of writing the Conservatives were on record as opposing this proposal – there was no clarity about the transfer of undertakings and it was and is possible that these journalists and broadcasters could lose their jobs.

But for STV it could be win-win as their share price could go up as they still have the programme and news but not the costs of making, maybe just transmission thus reducing what they say is their loss making operation here. And here is one of the tensions and dilemmas for New Labour and present in its 2003 Communications Act; which is more important? The citizen or the consumer? The public or the commercial interest? Apart from the dangers of top slicing the BBC licence fee and making it available to its competitors, we need to also think about what kind of media policies, funding models and regulatory and governance structures are best able to provide us with quality and diversity, with pluralism and impartiality, with a public space in which a public space and the public interest are upheld and secured?

One clear and present danger in direct public funding of regional or nations devolved news content is who awards and/or negotiates the contracts? What is involved in these contracts? How transparent and accountable are they and the process or will there be a cloak of commercial confidentiality? But worse than that – and to my mind representing a slide towards Bradshaw becoming a Berlusconi inembryo-istheissueofhowina converged world we best protect the independence of broadcast news and its impartiality? It is claimed that only having, say, Reporting Scotland is a danger to democracy and the BBC (to be fair) states that it welcomes and supports competition. SLR readers will also be aware of the proposals for partnership between the BBC and ITV/STV such that there will be some sharing of resources and footage etc. This is in the public domain, if not interest, but it is hard to see how this will provide genuine diversity, competition and pluralism if both the BBC and channel three are showing and sharing the same pictures but with minimal differences in added commentary and value.

Beyond this, there are two serious questions. Firstly, will the new consortia have genuine editorial and political independence when they are reliant at least until they became financially sustainable (if ever) on direct state funding in a context where upsetting the government of the day could lead to a contract not being renewed? Much depends on the length of the contract but history shows that even the BBC with its Royal Charter and multi-year licence fee has great tensions with governments of various political persuasions – at Westminster and Holyrood. If the BBC has problems asserting its independence at moments of political controversy and tension, how much more would it be problematic for these new types of funding news? Secondly, and this is an increasingly important and immediate problem for us all; what kind of media regulation with what powers and on what underlying assumptions and designed to achieve which policy goals is needed to cope with the challenges of media convergence?

At present, in the UK broadcasting is regulated by the BBC Trust (for impartiality and accuracy in respect of the BBC) and Ofcom for most of the rest and some of the BBC’s operations. But the press is regulated by the toothless and partial Press Complaints Commission which is now also regulating (If that is the right word) online newspapers which are signed up to the self regulating PCC. Now these new consortia contain a mixture of broadcasters, newspapers etc. and are supposedly addressing the implications of convergence, demonstrating how television, local newspapers, the internet and local radio can work together in new ways. The planned website will act as a portal to 130 local newspaper partner websites.So we might have a IFNC website operating under OFCOM rules on due impartiality, balance and accuracy but content being produced and made available on sister sites which will reflect traditional newspaper values of partiality, propaganda and bias. SLR readers need no reminding of the political power of the press and how it is deployed even if it is no longer the case that a tabloid paper can ‘win it’ for a party. Mind you, a close election could provide opportunities for the media to be more, not less, influential and one cannot imagine the press and their owners willing giving up such influence and power.

There might be an opportunity for newspaper journalism to adopt and apply the values and standards of broadcast journalism but I would not bet on it

It beggars belief to think of two different articles and news angles being made for two or three or more outlets (i.e. the IFNC website and the early evening news programme and the newspaper itself and their website) so the scene would be set for questions regarding whose rules would count more and when and how and why? Ofcom or the PCC? Remember too that newspaper newsrooms, their cultures and owners are not used to having to meet the rules and regulations of broadcasters, might well seek to circumvent or oppose

some of them especially since compliance and cost money.

It is not accidental that journalists are up there with estate agents and politicians as not being trustworthy but when these same journalists are broadcast journalists, then as in the BBC, they are widely trusted. So there might be an opportunity for newspaper journalism to adopt and apply the values and standards of broadcast journalism but I would not bet on it. The danger is the reverse: that regulation of the IFNC news provision becomes less concerned with democracy and more interested in light-touch regulation along the self regulatory PCC model. Meanwhile if Berlusconi Bradshaw gets his way, the BBC licence fee will be top sliced – the possible beginnings of a salami slicing operation which will damage one of the best contributions Britain has every given to the world.

I recently spoke at the Asia Media Summit and a distinguished contributor from Pakistan said that the BBC and the future of the BBC was so important that he doubted whether or not it could be left to the UK to be entrusted to look after an organisation which was so important to the world.

Even with its faults this holds true and for these reasons if not for any others I sat up waiting for the Exeter result in the fervent hope that Bradshaw was not elected. The rest you will know but we must now get ready for a future in which media policy moves from the margins to the centre of our collective concerns.