Select Committee on Communications Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 740 - 749)


Professor Richard Collins, Professor James Curran and Professor Stewart Purvis

  Q740  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: As an ex-editor of Channel 4 News and indeed your position at ITN, would that concern you?

  Professor Purvis: For the eight years or effectively the decade that I was running ITN, I tried to manage the ownership of ITN which was a crazy thing to do with hindsight and I attempted to manage Parliament's legislation in some ways, unknown to the owners of ITN at the time, because I was trying to prevent a proprietor running ITN. In the end, I think that it was surprisingly successful, but we have come to a point now where ITV has consolidated. Remember, this was a background where there were 13 ITV companies and no-one knew who the winner would be, if you like. That is one of the reasons why I did it. Now, I think that the reality is that ITV, certainly in England and Wales, is a coherent force run by an experienced broadcaster in Michael Grade and the last set of legalisation cleared the way. In fact, ITV has never bought ITN even though it has been allowed to since 2003. I do not think that it would have an enormous effect. It is arguable at the moment that it is almost de facto. Certainly ITV News is de facto run by ITV anyway though it is done by ITN employees. I think that there are other issues that might arise from a change of ownership and I do not think that it would have an enormous effect. I do think that a little bit of distance between a news room and a corporate office is a good thing but since pretty much every other broadcaster in the world combines the two operations, it would be difficult to argue that it was not workable.

  Chairman: Given the discussion about agendas, Professor Collins is interested in professional codes of conduct.

  Q741  Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: Professor Collins, I think that this takes us back to something you touched on in response to a question from Baroness Thornton about where the issue of regulation could be concentrated. We have heard from one or two editors of newspapers predominantly about the way in which they manage their own regulation. For instance, some of them have readers' editors who, particularly in the case of The Guardian, are alleged to be unsackable, people whose independence is the flag under which The Guardian's standards are flown. Do you think that the quality of news journalism in this country can be managed through that kind of self-regulation and how can that be encouraged, should it be encouraged further, and do you think that this kind of strategy such as having a readers' editor is a good example of self-regulation?

  Professor Collins: Yes, I do think that the Readers' Editor is a good initiative. I think that The Guardian is the only news institution in the UK that does it, but it exists in other authoritative news organisations like Le Monde, De Volkskrant in the Netherlands, The Washington Post and so on. I think that the history of particularly press self-regulation in the UK has been a pretty miserable one. I do not dissent from the general view of the Press Complaints Commission as a rather ineffective representative of consumer and reader interest. But I think that we are moving into a sector structure where this is one of the few areas of hope and of opportunity. Professor Purvis is now a journalism educator and I think that this is something that is important and is less developed in the UK than elsewhere, particularly in the United States. I think it is very striking that, if you read quality American newspapers such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, you will see more sources cited in an article than is customary even in the quality papers in the UK, and I think that is one of the core must-haves that journalism students in the EU must learn. There is also the institutionalisation of fact checking in the United States. There are forms of habitual conduct that exist and function perfectly well in other news markets that we might learn from.

  Q742  Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: May I stop you there on the issue of sources and this is prurient interest on my part. The conventional wisdom about journalism is that sources are protected very heavily. I would understand you to mean by "sources", sources that are in the public domain.

  Professor Collins: Yes.

  Q743  Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: There is potentially quite an interesting tension there, is there not?

  Professor Collins: I agree. On this issue, it is unfortunate that we do not have Professor Franklin here because he has recently carried out some interesting research about the extent to which journalists rely on PR handouts and so on. When I was using the term "sources", I was talking about the number of sources that tend to be referenced in an article or in the coverage of a particular item. I think that, in the quality press in the US, it is striking how journalists will lean over backwards to cite more and different sources. I think that journalism education is one thing. There are interesting codes that have been formulated and put into practice and the readers' editor is one way of institutionalising the living by those codes. I think that one comes back to two things: one is that we have not had a history of strong journalism education or of adherence to professional codes in the UK—how do we get it?—but also I think that there is a real importance in having a measure of irresponsibility in the media and the thought of a relentlessly responsible press is rather a chilling one. As well as being a Professor at the Open University, I am Visiting Professor at a university in Johannesburg and there is a very interesting issue in the South African media at the moment where two journalists on The Sunday Times Johannesburg may have unlawfully acquired the medical records of the Minister of Health which may suggest that she, an alcoholic, jumped the queue for a liver transplant. It may be that these journalists have acted unlawfully and irresponsibly. On the other hand, I, at least, would be very uncomfortable to enjoin a media structure that did not say that this kind of activity, on balance, is in the public interest. Irresponsibility is important but I think that adherence to codes—and, one of your colleagues, Baroness O'Neill, has done some interesting work on elaborating these which I think is worth having a look at—is an interesting way to go and the Government can exert some power. The Government are putting a considerable resource into the broadcasting area; they might think about using some of that resource to sustain some of the interesting online journalism initiatives that are very fragile; they may make a condition of receiving public funds adherence to such codes. The Government—and this perhaps echoes rather naughtily one of the themes Professor Purvis has referred to—is probably the biggest advertiser in the UK. If the Government were to say, "We want to encourage the truthfulness of British journalism; we want to encourage it to improve in certain respects and we might take adherence to these codes into account when dispensing advertising finance", there are obviously real dangers there and UK practice is cited by authoritarian governments overseas—UK content regulation is often pointed to by countries such as China, "You do, why shouldn't we?" This is dangerous territory but I think it is something that is worth thinking about, worth consulting about and worth engendering a public discussion about.

  Q744  Bishop of Manchester: I would like to pursue this a little more in terms of the legislation which is provided. You will know that several on this Committee were involved in the progress that led to the Communications Act in 2003 and we have the Enterprise Act in 2002. I am very interested in the balance which you have just been describing. I wonder to what extent you feel that that legislatory provision sufficiently secures that public interest.

  Professor Collins: I think that one of the positive things in UK law and regulation in recent years has been strengthening the competition law and the Enterprise Act is certainly a very striking instance of that. Economic efficiency is not necessarily the same as the public interest and an economically efficient organisation of a media market might have too little diversity and too little quality for us. I think that a proportionate level of public intervention is desirable, and then one gets into interesting debates about the proportionality of the UK's intervention into the broadcasting market and whether in fact, as Ofcom are suggesting with their interesting idea of a public service publisher, there might not be opportunities to support worthy initiatives outwith the traditional broadcasting media.

  Q745  Bishop of Manchester: In terms of any extra or alternative strategy structures, am I hearing you correctly if I interpret what you have said as being, in terms of legislation at the moment, we have the balance about right?

  Professor Collins: Saying that everything in the garden is lovely is a dangerous—

  Q746  Bishop of Manchester: That is not quite what I said.

  Professor Collins: I think that there are many worse things than the situation of the media in the UK at the moment. I think that there a number of ways in which things could be significantly improved and the two areas where I would like to see attention being devoted are encouraging and fostering some high quality and rather fragile existing activities online and encouraging entry from more, and I would like to see more public debate and perhaps a little sabre rattling around the issues of journalistic conduct and codes.

  Chairman: That leads us in a sense to Professor Curran who I gather is undertaking a major study into research.

  Q747  Baroness Eccles of Moulton: As Rector of the Goldsmith Media Research Programme, you are carrying out a very large study on the future of news. I am sharing this rather extensive series of questions with Baroness Thornton, so I will stick to the first half and then hand over to her. There are one or two specifics about the standards of news journalist declining across the board and whether the national broadsheet papers and the BBC are tending towards becoming more tabloid.

  Professor Curran: Perhaps I should say that our study of the future of news is focusing on the impact of online journalism, so we are addressing the question, is Stewart Purvis right? Is it the case that new technology will enable a number of voices to be heard and we are only in the early phase of research and we do not know what we are going to find, but the kind of questions we are asking are perhaps relevant to questions you should consider. Will the movement of advertising from the printed press to online undermine the model of sustainable economic journalism? In America, there are massive editorial budget cuts taking place as advertising moves out of the press into cyberspace and that is leading to a deterioration of editorial performance, increased reliance on press releases and so on. Will that happen to us in Britain is one question we are asking. The second question is, will the range of sources be extended? Will journalists be able to go to specialist websites and is that affecting the way they are writing copy? Is journalism getting better because they are using a wider range of sources? The third thing we are looking at is, what are the limitations on the effectiveness of online publications? Do they need money to be effective? How good is the BBC in terms of its online operation? I pick up the comment that Richard Collins made. Maybe one thing that you should be looking at is to consider whether a small amount of money spent in promoting online journalism would not have a significant impact, whether you should be thinking about social market policies subsidising minority online journalism.

  Q748  Baroness Eccles of Moulton: It has been brought to our attention now and again that there is something called multi-skilling journalists, so that they can equally report on material that is going to be in the printed media as well as online, but there is a point that you make in your written evidence which is, is it the case that because breaking news is highly competitive, just to quote, you say, "The imperative to be first almost always displaces the imperative to be right" and, following on from that, is it that the public gain the impression that the first maybe not always dead accurate newsflash and then does not really concentrate on the back up after it which might correct the facts to a certain or lesser extent? The other point that has been made to us which is relevant to this and particularly to the fact that you are concentrating much more online than in the printed or traditional television screen is that now a whole new world is opened up to the public because not only do they get the alert of what is new in the news but also they can drill down and learn a great deal more about any particular subject through the VDU than they would ever get through other types of more traditional media.

  Professor Curran: We are at the early stages of our research and we cannot answer that question but it cuts both ways, does it not? The intensification of the new cycle means that there is increased pressure to get out a story fast and that can lead to the cutting of corners but, at the same time, new technology extends the range of sources that are potentially available to journalists which can make for greater depth of story making. We are still in the process of investigating that.

  Q749  Baroness Thornton: In your evidence, you referred to different ownership regimes policing different cultures and news agendas within newsrooms. In America, we did ask those sorts of questions about what the effect had on news journalists and so on, but do you have any views about how that difference manifests itself?

  Professor Curran: There is a difference in the culture of American journalism and British journalism and essentially British print journalism is geared to entertainment whereas American journalism is much more worthy, it is much more concerned with promoting the public interest. One of the things that you might possibly consider is, how might you modify the culture of press journalism in Britain. Take the Press Complaints Commission. Its main purpose is to be a mailbox for complainants and to get people like you off the back of journalists. It could have a bigger role. It could celebrate great journalism; it could award prizes honouring great journalism; it could produce reports criticising shabby/bad journalism. In other words, it could be a source of professionalisation inside of the press industry in Britain, so that the culture of earnestness and worthiness that is viewed with such contempt by British journalists that you have encountered in America would actually find a presence in British journalism to the improvement of British journalism.

  Chairman: We obviously could carry this on for a very long time. I personally have been fascinated by the fact that you have talked about my interest, the online and the Internet. We do have to finish there though we obviously could go on for much longer. I would like to thank the three of you very much indeed for your contributions. They will have an important impact on our final report. Thank you very much.

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