Three-D Issue 17: Regulating the press: a role for media scholars

Stephen Coleman
University of Leeds

Of three things we can be certain. Firstly, the Murdoch Empire has been severely destabilised by the public revelations of its criminal and unethical practices. Its capacity to wield pernicious influence upon public policy has been curtailed, certainly temporarily, possibly permanently. Secondly, the disgracing of News International has opened up an unprecedented opportunity to devise a clear set of norms governing the relationship between the press and the public interest. Thirdly, the Press Complaints Commission, long regarded as a disingenuous arbiter of acceptable journalism, will not survive in its old form. In all sorts of ways, this should be a moment for active intervention by media scholars, whose long record of press scrutiny places us in a prime position to influence what happens next.

The government, which itself relied upon the deeply implicated Andy Coulson as its chief communications adviser, responded to the public outrage against News International by establishing the Leveson Inquiry to make recommendations about ‘the culture, practices and ethics of the press’. A key role for media scholars will be to offer advice to the Inquiry team, and subsequent policy-makers, with particular reference to three questions:

  • Which norms should govern the relationship between the press and the public interest?
  • What sort of regulatory mechanism can uphold such norms?
  • How might people and institutions working within media education contribute to the nurturing and development of these norms?

In what follows, I shall propose how we might begin to address these questions.

Establishing norms for a democratic press
I want to suggest that the norms governing democratic journalism are best determined democratically. Rather than assuming that a detached elite (comprised of policy wonks, editors, judges or academics) can decide what sort of journalism the public sphere needs, society needs to establish mechanisms of democratic consultation and public deliberation that can inform and articulate the norms that constitute the public interest. Neal Lawson and Andrew Simms have recently proposed the establishment of a People’s Jury made up of 1,000 citizens drawn at random from the electorate which would consider arguments and evidence and arrive at a set of clear principles as to what constitutes the public interest (Guardian, 1 August 2011). Whether this or another method is adopted, I cannot imagine an effective approach to establishing norms for a democratic press that dismiss the public as being mere consumers of what the market offers it or too stupid to know what’s good for it.

For too long the public has been glibly and ungenerously characterised as voracious consumers of lousy journalism, driving newspapers to ever-lower depths in their insatiable hunger for vulgar amusement. This attempt to blame the public for its own misinformation fails to take account of what we know usually happens when people are given an opportunity to reflect deliberatively upon the values that matter to them and the policies that should be pursued in their name. Contrary to condescending caricature, when citizens are exposed to a broad range of information and to one another’s diverse experiences, they tend to deliberate in ways that result in the rejection of the crudest policy options and the adoption of thoughtful, nuanced,  well-founded positions. For the media to serve the public interest, the public themselves must be at the centre of the debate about what that entails.

Regulating the press
The absurd system of press self-regulation must be replaced by truly independent scrutiny. Newspaper owners and editors who are opposed to greater accountability say that they must be allowed to set the terms of reference and nominate most of the members of any press regulator; that judicial compulsion to give evidence to such a regulator would sound the death knell for press freedom. But there is clearly a difference between judges telling editors what they may or may not print and judges demanding that editors answer questions about their publications’ relationship to the public interest.

Any system of accountability that allows those being held to account to a) have control over the process and b) decide when it suits them to answer questions, is bound not to work. Invisibility and optional accountability are the principal strategies of corrupted power. As an alternative to the PCC model, a new regulator should comprise members who have no role or interest in the newspaper industry; are appointed for a limited period; and are accountable to Parliament and, through regular public events (online and offline) to the public. This new regulatory body should be granted a substantial budget, enabling it to publicise its most important findings across the media, including paid ads in newspapers.

A role for media education
A new press regulator should invest significantly in journalistic training and research. There is no single skillset or qualification for becoming a journalist (and nor should there be), but there are surely some basic standards that need to be at the core of the growing field of journalism training and education. Reviewing those standards and their competing articulations; comparing them with other cultures; exploring the barriers to their realisation; collecting case studies of creative practice; and preparing journalistic culture to respond to new social trends and pressures should be part of the regulator’s remit, most probably in partnership with the now well-established university media research departments, whose work has been so frequently neglected by media policy-makers.

Educational institutions responsible for training the next generation of journalists can play an important part in setting out the normative responsibilities that come with an amplified media voice. The best universities and colleges are already running courses on media ethics and journalistic professionalism, but there is evidence to suggest that their quality is very uneven; that they are too often framed in terms of legal compliance rather than social accountability; and that they are far from integrated into more practice-based modules. There is scope for some valuable work to be done in devising methods of teaching, assessment and accreditation that place proper emphasis upon the normative education of journalists.

Posted by Einar Thorsen