Media regulation: discussion event report

The Daily Mail clock, just off Kensington High...
The Daily Mail clock, just off Kensington High Street (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been publishing a series of posts from contributors on the topic of media regulation and democracy. On 25 April, the contributors and others gathered at the RSA to discuss their pieces and the issues that were raised, and this is a rough record of the discussion. These are multiple contributors’ views rather than Demsoc’s, and we haven’t attributed them, but the authors will be revising their contributions following this discussion for publication in a pamphlet early next month. Thanks as ever to our partners the Carnegie UK Trust for the sponsorship for this work.

We started off by asking this question: More regulation for the media appears to be the direction that is favoured by the Leveson Inquiry. What should the reformed media regulatory environment be like?

Should newspapers be regulated at all? Should it not just be left to the law as with other commercial organisations? Should we stop claiming they are guarantors of democracy and should be fair and representative (which they aren’t) and just see them as businesses like any other?

Yet industries like the food industry are not left totally without regulation. Newspapers are capable of great harm, and the powerless, in particular, need help with redress and protection from that harm. They also sometimes break the law ‘in the public interest’ and with this comes some responsibility – and regulation. What would a media regulation regime look that that provides protection primarily to those without power and redresses the harm caused to ordinary citizens? Different models were discussed but something similar to the Local Government Ombudsman is a useful model.

The concentration of media power, rather than the nature of the media, has led to the problems that we have seen. This should be dealt with under competition law. But there has been a lack of checks and balances and that has allowed the breaches of the law that we have seen. Media power has been collected in the hands of a few and the citizen’s voice has been lost. It has also led to a lack of diversity in the coverage that we see. The media is unable to provide an effective challenge to power on crucial issues. It was for example hard to hear the voices challenging neoliberal economics before the current economic crisis. The media misdescribed this situation with disastrous consequences. Reports such as this one produced by Chatham House, show how the Icelandic ash cloud story was dominated by certain stories such as the disruption to travel rather than others such as the difficulties with transporting organs for transplant. But how do we hear minority views and choose which minority views to listen to? The MMR vaccination scare is an example where one view was informed by a body of validated research and the other (minority view) was factually wrong.

It is important to protect the truth and accuracy but it is not always clear what the truth is. There is some very poor coverage of factual issues, highlighted here by Ben Goldarcre in the Guardian, but a large grey area. We also need to protect the right of people to have an opinion. What mechanisms can we bring in to protect truth and protect freedom of expression? How do we know who is harmed by inaccurate reporting? The current Press Complaints Commission code does state that newspapers should take care not to publish inaccurate information (including pictures.) Maybe these guidelines should be made statutory, as it is with broadcast media?

If we could see how many transgressions of the truth there are, and the biases that a newspaper was showing then there would be transparency. The Daily Show in the United States does this in an accessible, interesting way. There could be an index, like the Cook Index in the US with newspapers given a rolling average of truthfulness or bias, perhaps with a system of ‘notices to improve’, ‘special measures’ and issue ‘accuracy display certificates’. But who would rule on this? Perhaps crowdsourcing – there are people who would do this for a greater societal good and bringing the public in is a powerful methodology.

We can bring citizens into the media to create a more challenging and disputatious public sphere. If we have citizens in possession of power and with the information that they need then they can start and join debates. Citizens’ panels would allow people to come together and their views would be heard. Currently the only relationship between readers and journalists is a financial one, the only power is to buy or not. Currently the readers’ view of what they consider news and what is in ‘the public interest’ is not heard. And readers can’t reach and discuss thing with each other. Is it possible that readers’ juries could form part of any new regulatory regime, to help inform news editors?

But is a stakeholder or citizen space possible or desirable? Currently we have a public space where people can come together to debate around certain principles. Papers such as the Guardian and Daily Mail are not as far apart as their brands suggest. A national public sphere is important to prevent us having rock pools of opinion but citizens need to be in control of it, rather than oligarchs. Individuals could control the means of media production as media now has lower barriers to entry and the public could be commissioners of stories and investigations. Everyone could have a cash value that they could put towards investigations and the communication of results – a ‘citizen’s journalism voucher’. There is already a version of this running in the United States called Spotus with match funding for investigations.

But how would we get a wide group of people involved in media regulation? To ensure that it was not leaving the media to be run by the same group of people and that power would remain in the same hands? Many of those who are currently marginalised don’t have the confidence to engage. If we leave it to self-selection it we will just have people with loud voices and axes to grind. But if we make it representative then it is expensive. And the question of how to fund media regulation is a difficult one. The Leveson Inquiry seems to be arguing for stronger, and therefore more expensive regulation but would the public pay for this? And if it funded by the papers then what incentive is there to enter into it?

We are getting information now from a much wider selection of sources. More primary sources than ever are available to us than ever before. We don’t need the print media, we can go directly to the source. The role of print media is to get access to hard to get information or to interpret or comment on that information.

The print media is an antiquated and dying model and we are looking at the wrong problem. The media is an essential part of democracy, giving voters the information they need to hold politicians in check. But newspapers have been the same for generations. The format has been the same; the content has been the same and they have served the same vested interests. Rather than regulate this dying model, let’s ask the questions of what do we want our media to be? We need something that is owned by people to keep democracy in check. We need practical solutions and something that is commercially viable. Are we may be reaching today for a regulation solution for yesterday’s problem?

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