Part Two: A Credible Authority for Self-Regulation
A national system for voluntary self-regulation is normally achieved through the creation of a special authority – a press council or a media council.
The aim of such an authority is to build public trust in media, to improve standards of ethical journalism, to stop all forms of state and government interference in media and to deal with complaints and concerns from the public.
This authority can be established as a voluntary exercise through co-operation among media owners, journalists and professional bodies and will normally involve representatives of civil society.
In some countries the authority is established by law, but its work and operations are organised according to the voluntary principles of self-regulation as in Denmark and Indonesia, for example. This is called co-regulation.
Whether it is established through co-regulation or voluntarily a media authority must be independent of the state and government and must not be subject to undue political or commercial influence.
Role and Responsibility
The media authority is not just a punishment body. In a democracy, a media self-regulator plays a key role in defending media freedom and promoting responsible use of information both within journalism and wider society.
This is particularly important in countries like Egypt which is in transition to democracy and where there is no established tradition of effective self-regulation.
The activities of a self-regulating authority in Egypt should be:
- Advocacy for Media Freedom and Free Expression
- Promotion of an industry code of ethics within journalism
- Campaigning for the responsible use of information in society
- Adjudication and mediation of complaints
- Monitoring and reporting on media trends
The self-regulating authority should operate on a national basis.
It should deal with journalism content across all media platforms – print, broadcast and online – and will usually promote respect for a unified code of ethics covering all sectors of media.
Sometimes there will be separate systems of technical regulation of print and broadcast and online media (because of different rules of registration or allocation of frequencies or telecommunications rules). Even so agreement should be reached on the need for a single, unified system for regulating the content of journalism based upon the principle of self-regulation.
Besides dealing with complaints and monitoring the state of media, a self-regulating authority should also have the right to initiate its own investigations and to carry out such work that is needed to respond to legitimate concerns about the work of media and the behaviour of journalists.
Informing the Public
All citizens should be aware that they have the right to raise concerns and to complain about what they see, hear or read in the media.
The role and the aims and objectives of the self-regulation authority must be made widely known to everyone in all corners of society. Media covered by the self-regulation authority should publicise details of the authority and its work.
It is critical that members of a self-regulation authority are respected representatives of all the major groups concerned: media owners, editors, journalists and members of the public.
Membership of an authority for media self-regulation should not include representatives of government, parliament or political bodies in its operational activities. This will intimidate journalism and compromise the ability of media to promote debate and to carry information critical of government.
The number of members may vary from country to country although in almost all cases the majority of members come from the media community. In Indonesia, for example there are nine members — three media owners, three journalists and three representatives of the public.
They should all be people who are dedicated to the defence of the wider public interest in free expression and who understand the role of pluralist and ethical media as a bulwark of democracy.
Public representation should be achieved by seeking nomination of individuals from all sections of society (unions, professional bodies, religious society, civil society bodies and individuals).
The selection of public representatives should be independently organised and not be the responsibility of government or parliament. One model used in Sweden is to ask the country’s Bar Association to select the public representatives to serve on the press council. Similar independent selection bodies exist in other countries.
Governance and Funding
The self-regulation authority should establish its own internal working rules of governance.
It should ensure there are no conflicts of interest. For instance, when dealing with complaints, no owner or journalist directly associated with the media concerned should play a role in hearing the complaint or in adjudicating on the outcome of an investigation.
The work of a self-regulating authority should be supported by an independent secretariat which handles complaints and organises support activities to promote the authority and to carry out its advocacy and educational work.
The responsibility of the secretariat and the different roles played by employees should be clearly defined.
Funding of the authority must itself be transparent and enshrined in a mechanism that respects the ethical values which the authority upholds.
The funding of the authority and the secretariat can come from a number of different sources:
- Media and media support organisations
- Public donations and external donor support
- Defined areas of public funding.
Most self-regulating authorities have a mix of funding.
In Indonesia, for example, the press council receives state funding for its educational and advocacy activities. However, it seeks industry support to maintain its core costs covering meetings of the Council itself and handling complaints.
In Germany, the unions of journalists and media owners pay for the work of the Press Council, but the council also accepts government money to pay for the cost of dealing with complaints.
In many countries, Egypt included, the public interest activities of a self-regulation authority should be supported by public funding.
However, this should be strictly controlled. There should be transparent and accountable systems for monitoring how public money is used in order to avoid state interference in the authority’s work.
At the same time, the rules of the authority must ensure that there are no conditions attached to the provision of funding by media organisations.
In all cases the rules and operations of the authority must ensure full transparency on the origins of all money received with full accounting for how it is spent.
Enforcement of Decisions
The essential credibility of the authority lies not only with transparency in how it is funded, but also in public confidence that its decisions are respected by the industry.
It is essential, then, that all media support the authority and accept its right to investigate complaints independently and are ready to go along with its adjudications and decisions.
When a media authority has the full support of all media houses the voluntary process of self-regulation can work effectively. In Sweden, for instance, all newspapers are part of the press council process. All media accept the decisions of the council. When media are criticised they have to pay a “fee” of 40.000 Euro. This money is paid directly to a fund to support the press council and its work.
However, this level of industry consensus is rarely achieved. Sometimes there are disputes over funding arrangements or some media refuse to join the process.
When the authority is created through co-regulation and has legal authority (Denmark and Indonesia, for example) it can go to court to enforce its judgments or to ensure that it can carry out its work according to its mandate.
Normally, a self-regulating authority will not seek to fine media or journalists or to suspend a publication. It will resist the temptation to replace the courts in upholding law.
Even when it has legal authority, a self-regulator can change a culture of confrontation to one of consensus by using its powers wisely.
In Indonesia, for example, more than 95 per cent of all complaints received against media are resolved through successful mediation between the two sides.
By seeking amicable resolution of disputes a self-regulating authority can provide a cheaper, shorter and more efficient way of dealing with complaints than the courts.
But for that to happen media organisations must be ready to take responsibility for their actions and agree to go along with the authority and its work.
 See the comments of philosopher Onora O’Neill in her Reith Lectures at the BBC in 2002