It is common for British media commentators and political types to decry American news and TV coverage. There’s a lot to aim at, but the biggest targets are usually right wing talk radio stations and Fox news, both of which appear to offer their audience a diet of privately funded propaganda.
In many ways the American media landscape is a bizarro world reflection of ours – a combination of staid, dull, unprofitable liberal newspapers and profitable, exciting, relentlessly ideological TV news stations. It’s not just the right, that takes this approach. MSNBC Rachel Maddow has become a left wing news celebrity of sorts.
Such an approach tends to alarm British media professionals, a group who find the Daily Express unexceptionable, if a little declasse.
Yet the more I think about it, the less I can justify Britain’s current limitations on broadcast partiality, either on ideological or technological grounds.
Is it time to face up to Fox News UK?
Here’s the rub – British media regulation allows wildly partial newspapers and magazines, imposing no limitations beyond that of libel on what they can or should say. At the same time, it imposes very strict regulations on all broadcast media, forcing them to be impartial politically, and to provide “balance” in reporting.
This regulation made sense in an era when the cost of entry into the Broadcast market was high, local communities could only access perhaps two or three radio and TV stations, and a single media empires domination of the news agenda was feared.
Ironically, the empire most feared in this scenario was the government itself, which had the resources and the power to stack the deck in its favour. It’s perhaps worthwhile to see the history of British broadcast regulation as a Governmental self denying ordinance more than a restraint of commercial trade.
Yet those times have long passed.
In a world where free to view TV has three dedicated roulette channels showing each night, it cannot be argued that there are enormous barriers to entry to TV production.
Nor, can it be argued that only a few media operators can access the Radio or TV markets. There are currently 250 stations on DAB alone, with more available in different digital media to come. This is a world where almost anyone who can find an audience can run a station.
At the same time, changing media channels means it will soon be impossible for a national body to regulate people’s watching habits in any meaningful sense.
If I wanted to start “Socialist Workers Party Radio” once I had the production facilities and the marketing budget, all I am really waiting for is a way of reaching listeners that compares to traditional FM radio. If Wi-Fi radio were to take off in any meaningful fashion, you’d be ready to go. All you’d be hoping for is that your audience would not be pitiful – and that’s your problem, not the government’s.
At the same time, if Rupert Murdoch wished to take Sky News down the route of Fox news (which is wildly profitable in a very competitive market), then I find it hard to argue that he should face restraints that don’t apply in either the print or internet media markets.
In the new media market TV is no longer special. It is more important simply because it is larger.
However, I do believe that the current media environment gives a very big difference between “free” Digital broadcast, which is accessible by almost everyone, and paid for digital broadcast, which requires a positive consumer choice.
Given TV’s dominance of the media market, this strikes me as the main dividing line between channels we can reasonably require to be impartial and channels that should be free to speak it’s own mind. Whether it is Fox or Iran’s (uniquely disgusting) Press TV – if you pay for it, you should be allowed to watch it.
So in the face of the changing media world what should we be doing? I’d suggest the following
– Retain current regulations on impartiality on all free to view licences – eg freeview, freeiew HD.
– Lift limitations on commentary on all “paid for” media, on the basis that if a customer wishes to pay for a station that reflects their views, then they should be able to, in the same way as they do a newspaper. However, enact rules that prevent simply adding a news or faith station to a popular “commercial” bundle at no extra cost.
– Ensure all internet broadcasting remains free to broadcast commentary without regulation, but investigate whether bonds against libel, incitement to violence etc should be established.
In the end, it will prove impossible for regulators to hold the line against broadcast commentary.
Already newspapers, websites, political parties and religious groups and pressure groups are looking at ways to use this new environment to further their agenda.
One way or another they will find audiences, and the mainstream broadcast media will attempt to respond.
How long before Sky news launches an online channel that more closely mimics the approach of Fox, or Talk Sport decides to stream Rush Limbaugh style programming on Wi-Fi radio?
The challenge for regulators must be to adapt to that reality, not try to prevent it.
As for those who fear the power of Fox, the challenge for the left is to find new ways to inspire audiences, not to keep our fingers in a rapidly disintegrating regulatory dyke.