Broadcasters should now be biased if they want to be

The media is changing very quickly, and there are a lot of difficult issues that have to be sorted out. With the massive (and still growing, maybe even still accellerating) success of blogging, podcasting and vlogging, the boundaries between the mainstream media and the pamphleteers are becoming ever-more blurred. This week Michael Grade wondered about the digital challenge.

…I do not believe we are more than two or three elections away from the moment when some commercial channels will be ready to proclaim: “We win it for Tony, Dave, Ming (or whoever).”

Grade notes the difference in culture between the print media and broadcasters:

In the UK, we have developed quite different expectations of different media. With broadcasting, balance and impartiality have been statutory requirements: democracy is judged to be served by the absence of bias and partisan editorial agendas. For print, with its long history of struggle against state censorship, democracy is seen to be served by freedom of expression, and is characterised by partisan editorialising.

Television channels are still fairly heavily regulated by Ofcom. This is designed to keep television news impartial, which is said to ensure a healthy democracy. But were newspapers to be regulated in this way it would be rightly called an undemocratic suppression of free speech.

It might seem like a discrepancy. But up until recently, broadcasters were part of a privileged elite. A television channel could have a lot of power. You don’t have to go back far to find an era where the UK had only three and a half channels. People would be stuck with what they were fed. Television audiences of over 20 million, although almost unheard of today, were not that unusual back then.

A license to broadcast was a powerful thing to have. It was a privilege, and with that privilege came responsibilities. As such it was reasonable to regulate these channels’ news output. Otherwise just two or three companies would have had a ridiculous amount of influence over the electorate.

It was very different with newspapers. In theory, anybody could publish a newspaper. It certainly had fewer barriers to entry than broadcasting did. As such, press freedoms were cherished. A diversity of opinions unimaginable to broadcasting was available in print.

Today it’s a very different story. In just a few years it will be the norm for every television owner to have access to a few dozen different channels. There are hundreds available on Sky. It is now cheaper to run some television stations than it is to publish a magazine. And there are certainly more television channels than there are national newspapers.

The traditional analogue terrestrial channels are seeing audiences dwindle. The BBC, ITN, even Sky are all becoming less powerful. Competition has increased greatly. Viewers have so many choices, and broadcasting is no longer so much of a privilege. Yes, many of the new channels have been set up by the traditional broadcasters — but this is more of a damage limitation exercise than anything else.

But it’s not just the advent of digital television that is giving the traditional media companies food for thought. A far bigger problem is being posed by the internet. Young people spend far more time on websites like YouTube and MySpace than watching television. We live in an age where the world seems to be increasingly run by large, soulless corporations. But the internet is making those large, soulless corporations run scared.

Viacom (MTV) is particularly miffed that Generation MTV is fizzling out and almost bought Bebo to try and stay hip (it laucnhed MTV Flux instead). Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation bought MySpace after being slow off the mark to adapt to a new world in love with the internet. Most strangely of all, ITV bought Friends Reunited.

But in terms of news coverage, the emergence of citizen journalism should usher in a new era of free speech in broadcasting. With the advent of vlogging and websites like YouTube, who is to say what is and isn’t broadcasting? It is conceivable that one day soon there will be a blogger or a vlogger who is just as influential as somebody on the television.

For some governments, this means that you should regulate citizen journalists in the same way as you would regulate broadcasters. This year in Singapore the government attempted to gag bloggers during the election campaign. The Indian government also ordered ISPs to block popular blogging sites Blogspot, Typepad and Geocities. Two years ago, French authorities famously arrested a blogger for criticising the city mayor. Does that not all sound like a suppression of free speech?

Citizen journalism has created a new category of person somewhere in between the traditional journalist and the pub ranter. It’s a grey area. We would expect the traditional journalist to adhere to certain standards; we certainly would not expect the pub ranter to. So what should we expect the citizen journalist to do?

People in this arena are becoming increasingly ambitious. There will soon be the launch of a new internet television channel, 18 Doughty Street. Those involved are already among the most successful bloggers around. If 18 Doughty Street succeeds (still a big ‘if’, of course), traditional media companies will have to take notice.

As I said, the reason broadcasters are regulated is because they were in a privileged position. But they are now no longer in such a privileged position. We can get our news from a growing number of different outlets. Today, anybody can write an article or make a film and reach a large audience. There is now genuine competition in the media. There will always be a place for the mainstream media, but they are surely becoming less powerful.

Soon enough Ofcom’s impartiality regulations will look like an anachronism. Soon it should be time to wave goodbye to the impartiality regulations in favour of freedom of speech. Of course, this doesn’t mean that every news outlet would have to become a Fox- or Independent-style ‘views’ outlet. Broadcasters — particularly the BBC — will always want to appear unbiased. There probably isn’t much of an appetite in the UK for a Fox News-style channel — although I can see an opinionated channel based on The Sun being successful.

The point is that we are now lucky enough to be in a position where we have pretty much unlimited access to as many different opinions as we want. So it’s time to celebrate this diversity instead of suppressing it. Murdoch wants to launch a Fox-style channel in the UK? Why not let him? There’ll be thousands of citizen journalists ready to challenge.


  1. […] I was starting work on a post idea about whether we should be relaxing some of the inpartiality rules surrounding TV News but then read this brilliant post by Doctorvee that pretty much put across everything I was thinking – only much better. Tagged with: broadcasting, news, partiality, tv » Filed under General, News by ryan at 22:47. […]