Who are the press? What is the media? What defines journalists? These are questions Lord Justice Leveson will have to address before he can move on to consider questions of press regulation.
How do we identify the press when it’s not just in print but online? Where are the boundaries between “traditional” and “citizen” journalism? What differentiates the broadcast, print and online worlds of the media now that they all provide video and text based content across PCs, smart phones, tablet devices and, shortly, internet-connected televisions?
Why are journalists subject to comprehensive rules, including impartiality, when they broadcast? And yet when their material is accessed on catch-up services, or as originated video-on-demand content, or on newspaper websites, they are bound by no such rules.
At least Lord Justice Leveson can console himself that he’s not the only one grappling with such concerns in our cross-media, internet-connected world. Earlier this year the Lord Chief Justice opened a consultation on how the use of live, text-based communications (twitter, email, and text messages) from court could be permitted for the purposes of ‘fair and accurate reporting’ by the media.
But first he asked for help in working out who is to be classified as “the media:
“The identity of those wishing to participate in reporting is evolving with the technology by which those events are reported … Bloggers and social commentators may wish to engage in live, text‐based communications from court, but would not necessarily have media accreditation … Non‐accredited members of the media cannot be presumed to have the same appreciation of the legal framework surrounding court reporting, or the industry standards set out by the Press Complaints Commission, as accredited media representatives must be presumed to have.”
Meanwhile in Canada a task force established by the Quebec Government has recommended legislation setting out the status of “professional journalists”.
Professional status would confer certain privileges, for example, in relation to court reporting, access to information, and eligibility for tax credits but the proposals are controversial, provoking accusations of licensing by the back door and a concern that citizen journalists would be given a ‘second-class’ status rather than being encouraged to flourish.
And in Australia the government has been carrying out a consultation on convergence. In response the Australian Press Council (a self regulatory body equivalent to the PCC) was reported to be “developing plans to regulate news and current affairs commentary across all platforms, including radio, television and blogs” since it was ‘unworkable to have regulatory processes that differ between various formats, platforms and devices’, arguing: “If rights and privileges are given to people who are journalists, then bloggers – those who take on those rights and privileges – should have to comply with the same things that traditional journalists need to comply with.”
For the UK the same questions are bubbling not far below the surface of Lord Justice Leveson’s remit. They go to the heart of how citizens are to distinguish and evaluate credible sources of information; how bodies such as governments and the courts are to engage with journalists; how journalists and publications with different values and ambitions may seek to differentiate themselves; and the role, in each of these challenges, of publicly agreed journalistic standards.
One way into this conundrum is not to seek to pit “professional” against “amateur” journalists but rather to acknowledge the ways in which new media encourages both to meet in debate on websites, in blogs, through twitter, and in a myriad of ways to come.
A more useful distinction may be between “regulated” and “unregulated” journalism, differentiating providers (both traditional and emerging) not by an accident of broadcast, print or online delivery, but by their values.
In an approach developed in my book Regulating for Trust in Journalism: standards regulation in the age of blended media I argue that by incentivising a voluntary association with ethical and accountable standards, providers of media content can demonstrate their values as a selling point, and in return benefit from a range of privileges recognised in statute.
At the same time, ready recognition of regulated and unregulated media providers, will support public confidence in the very sources of information and analysis on which citizens depend in order to make informed, democratic choices.
The book, published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and City University London, reviews the current regulatory models for broadcasting, newspapers, video on demand and wider online content. It examines why we have developed entirely different regimes (and a plethora of associated regulatory bodies and complaints systems) for regulating each, and why these regimes increasingly lack coherence and relevance for younger, converged consumers.
In response I set out proposals for a gradual transition towards a framework that could be developed under a future Communications Act. It differentiates between three regulatory tiers, each associated with a readily identifiable standards mark, to support consumers whether navigating newspapers, TV channels or individual pieces of online content.
Tier 1 would require comprehensive regulation of all “public” media – i.e. media that benefits directly or indirectly from public investment and provides public service content. Consistent rules would govern public content whether broadcast, “on-demand” or online and would include requirements for impartiality. Other media providers could choose to opt-in to this tier of regulation as a mark of quality and excellence.
Tier 2 would incentivise voluntary, ethical standards as a selling point for ‘private’ media – i.e. content offered by newspapers, both in print and online, by non public service broadcasters, by video and audio on-demand providers, independent bloggers and other emerging content providers.
A slimmer code of rules to Tier 1 would require accuracy in news, but would not require impartiality. Recognised in statute, independent of industry and the state, it would incentivise transparently-signalled standards through associated privileges, backed up by robust enforcement. Benefits might include accreditation for court reporting and confidential briefings, a public interest defence in privacy or defamation proceedings, tax privileges and advertising associations. The most significant sanction would be expulsion from the regulatory club and sacrifice of associated recognition and benefits.
Tier 3 would enforce the minimum European requirements placed on television and video on demand services in relation to child protection and hate speech. It would also offer unregulated providers the opportunity to ‘opt-in’ to baseline standards.
And beyond the three tiers lies unregulated content – perhaps in print, perhaps online, governed by the law, with redress through the courts. Providers will have made their choices about where to position their content. And citizens will be enabled to make informed choices, from the whole range of media content, for themselves.
Lara Fielden began her career as a graduate trainee at London Weekend Television. She spent over a decade with BBC television, producing and directing current affairs investigations and documentaries, overseas and in the UK. Between 2005 and 2010 she was with Ofcom where she managed fairness and privacy complaints and reviews of the Broadcasting Code.
Details about her book Regulating for Trust in Journalism: Standards regulation in the age of blended media and how to obtain it are available here.
This post originally appeared on “Journalism.co.uk” and is reproduced with permission and thanks.