By Aidan White
People who work in journalism, like others in professional life, don’t like being told how to do their job. They are notoriously sensitive to complaints, even though they can be lacerating in their criticism of others. They prefer to run their own affairs by creating systems of self-regulation to handle grievances and grumbling about their work from members of the public.
But when these systems of self-regulation don’t work, public anger can lead governments to lay down laws that control how journalists work and what media are allowed and not allowed to publish.
The recent scandals of phone-hacking and press bribery in the United Kingdom involving the global media giant News Corporation, owned by Rupert Murdoch, saw a major newspaper close and journalists sent to jail, and provided shocking evidence of a failure of self-policing at individual, corporate and industry level.
One high-profile victim of that controversy was the Press Complaints Commission, an industry regulator of world-renown, but which proved to be utterly ineffectual in curbing the excesses of tabloid journalism. The press were forced to reform their self-regulating system or face legal controls.
The controversy put the spotlight on how journalists and media apply principles of self-regulation, not just in Britain, but around the world. Across the globe there are dozens of regulatory bodies working at national level to regulate journalism. Some are defined by law and some are genuinely self-regulating – that is, they are managed and paid for by the industry and by journalists’ groups.
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But does self-regulation work? Are journalists bound by ethical codes and free to act according to conscience? Do media houses have credible internal systems for dealing with conflicts of interest and complaints from the public? Are there national accountability systems, such as press councils, that are trusted by owners, journalists and, most importantly, by the public at large?
The enclosed country reports, which have been prepared by distinguished journalists and media leaders, seek to answer these testing questions. The conclusions reveal that in the midst of revolutionary change inside journalism and media and at a time when the culture of public communications has seen a dramatic shift in the way people receive and disseminate information, the need for responsible and accountable journalism is greater than ever.
But major questions remain over how to develop accountability systems in tune with the new era of information.
The convergence of communications technologies, for instance, has rendered obsolete the traditional divide between broadcast and print journalism, so why in most countries do we still have different structures and rules for handling public complaints about the content of journalism in the press and on television?
In some countries – Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium, for example – all published journalism on any platform comes under the jurisdiction of a single press or media council. Are these models for others to follow?
These country reports confirm that effective and credible self-regulation only exists in a small number of countries and varies dramatically in different parts of the world and even within regions.
In Europe, for instance, Norway has a fully-functioning self-regulator, which is a model of its kind, and covers journalism on all platforms of media. In neighbouring Denmark the press council is equally robust, but it is a statutory body with significant powers to impose its will if media step out of line. In both countries the systems work, more or less supported by all stakeholders.
But it’s not easy getting the right approach. Even in areas where journalism has a rich tradition of professionalism, such as the UK, when public outrage over press abuse boils over media struggle to rebuild public confidence.
This report examines self-regulation in challenging times. Journalism is increasingly a single stream of information disseminated simultaneously across different platforms of media, but its regulation remains dominated by old-fashioned notions of how media work.
Usually there two ways of regulating journalism at national level: a voluntary system for the press and legal controls over broadcasting. These structures were created for yesterday’s media landscape and are increasingly out of date. Today’s digital journalists work on video, print and audio simultaneously. That’s why it makes sense to have only one national regulator, and one that covers all platforms of journalism.
Another testing issue is the question of funding. Ideally, journalists and media should pay the bills for press councils, but in these cash-strapped days can media continue to afford it? Increasingly, the answer is no. So who will pay in future?
Perhaps we should think about using public funds, after all, independent regulation of media is a public interest activity. But if we use taxpayers’ money how do we ensure it won’t compromise editorial independence?
Finally, as this report shows, making self-regulation work at enterprise level is perhaps what counts most. Building trust with the audience should be an issue in every newsroom and the growth in the number of in-house ombudsmen or readers’ editors is a welcome sign that more media are taking the issue seriously.
However, in the face of editorial cuts some managements still question money being channelled into cleaning up the mistakes of the newsroom. But as this report illustrates, keeping journalism honest is money well spent for media and, for the public at large, it’s a good investment in democracy.