Select Committee on Communications Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by the National Union of Journalists

  In order to keep this submission relatively brief we will not repeat the points by the TUC however we generally agree with and support the submission of the TUC on this issue.

  The primary issues identified in this submission are examined in a constructively critical manner with a view promote the viewpoint of the NUJ that journalism matters in terms of democratic development and social accountability, which require an objective media to provide a well informed public with balanced news coverage. We have identified key areas that are examined from the standpoint of a critically constructive approach, looking at the manifestation of various phenomenon in all sectors of the media, but especially in newspapers and broadcasting.

  The submission has identified keys such as:

  1.  An increasingly entertainment led media;

  2.  Shifts in social tastes;

  3.  The concentration of ownership;

  4.  Circulation decline in newspapers;

  5.  The rise of free newspaper titles;

  6.  Lower audiences for quality news provided by broadcasting;

  7.  Cuts in editorial budgets;

  8.  A general reduction in democratic accountability;

  9.  The rise in the importance of the internet as a source of information;

  10.  Rapid deployment of new technologies;

  11.  The emergence of 24-hour news;

  12.  The increasing use of user generated content;

  13.  The decline of specialisation.

  In investigating these developments we have sought to draw out the importance of media ownership as a key factor influencing all others, and thus having a greatly significant impact on the quality, variety and objectivity of news and information.

Question 1.  How and why have the agendas of news providers changed? How has the content of news programmes and newspapers altered over the years?

  1.  There is evidence to suggest that over the last 50 years the news agenda in the UK newspapers in particular and in broadcasting has become increasingly entertainment led. This has meant that sport, show business, celebrity and leisure coverage have become an increasingly important part of the content of news. There has also been a major growth in the public relations sectors of government and industry and these forces have emerged as major players in the news industry.[4]

  2.  A number of factors are helping to drive change. Partly things are driven by social tastes but others arise from the sweeping away of almost all family ownership of local newspapers and the rise in vast media PLCs.

  3.  The big PLCs see local newspapers only as another business existing as a vehicle for profit making for shareholders. This has transformed the traditional trade-off between profits and the provision of service and need to engender a sense of community in the areas they circulate in.

  4.  Crucially, this new ethos has allowed company chiefs to take the decision to make deep cuts in editorial budgets—especially cuts in staff. Editors and senior editorial staff have therefore had to become increasingly selective in how they deploy their resources and make active decisions on what issues are covered and which are not. For regional newspapers, this has meant a widespread cutting back on formal reporting of time consuming news opportunities such as Parliament, in the case of national newspapers, and council committees, for local and regional papers. Court copy has been scaled right back with news desks preferring to send a reporter out only to specific cases already known rather than have general coverage from the courts.

  5.  Scarcer editorial resources—especially through repeated bouts of redundancies—but with the same pressures to fill the same number of pages with news, mean news desks and reporters gravitate to "easier" stories. Rather than cultivate in-depth contacts, reporters are encouraged by their news editors to "knock out that press release" to fill the required space on the page. Lack of time can mean that instead of pursuing a rounded and balanced story with comment from a number of sources, many journalists feel pressured to put through their copy with unchallenged claims.

  6.  This has helped drive the steady growth of the PR industry as companies and institutions seek to spin favourable coverage by attempting to lead the news agenda against a weakened editorial function. Government bodies, local authorities, police forces[5] etc have also significantly beefed up their public relations departments to help deflect criticism and squeeze out unfavourable comment on their institutions. This has placed barriers in the way of journalists reaching deeper into organisations through well-placed operational contacts.

  7.  This process has been increased by the growth of quangos, privatisation and gradual reduction in democratic accountability in public bodies. This process has been seen in the public utilities and health service. An example of this aggressively defensive posturing can be seen by the treatment of freelance NUJ member Robin Ackroyd who was mercilessly pursued for his story sources by Mersey Care NHS Trust until, after a battle for almost eight years, it lost both at the High Court and at the Court of Appeal before finally being refused further leave to appeal by the House of Lords in July 2007. Had Mr Ackroyd not been supported by his trade union, the National Union of Journalists, he would not have been able to have his interests properly represented.

  8.  The Freedom of Information Act has been a generally positive development, which has allowed news operations to counter the spin culture, outlined above, and has led to a healthy new source of reliable information. However, the Government has made it clear it wishes to weaken these rights. In some cases, use of the FoI has also been a substitute for more traditional forms of investigative reporting and has masked its decline.

  9.  The demand by media groups for year-on-year savings brought heavy redundancies among editorial workforces, which were invariably among better-paid staff who were usually the most experienced. This led to an erosion of the skills base in many newsrooms.

  10.  As the drive for economies continued, a new practice came into vogue—turning evening regional newspapers from same-day publications to ones created overnight. Newsquest and Northcliffe groups but also Trinity Mirror at Coventry have chiefly developed this. Major savings were achieved by eliminating the need for a dedicated distribution network. In the case of the former Coventry Evening Telegraph, the company said it saved £400,000 annually from dispensing with its own van drivers and losing the word Evening in the title. But the move also changes editorial content. Live, breaking news is put aside in favour of less time sensitive stories. Arguably this reduces the impact of big, breaking local news stories in their communities.

  11.  Technology has also served to change news agendas. The prevalence of cameras in mobile phones and ease of transmission electronically has allowed media firms to capitalise on a potentially vast source of free content. Although bringing a welcome chance for different forms of media to interact with their audiences, it is inevitable that editors faced with cuts to their staff numbers and budgets will consider boosting use of this material to cover the gaps.

  12.  Related to this is the growth of the Internet. While providing journalists with an excellent research tool, it also offers journalists an easy source of stories. There is the temptation to use this rather than seek out exclusive stories. With no overarching national training scheme in place, some editors will take on new recruits despite them having no formal journalistic qualifications. Many of these workers may well go on to become good journalists but without the grounding in the basics.

  13.  Finally, the rise of the free daily paper has radically altered news agendas. The aim of newspapers such as Metro, thelondonpaper and London Lite is to reach a younger profile audience. Very little content is unique but instead culled chiefly from agency copy and slickly packaged.

  14.  Patrick Edwards, a former assistant night editor on the Metro has said that the "resources are fairly light to say the least... the news team is very small and a lot of the stories they rely on are either wire copy from PA or from the internet. This kind of journalism is all about making money and selling advertising. ...They are not encouraging journalists to get out there and find genuine scoops. At best they are just following up an angle on a story that they have seen on the wire or on the internet, put in a couple of calls and that's your job done."[6] Such insights provide food for concerned thought as the free newspapers increasingly replace more established newspapers as the staple reading for millions of people.

  15.  Meanwhile, in the broadcasting sector devolution has caused the major broadcasters to consider how they represent the views of the nations of the UK. This comes about partly as a consequence of the perception amongst many people that broadcasters are too centred on the south east of England.

  16.  The advent of 24-hour news stations on television has led to an explosion of news provision. Sometimes news analysis is sacrificed in the rush to fill the ever-expanding capacity.

  17.  User Generated Content has affected the way all major broadcasters gather and transmit material. Whether it is the first pictures of a train crash or video reports sent in and by the public, these are changing the way organisations behave. This empowering effect also throws up important questions about issues such as accuracy and editorial standards.

  18.  Feedback via text message, MMS, and email means that broadcasters have much more interaction with the consumer, who in turn can have a greater impact on the programme before, during and after transmission.

  19.  More generally, news content is changing. Changes in broadcasting have, in turn, influenced newspaper content. The news section in some broadsheet papers has changed to a few long articles of analysis—readers may already have picked up the facts and breaking stories on radio, 24-hour television channels or on the internet. There seems to have been an expansion in opinion, features and celebrity content. Agendas can be linked to the paper's format: for example, the new free newspapers London Lite and The London Paper have a distinctively "light" news content and use newswires such as the Press Association. There is more scope in the press (as opposed to broadcast media) for campaigns, such as The Independent's campaign to stop packaging, anti-war stance or green agenda. Arguably, such issues-based journalism has gained ground in the broadsheets. A new editor or political slant may affect news content—but that has been the case for some time.

Question 2.  How is the way that people access the news changing? The Committee is interested in national and regional trends and figures for television, radio, newspaper and on-line news consumption

  20.  Television remains the major source of news for the UK population. It is perhaps still the most trusted source of news, although this trust has been severely tested in recent weeks and it seems that more and more people trust radio.

  21.  It is important that the levels of quality and integrity that have produced trust in radio are maintained. The regulation and ownership rules for commercial of radio are currently the subject of consultation by Ofcom. There is concern that the regulator will allow for a significant relaxation of ownership rules. The NUJ has responded to this by arguing that continued regulation in this area is essential to protect news, local news in particular.

  22.  Nevertheless, evidence from Ofcom points to the fact that for now, and for the foreseeable future, news on the traditional channels will remain central to the experience of UK citizens. In particular this research shows that, in spite of the growth of the internet, the public continue to value highly, locally produced TV news, and that the internet is very much a supplement to traditional sources of news.[7]

  23.  Whilst Internet consumption of news is rapidly expanding, it is not growing as fast as television viewing (of news programmes) is declining. This presents major difficulties for the broadcasters. The profile of typical viewers, often excluding many younger people and those from ethnic minorities indicates disengagement and it is possible to overestimate the ability of the internet to fulfil democratic objectives, especially as it is not universally available.

  24.  The growth of multi-channel outlets has caused a splintering of the audience and this has had some differing effects. The growth of multi-channel homes has encouraged niche broadcasting which can to some extent cater for minority audiences in a way that would not have been possible in a strictly analogue world. However it is important the major PSBs continue to deliver a wide range of programming which is properly funded and available to all.

  25.  The BBC Trust in its recent report From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel: Safeguarding Impartiality in the 21st Century identified five themes; Convergence, Mobility, Personalisation, On-demand and Participation. These are all significant factors in accessing how the public access news and how the broadcasters react in terms of the type and style of programmes they create.

  26.  It is difficult to pinpoint specific figures for circulation and access. For instance a smaller local paper may not have market research about its readership. The statistics for websites vary, and may be tiny in comparison to the audited circulation figures.

  27.  In general it is very clear that newspaper circulation is in decline. In July 2007, amongst the national newspapers all showed a decline, with the exception of the Financial Times (up by 0.86%). Only the FT and the Guardian recorded growths the year before, in the period from August 2005 to August 2006, indicating that in the context of overall circulation decline, the specialist publication can maintain its strength and even grow. Other publications fared less well, with the Daily Record showing a fall of 6.53% and 7.77%; and the Daily Mirror down by 5.75% and 5.54% over the same two year period—the biggest losers among the national newspapers. Meanwhile among the Sunday nationals the titles worst effected were The People (-13.22%) and the Sunday Times (-8.99%) over the year July 2006 to July 2007. The cumulative decline in 2005 showed a fall over 10 and 20 years of 10.2% from 1995 and 16.6% from 1985 in the circulation of national dailies, with Sundays down 12.4% and 23.8% respectively.[8]

  28.  But we should be cautious on how we analyse them as newspapers are increasingly relying on readership numbers done by sample polls of the population. These are showing that more people are reading each copy of a paper. For instance, the Birmingham Post claims to advertisers that seven people read each copy sold.

  29.  Anecdotal evidence from distribution enquiries suggests that people still miss the paper if it is not delivered as normal. It also seems likely that "hard-to-reach" groups, who are perhaps more disaffected and have no internet access, would receive a free paper with door-to-door distribution, thus perhaps enabling some of this group to achieve some level of basic news provision. However, many would argue that this positive aspect brought about by stronger emergence of free newspapers is more than offset by the "dumbing down" of the news that the strong position of such publications has created.

  30.  National titles, with the Telegraph and Times leading the way, have been investing tens of millions of pounds into their online presence and the introduction of new work methods. No longer is there a single deadline at the end of the day, it is replaced by 24-hour rolling news, podcasts, blogs and other time variant forms of presentation. The Guardian is still the UK's most popular newspaper website with 16.6 million readers per month globally in July 2007, increased from 13.11 million on the previous year, with the Mail on 11.87 (up from 4.53 million in 2006) coming up from behind.

  31.  Equally, the regional newspaper sector is rapidly embracing the internet, with the number of regional press websites launched in 2006 up by 33% from 828 to 1,102, according to the Newspaper Society's annual regional press survey.[9]

Question 3.  How has the process of news gathering changed? The Committee is interested in the process of news production, the prioritisation of budgets and the deployment of journalistic resources

  32.  In newspapers, especially at regional level, tightly stretched newsrooms are now having to cope with convergence. Journalists on regional papers are being switched from print operations to video/podcast/web content, or having to juggle the two. It is often done piecemeal and with little training. It is slow and takes away journalists from their existing work that then has to be done by a colleague—thus further denuding reporting resources.

  33.  The redundancies, job losses and non-replacement policies has hit weekly papers most. Looking at the Walsall Observer as an anecdotal example. Twenty-five years ago that paper had a total of nine editorial staff, including the editor. Now it has one senior and one trainee. The editor is shared with two other titles. It is part of what are called "friendly frees" within the company, Midland Weekly Media, part of Trinity Mirror. As such the paper largely regurgitates submitted material and press releases with little or no challenge. The company pioneered a system of "super editors" who now oversee titles in three or four towns.

  34.  The cutbacks have left reporters often unable to go out on a story to see the situation first hand. Instead, they rely more on telephones and email which means stories involving marginalised sections of the community are often unbalanced eg those involving travellers, asylum seekers or residents on "sink estates".

  35.  Also the use of quality photography is being scaled back massively. The growth of professional PR means good quality pictures are being submitted and used. But this is at the expense of editorial judgment ie you publish what you are given, not necessarily what you want.

  36.  At the Manchester Evening News last year the entire photography department was axed. It now has no staff photographers. Meanwhile, just as the positive results the stronger emergence of "user generated" material are clear, then equally, as has been noted earlier about the impact of this type of material on the broadcasting sector, then we must also note that in the newspapers the sheer amount of this material (which is often actively and unnecessarily sought after) has also put under threat the good quality of photographic coverage.

  37.  On the production side, newspapers are looking to constantly trim the numbers of production journalists. This can be through new technology, such as computer software systems that generate template news pages or through creation of "subbing pools" where sub-editing teams from two or more sister papers are merged together. At the moment Trinity Mirror is seeking to merge its Liverpool Daily Post and Liverpool Echo editorial production with that of the Huddersfield Examiner, its North Wales and Chester weekly papers to save money by cutting out casual shifts and squeezing overall numbers.

  38.  Meanwhile, in broadcasting, which is a very rapidly changing sector, within the last ten years, many significant changes have occurred which has affected the newsgathering process.

  39.  Tighter budgets and competition have had an impact that has often been less than positive. Reducing budgets has impacted Mass audience broadcasting. At ITV in particular, the `nominated news provider' process for determining the ITV news contract has resulted in significantly reduced budgets for national and international news on ITV. In 2001 A Sky-led consortium bid to undercut the ITN bid resulted in a reduced budget for the contract. 133 job losses at ITN were tabled as a result. Globally at ITN job numbers have halved in the last 10 years.

  40.  This, in turn, results in a reduced level of competition with the BBC and other terrestrial news providers. In the light of the Communications Act 2003, the regulator now only has minimal powers over the awarding and supervision of this contract. Primary legislation should be introduced to strengthen this area.

  41.  Although ITN have always been able to "punch above their weight" it is now arguable whether they can now provide effective competition with the BBC and if they cannot this has implications for the democratic function of broadcasting in the UK. Ofcom is now floating the idea of removing all regulation in this area, in the belief that the market alone will ensure sufficient competition, range and quality of national and international news provision. This must not be allowed to happen.

  42.  Staffing levels for television news production have fallen across all broadcasters. This has occurred for a variety of reasons. One influence has been the introduction of new technology in terms of lightweight cameras and server-based editing systems. Some organisations have developed a Video Journalist (VJ) model. Using journalists to film as well as report with the consequent reductions in specialist camera staff. This has effected the style and range of programme items, both positively and negatively. On the positive: side journalists can get closer to subjects and the process is less intrusive—with less people and smaller kit. On the negative, sometimes reduced staffing results in more basic reporting. In an effort to see a tangible return on a very high investment, one broadcaster for a time introduced a quota system whereby a number of "packages" gathered by single operation workers had to be included in the main nightly bulletin. This could obviously influence the news agenda and in many cases would cut across traditional editorial priorities.

  43.  Server-based editing systems have been introduced at the many of the main broadcasters including the BBC and ITV (local and national). This involves making material available on computer desktops. Bringing editorial process out of the editing suite and into the main newsroom. This removes a layer of expertise (craft editors) and can have a negative impact on quality.

  44.  Job cuts across all the main broadcasters have or are likely to have a detrimental effect on quality and the ability of the broadcasters to effectively compete. For example job losses at ITV in 2003-04 included proposals to cut 175 job at Meridian and 400 job cuts at Carlton in Birmingham and Nottingham. Many of the job cuts were in the editorial area.

Question 4.  What is the impact of the concentration of media ownership on the balance and diversity of opinion seen in the news? Does ownership have an impact on editorial priorities and on news values such as fairness, accuracy and impartiality?

  45.  The ownership of newspapers has always been linked to the nature of the opinion expressed therein. This also applies to broadcasting, although in the UK the direct link between opinion and ownership has been modified by rules on impartiality and balance.

  46.  Historically public policy has assumed that the democratic process is enhanced if citizens have access to as wide a range of sources of news and opinion as is possible. Concentration of ownership in the media increases the potential for the narrowing of viewpoints by increasing the influence of a select number of proprietors, narrowing the number of sources available to the public, and by reducing the number of people involved in decision making about what goes into the news. Given the acknowledged importance of a variety of sources to the development of healthy democratic debate in society, the narrowing of ownership produces a situation where there is an increased potential for the abuse of media power. It is not the fact of abuse that public policy has been concerned with, but the potential for abuse. This remains a potent reason for discouraging concentration of media ownership, cross ownership within the media industries, and ownership between the media industries and non-media industries.[10]

  47.  The success of broadcasting in the UK has been rooted in the assumption that there is a need to separate ownership from editorial. This echoes the idea that where ownership and editorial are not separated, as in the press, the best results can only be secured by encouraging diversity of media outlets. UK policy since the mid-1980s has drifted away from these ideas, and we are in danger of reaching a situation, such as that which obtains in the USA or Italy, where concentration of ownership has demonstrably corrupted the standards of public life. We consider that the time is ripe to act to preserve the lifeblood of our democracy; that is a diverse media, comprising as many different outlets as possible and, where possible, those outlets conforming to the highest, legally enforceable, standards of accuracy, and fairness and, where appropriate, impartiality.

  48.  In the newspaper sector there is not only concern about the lack in the plurality of news sources, there is also concern about quality. Although the issues of plurality and quality are often related to each other we believe that there is a serious lack of mechanism that can monitor the quality of news output.

  49.  Of particular concern is the trend of selling titles to the highest bidder on a sealed bid basis, with no explicit need disclose the identity of bidders, thus paving the way for some level of public scrutiny of their suitability, or to give commitments on service to the public, editorial quality, and quality of coverage. What are essentially public services, as is implicitly recognised, quite rightly, in the exemption of newspapers from VAT, are sold off without transparency of proper scrutiny.

  50.  An example of this can be seen with the sale by Trinity Mirror (TM) of the Trinity Mirror South group of newspapers and, currently underway, the sale of its Sports Division.

  51.  As previously mentioned TM now widely operates a system of pooled editorship and also of centralised sub-editing and servicing. TM South has now been sold off into separate units but TM maintains its role, at the moment, as the provider of services, including that of sub-editing. This would leave any smaller buyers totally reliant on the services of TM in the future, without any definite alternative. The question arises as to why TM should continue to ensure that level of service is maintained at a high quality to what are essential, or what could become, rival titles.

  52.  Other major groups, such as Northcliffe, who already own titles that were previously competing with TM for circulation and advertising revenue, have acquired many of the titles. This development can only further serve to curtail plurality and competition.

  53.  Other examples in recent years of sealed bidding were the sale of national titles the Express and the Telegraph.

  54.  In the case of the Telegraph, the Barclay brothers appeared to have agreed a £250 million sale to Conrad Black before the intervention of shareholders secured more than double that price from someone who has now been convicted of fraud. Such a total lack of transparency and the nature of one of the individuals concerned in this particular case, begs the question as to whether we can continue with a situation that is primarily reliant on the integrity of individuals. The NUJ strongly believes that a proper mechanism to ensure transparency and quality must be constructed and put into place by the regulatory authorities.

  55.  It is possible to argue that there is no necessary link between ownership and the editorial position of newspapers. This is true in theory and also, occasionally, in practice. Yet the overwhelming evidence of history in the UK and the USA, about which there is now ample documentation, shows that ownership does impact on editorial opinion and issues of fairness and accuracy.[11]

  56.  For example the BBC is a public body in receipt of a licence fee. Historically its power over the provision of news, that is, along with ITV, as one of only two suppliers, meant that provisions were put into place to ensure that ownership did not influence the editorial stance of news. The correct assumption behind rules on impartiality and balance, and the ban on broadcasters expressing opinions on matters of public controversy, was that ownership did influence editorial and in this case steps were taken to negate that influence. The press in the UK has prided itself on its freedom to express the opinion of its proprietors through the selection of news and editorials, and when, for instance, there have been attempts to curtail the political and social excesses that this freedom has entailed, the owners have lobbied successfully to protect their freedom to print what they want.[12]

  57.  The most recent, and high profile, example of the importance of ownership has been the career of Rupert Murdoch, who has used his control over newspaper and broadcast outlets to pursue his particular political and social agendas. Historically, this is what most owners have done. The conservative bias of substantial parts of the UK national press over the last 60 years has been well documented, even if at times the actual electoral support some of these have offered has shifted for tactical reasons, often determined by the politics of the people running those papers. But the swings of political orientation of the UK press over the year is evidence of the continuing importance of ownership in determining the editorial make up of papers.[13]

  58.  The competition commission is currently looking at the acquisition by Sky of significant shares in ITV. For precisely the reasons that are outlined above, the NUJ feels this level of involvement is detrimental to the public interest.

  59.  Another important issue stemming from ownership is the effect of profit maximisation on news supply and gathering. Large companies, such as Trinity Mirror, have been prepared to cut costs in order to improve profits. There has been a 20% cut in editorial and production staff at Trinity Mirror and a 31% cut at the Western Mail and Echo, since 1999. Yet profit margins have been very high; 19% at Trinity and 38.2% at the Western Mail and Echo in 2005.[14] This inevitably has an impact on the ability of journalists to cover news adequately and is usually, but not always, a consequence of mergers or growth strategies, that seek to extract value from assets rather than spend profits on maximising the quality of the product. Profit maximisation as a central goal of ownership has led to Ofcom arguing that in the future commercial public service broadcasters will have no incentive to provide local news programming, although it is not clear why profit maximisation should be allowed as a valid reason for cutting these services.[15] The NUJ can provide many more examples of contemporary concerns amongst its members about the impact of such strategies on the quality of news provision and on range and diversity of news provision in local newspaper markets.

  60.  For instance out of five daily and weekly titles serving the area near Wells, Somerset four are owned by Northcliffe Newspapers: the Western Daily Press (morning), Bristol Evening Post (evening), Mid-Somerset Newspapers series (weeklies) and Western Gazette (weekly). The only other title is the Somerset Mercury, a weekly owned by Archant, the Norwich-based group. This near monopolistic position has resulted in a lack of competition and has exempted the Western Daily Press from regional pressure to provide quality news in the field of high politics. It has instead preferred to concentrate on more sensationalist and popular lightweight coverage, such as campaigning to free bears kept captive in China for their bile, while constitutional changes announced by the Prime Minister are scarcely commented on at all. Thus we see yet another example of "dumbing down"

  61.  In this context then, the aim of pubic policy should be to promote a diversity of sources to prevent too strong a concentration of voices in any one market, be that defined as a geographical market, or a market for individual forms of media, ie national newspapers. Too lax a policy can distort the range and diversity of opinion available to the public.

Question 5.  How should the public interest be protected and defined in terms of news provision? Are the public interest considerations set down for Ofcom in the Communications Act 2003 enough to ensure a plurality of debating voices in the UK news media?

  62.  The first question, as it relates to newspapers and magazines can be answered in the following way. The public interest will not be served by allowing further concentration of ownership. It is therefore important to tighten rules on concentration and cross ownership within and without the media industries. In addition, there is a strong case for putting the regulation of press standards on an appropriate statutory footing given the failure of the PCC to maintain adequately standards of accuracy and fairness in the press. This needs to be accompanied by giving autonomy to editors, allowing them, in law, to pursue editorial policies which they, not their proprietor, considers appropriate. Equally, journalists must be protected, in their contracts, from reprisals or dismissal, for refusing to breach professional codes of practice. In addition, the government could encourage more co-operative forms of newspaper ownership, or forms based on Trust structures, thereby diversifying the forms of ownership.

  63.  The Communications Act of 2003 contains obligations requiring Ofcom to ensure that commercial public service broadcasters include in their services news "of high quality" that deals "with both national and international matters". It also requires that news be "presented with due impartiality"[16]' The BBC is also committed in law and as an organisation to impartiality and has recently produced a report reaffirming this commitment.[17] These provisions and commitments should be maintained.

  64.  While it is the NUJ's contention that the regulation of television news and current affairs should continue for all Public Service Broadcasters (PSBs). We would also argue that this should be extended by PSB status being be conferred on those willing to commit to a range of PSB programming, in particular news and current affairs. In order to address the financial issues pertinent to providing regional and local news on commercial television, financial incentives should be awarded to the broadcasters in return for fulfilling PSB objectives. A new system in a post analogue world can be devised which maintains the essential plurality, which exists at present. This new system will require effective regulation and new primary legislation. We would be pleased to elaborate on our views in this area. Our position will be further outlined in our response to Ofcom's news review.

  65.  Ofcom[18] has raised the spectre of the need to relax rules on impartiality amongst some broadcasters, in order to allow a greater diversity of views. But you only need to promote more sources of news, all committed to impartiality, but all coming from slightly different perspectives to encourage diversity. You do not have to remove the important obligation to impartiality, or water it down.[19] But, the argument goes, in an age of multiple sources in the digital world, impartiality is impractical. The answer to this is that in an age of multiple sources the need for trusted sources which are required to do as good a job as they can to be impartial increases. All companies that transmit news on UK licensable services should continue to be obliged to fulfil obligations to impartiality in the future. Linked to the view that impartial news will not be needed in the digital era, is the view that local news programming will no longer be affordable on commercial TV in the future. Again, this is not inevitable, and in fact in the future the need for reliable, comprehensive, trusted public service local news on TV and the net, is even more important than it ever was, and companies that have privileges afforded by public service status should be obliged to spend money on local news and information services.

  66.  Ofcom has a duty as part of the regime surrounding mergers to attend to the "need for... a sufficient plurality of views in newspapers in each market in the United Kingdom".[20] This could be strengthened by ensuring that `sufficient' is more closely defined to include `three or more' owners of papers in the local press, with local referring to fixed geographical limits. In addition the Act could be strengthened to disallow ownership of more than one national newspaper by any one company. The presumption, in the interests of democratic plurality, has to be that ownership by one or a very few companies of media in given geographical market or sector (ie, radio, TV) is not desirable; steps should be taken to develop policy along these lines after careful consultation with the industry and the trade unions. If this were not possible, then one way of ensuring plurality where ownership is relatively concentrated, in broadcasting or the press, is to establish an iron wall between ownership and editorial via legal safeguards in all forms of outlet for editorial independence. We have a model for this in the way we organise journalism within public service broadcasting.

3 September 2007




4   J Curran and J Seaton, Power Without Responsibility (London, Routledge, 2003, 6th edition): 93ff for evidence of the increasingly entertainment led focus of newspapers. The activities of the public relations industry are ably monitored by the organisation Spinwatch at: http://www.spinwatch.org/ Back

5   Dr Rob C Mawby, Police Service Corporate Communications: A Survey of forces in England, Wales and Scotland, ESRC, 2007 http://www.lhds.uce.ac.uk/criminaljustice/docs/Microsoft_Word__APPRO_2006_reportappendix_070607.pdf Back

6   Press Gazette, 31 August 2007. Back

7   For figures see: Ofcom, New News, Future News. The challenges for television news after Digital Switch-over, (London, Ofcom, 2007). Back

8   Steven Barnett, Reasons to be Chearful, British Journalism Review, Vol 17, No 1, 2006. Back

9   Mark Sweeney, Regional papers join the online rush, Guardian Unlimited August 30 2007. Back

10   These and other normative reasons for having policies that limit media ownership and promote diversity of ownership are fully developed in Professor C Edwin Baker's Media Concentraton and Democracy. Why Ownership Matters (Cambridge University Press, 2007). Back

11   For the USA studies abound. See, R McChesney, Rich Media, Poor Democracy. Communication Politics in Dubious Times (New York, New Press, 2000); Baker, op cit has many more examples. Back

12   A Bingham, Drinking in the Last Chance Saloon: The British Press and the Crisis of Self-Regulation, 1989-1995, Media History 13.1 (2007): 79-92. Back

13   Curran and Seaton, op cit; J Thomas, Popular Newspapers, the Labour Party and British Politics (London, Routledge, 2005). Back

14   A Williams and B Franklin, Turning Around the Tanker. Implementing Trinity Mirror's Online Strategy, (Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, 2007) available at: http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/jomec/en/pubs/200/376.html?printable=Y Back

15   Ofcom, op cit: para 150. Back

16   Communications Act 2003, 279(1)(a), 319(1)(c). Back

17   BBC, From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel. Safeguarding impartiality in the 21st Century (London, BBC 2007). Back

18   Ofcom, op cit page 11. Back

19   After the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 in the USA: "According to a study conducted by MAP and the Benton Foundation, 25% of broadcast stations no longer offer any local news or public affairs programming at all (Federal Communications Law Journal, 5/03)... . The most extreme change has been in the immense volume of unanswered conservative opinion heard on the airwaves, especially on talk radio." S Rendall, The Fairness Doctrine. How we Lost it and why we need it back, Fair 12 February 2005, available at: http://www.commondreams.org/views05/0212-03.htm Back

20   Communication Act 2003 375 (1) (2B). Back


 
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