Is it time to allow broadcast bias?

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.

26 Responses to “Is it time to allow broadcast bias?”

  1. IanVisits

    I would go a tiny bit further and note that free-to-air terrestrial broadcasters should also achieve a minimum level of political debate and public service broadcasting – which the commercial companies are currently trying to wriggle out of.

    The argument in favour of that is quite simple – they receive a considerable implicit subsidy from the taxpayer as the access fees they pay for the radio spectrum they use is considerably lower than would be paid if any other industry were to be able to buy usage rights.

    If the TV companies want cheap radio spectrum, then they should, quid pro quo, be required to return something to society as payment.

    Reply
    • hopisen

      That’s a good point – the granting of a free to air license is a huge commercial boon.

      I can understand why they might moan about it, because it’s less of a competitive advantage than it was, given the range of other ways of piping channels into the home, but ubiquity is still a major competitive advantage in media, and there should be a price to pay for that.

      Reply
  2. newmania

    That is about the first time you have ever said anything that I quite like .Are you actually suggesting “less rules” ..you aren’t smoking anything are you Hopi ?
    It occurs to me that having the Guardian ,the BBC and so on as a sort of subsidised leftist media enclave has been bad for Labour .It has encouraged a small number of silly people to imagine they speak for a large number of people and contributed to the gulf between socialist elites and voters . Actually having to sell themselves would be great discipline , more persuasion , less self obsession

    I detect hopi that your marketing experience gives you a great advantage over the hot house meehja lefties . If the would be Toynbees could not opine in porn for the Staff Common room ,otherwise ignored, and had to get in the punters in , arguments might have been better put. The argument for sustainable tax levels, say, over the last few tears of spend
    A free political media might be just what the left needs .Doubt anyone lese in your scaly mob will agree though

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  3. CS Clark

    Quite thoughtful, and I think in the long run you may be right. Of course, in the long run newspapers are doomed. Hooray. Couple of negative, carping, nitpicky points:

    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.

    Isn’t this akin to the argument that, because anyone can get a free blog and publish their events to the world, we don’t need redress for libel? It might be easy to get something cheap on the air* but that doesn’t mean it provides adequate balance for well-funded (so well-funded it can even afford to lose money while others fail) , well-advertised programming produced by professionals. Power gaps still exist even when entry requirements are low.

    As for those who fear the power of Fox, the challenge for the left is to find new ways to inspire audiences.

    R.I.P Air America, March 31, 2004 – January 25, 2010. The trouble is, you still need to make money even if it’s with the ultimate aim of providing balance instead of just making more money.

    I’d also add that the current situation is that people expect TV news to attempt balance and know that newspapers are full of shit. What happens if you take away the requirements for TV broadcasters but people don’t adjust their expectations?

    *And now it’s time for the Innocence Report with Homer Simpson.

    Reply
    • hopisen

      “I’d also add that the current situation is that people expect TV news to attempt balance and know that newspapers are full of shit. What happens if you take away the requirements for TV broadcasters but people don’t adjust their expectations?”

      then the progammers that weren’t neutral would lose audience to those that were.

      However, I think that’s preferable to the current situation, where news shows have agendas but have to pretend they don’t (qv Jeff Randall, or Andrew Neil, or Jon Snow)

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      • CS Clark

        No, I think there’s been a misunderstanding. I don’t mean expect in the sense of want, I mean it in the sense of knowing implicitly what level of bias to correct for. The same sort of expectations that mean we have to explicitly label news-like advertisements.

        Put it another way – are you going to have a government-run ad campaign explaining to people that TV news is now as full of lies as it wants to be?

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  4. newmania

    If the TV companies want cheap radio spectrum, then they should, quid pro quo, be required to return something to society as payment.

    .. suppose society wants Big Brother and Naked Italian Housewives ? I know I do

    Reply
  5. Great Tit

    No. we should be neutral otherwise the wealthy rich just brainwash the public with right wing propaganda.
    If it is just the facts who has to fear the facts. Only the propagandists fear an insistence on facts and the truth.

    Reply
    • hopisen

      Let’s grant that you’re right.

      So tell me, why should The Sun and it’s website be able to propagandise but Sky news radio, which reaches a much smaller number of people than either, be banned from doing so?

      The only sustainable argument I can think of is that we choose to pay for the Sun, while broadcsters are just made available to us, like it or not. So I argue allow bias where it’s chosen.

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    • Watchman

      What is the truth? Is the truth that Gordon Brown is a hard-working politician who has spent years trying to overcome hardship in this country, or a trickster who has bankrupted the country?

      The answer is either, neither or both, depending on what you believe. Media cannot do the truth, as truth is perceived. Even facts are often a matter of perception (see the endless debates over global warming) so how you expect anyone to insist on facts and truth is beyond me. You can insist on what you regard as factual and true (e.g. that the rich wish to brainwash us with right-wing propoganda – see say Bono, Bill Gates or Warren Buffett for clear examples of where this theory falls down), but others will see that as bias.

      Incidentally, correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t propagandists insist they are telling the truth and presenting facts. The best reporting emphasises that there is more than one truth and states that it can only show some of the facts.

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      • great tit

        We already have a system where tv channels are forced to give both sides of the view your argument simply means they do not have to do that. The TV channels are forced to present all serious reports and both sides of the coin, not just one side of the facts, to support one sides view. Where they can lie and misslead under the excuse that they are just giving their opinion.
        Instead of Jeremy Paxman interrogating both sides of the argument we would get Glen Beck telling is why the commies want to take us over, and why Obama is NAZI who wantws to kill us all. That is not progress, it is a corporate tyranny.
        That is a step backwards to a 1984 style corporate elitist system
        There will not be more than one truth presented. As the entire media can be bought up by a few major corporate interests who represent the wish of the wealthy elites, who buy up the most talented propagandists to give their views.
        Look at the USA where drug companies pay major broadcasters to put down socialist cases for healthcare. That includes the so called liberal companies such as CNN.
        Ted Turner is not that left wing either he is just left wing for a billionaire,. The guy is pretty right wing but for a billionaire he is left wing, but that is still very very right wing on economic issues he supports cutting taxes off the rich.
        There is no socialist TV channel there in the USA and there never will be. The socialist case is presented as NAZI.
        All social justice would collapse under a barrage of bought up TV channels, free to brainwash the turkeys to vote for christmas.

        It is against their economic interests to give the real facts so they don’t.
        The powerful companies at the top have the same economic agenda of low taxes for the rich and less funding for public services.

        WE ALL READY HAVE A SYSTEM WHICH ALLOWS ALL THE FACTS AND BOTH SIDES OF VIEW TO BE AIRED.

        All this idea does is allow some rich billionaires to tell us why we should cut their taxes, propagandized by Glen Beck types.
        Only those who want the rich to propagandize would want to have the USA system.

        Reply
  6. Al Widdershins

    “The challenge for regulators must be to adapt to that reality, not try to prevent it.”

    Thats essentially the same as saying that the challenge for regulators is not to regulate at all, because the market doesn’t like it. Which is certainly an unexpected argument coming from you.

    But thats almost by-the-by. The real problem with American television news isn’t bias (I’m not even entirely sure if bias is a useful concept… and if it is, well, it’d be hard to argue that no bias exists in British broadcast media) or even a naked political agenda. It is the fact that news in the United States is essentially a branch of the entertainment industry, and the fact that it has very little time for ‘facts’ – what should anger us about Fox News isn’t the fact that they are an openly conservative network, but the fact that they lie and distort the truth in ways that even our ‘wonderful’ newspapers wouldn’t dare.

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    • hopisen

      “Thats essentially the same as saying that the challenge for regulators is not to regulate at all, because the market doesn’t like it”

      The market isn’t my prime concern, but the desire for free speech with the minimum of sensible limitation. As the media environment changes, what can be justified in limiting speech changes.

      “what should anger us about Fox News isn’t the fact that they are an openly conservative network, but the fact that they lie and distort the truth in ways that even our ‘wonderful’ newspapers wouldn’t dare”

      Honestly- I’m don’t think that’s true. Not even close.

      Which leads me to my point. if Britain’s biassed newspapers and websites are OK, why not not biassed TV and radio?

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      • newmania

        Is it not possible that the vast audience for socialist slanted progressive programmes might attract hitherto untapped investment and lead New Labour into new joyful decade of popular government ?
        Why is everyone so convinced that left to their own devices no-one will watch Toynbee TV or Headlines with Hopi . Evil exploitative capitalists tend to care about money mostly , not politics . Surely theres a quid or two in ‘Allocate your State Food Vouchers Right ‘ or talent shows where everyone wins …A to Z Factor ?
        I know I`d watch

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      • Al Widdershins

        “The market isn’t my prime concern”

        Of course it isn’t. But in practice, what’s the difference between arguing as you have done and arguing that regulating bodies should not regulate because doing so impedes the ‘will’ of the market?

        “As the media environment changes, what can be justified in limiting speech changes”

        Maybe so, but the reasons for ‘limiting speech’ do not. There’s nothing wrong in trying to prevent a particular form of broadcasting from getting a foothold here.

        “Honestly- I’m don’t think that’s true. Not even close.”

        To chose a less than serious example, was Peter Viggers described as a Labour MP when the duckhouse business came out? Of course the shabbier end of the right-wing press do much as Fox do, but not to the same extent, at least not *now*. They did in the 1980s.

        “Which leads me to my point. if Britain’s biassed newspapers and websites are OK, why not not biassed TV and radio?”

        Oh, but I don’t think that the current (and eternal) situation with newspapers is OK. At least not so long as the newspaper industry is so centralised.

        Anyway, I think that you’re basically right to argue that the regulations for subscription channels should be different from ones that are free-to-air, btw. My concern is that *these arguments* can also be used to argue against restrictions on *all* channels (whether subscription or not) and against *all* restrictions on political content.

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  7. SomebodiesSon

    I agree with most of what you say, but perhaps this requires beefed up libel or press standards laws alongside. I’m thinking of some mechanism for preventing news media (tv, radio and newspapers) from wildly and irresponsibly mis-reporting events, rather than presenting an opinion as an opinion like you suggest. It’s the ‘EU bans bent bananas’ and ‘an asylum seeker ate my baby’ type headlines that I worry about, and your suggestion might lead to more of this if not checked.

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  8. Chris

    One thing that would help would be to amend the ridiculous libel laws in the UK.

    If the facts stated/reported are true then suing for libel shouldn’t be possible, being true should be an absolute defence. It seems crazy that reporting the truth can be libellous.

    Libel tourism should be stopped, why should a non-domicile be able to sue another non-domicile for something posted on the web in another jurisdiction. That’s crazy.

    Only once the libel laws have been made sensible could your idea of biased broadcasting be practical.

    Something also needs to be done about the subsidised broadcasters being biased whilst claiming to be impartial.
    The BBC is the obvious example in its reporting of news, it does have an agenda. For example, spreading the faux environmental messages as if they’re gospel and it does, at least in my eyes, have a terrible bias in favour of socialist ideology.

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    • great tit

      No it does not. It presents both sides of the coin.
      Which is something rich elitists like you do not want to see happen.
      You will only be happy when you have Glen Beck on every TV channel telling us all that labour is run by Hitler, Obama is trying to kill us all.
      TV should not just be a play thing for rich billionaires and elitists to brainwash the public.

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  9. hopisen

    On the libel point, I shied away from discussing it here, (lack of knowledge and a fear of being proved wrong) by my basic attitude is that british libel law does seem to have a problem in that it seems to protect the wealthy and litigious.

    What I don’t know is how to enact a change that would not end up giving the ability to smear to wealthy and litigious media companies.

    Reply
  10. Doubting Richard

    Depending what you mean by “allow” they already are. The BBC is not permitted to be biased, but no-one has stopped them so in that sense the are allowed t0 be biased in most major political issues.

    Reply
  11. Julian Ware-Lane

    In the USA you cannot own a newspaper or TV station without having US nationality, hence why Murdoch is now an American. I would see this as an essential part of your revolution.

    Reply
  12. roger alexander

    Is it time to allow broadcast bias?

    Are you having a larf?

    Don’t you ever watch the BBC?

    Reply

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