It seems inane that one has to repeat the fact that journalists have a responsibility to their audience to present news in a fair way. Anything else is indoctrination and the outcome is similar to the consequences of an oppressive state media.
There is a great deal for the press to consider as its reputation diminishes and new regulation in the industry seems inevitable. One such issue that needs resolving is the separation of fact and comment in newspapers. There is an orthodoxy, often from within the print media itself, that believes separating news and comment is neither viable nor desirable.
This is not the case.
Newspapers have for too long editorialised outside the editorial with the result often being violent and aggressive propaganda on the front pages. During this time numerous examples can be found whereby a proprietor’s views have been used to dictate the tone and type of news that disguises personal opinion as fact. Better should be expected from a historically influential trade that forms values in people’s minds and is a way of comprehending the world around us.
The era of brilliant analytical columnists such as Hugo Young, Peter Jenkins and David Watt has gone. This has been eclipsed by partisan moralists both covertly and overtly pushing a political agenda. Therefore it would be immensely beneficial that comment assume no more than 50% of newspapers content and be placed in a comment pullout/section, away from an objective front page. The remaining news should then place unprecedented scrutiny on in its accuracy.
It has been said that regulation encourages statutory oppression on freedom of speech. Some newspapers launch tirades against individuals or groups in society and cover them up as factual incidence. Many organisations don’t even acknowledge written corporate governance documents or policies. There is regulation in place to prevent obscene practice yet when the law looks like it may be applied, moral panic is created regarding basic freedoms and fundamental rights. Yet the possibility exists whereby the state legislates on a body and the powers available to it but once a new regulator is set up it has the power over all matters of standard and arbitration without state interference.
The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) was created in similar fashion after the MP’s expenses scandal and no MP would claim that it was a Parliamentary puppet. The new body should demonstrate co-operation between representatives from industry, trade unions and civic society. It could be predominantly controlled by lay members (including media experts, professors and investigators) and chaired by an individual associated with the judiciary. It could include press representation from the NUJ and small minority representation from an editor or MP. Free speech remains vital: it should never be impinged by the state but it also seems inane that one has to repeat the fact that journalists have a responsibility to their audience to present news in a fair way. Anything else is indoctrination and the outcome is similar to the consequences of an oppressive state media.
It has also been said that the obvious technological change that offers free, accessible and almost unimaginable amounts of comment online undermines the profitability of straight-reporting newspapers, yet this cannot excuse invention and distortion to promote an agenda. Newspapers are entitled to use comment pieces as their unique selling point’s but if accuracy is lost then society suffers. Another argument against such a proposal is that in places such as the United States where factcheckers are employed and there is a separation of facts from comment, the result has been bland newspapers with low readerships. Quite frankly this seems a non-argument. Just becomes something is not profitable doesn’t make it morally worthless. Investigative journalism has been shown to sell newspapers in the past and I would much rather reward award winning investigative journalism with new grants and financial backing than accept the current fait accompli.
All this is for a new regulatory body to decide and vote upon. It is uncontroversial to state that the PCC cannot continue in its present form. The fact and comment separation would be one of the most effective recommendations to improve the standards of the media in its entire history: if the new regulator finds an article guilty of inaccuracy, there would also be a rapid reduction in the defamation and lies that plague parts of the press if newspapers had to publish apologies that were of equal size and published on the same page of an offending article. Fines and sanctions should only be considered for serial offenders or where no apology is offered. I would not be afraid to fine ignorant newspapers into obscurity, but taking money away from a struggling industry on the whole, while asking editors, proprietors and journalists to work harder (albeit to a standard that it is not unreasonable to expect) is not progressive.
It is a somewhat unamusing joke that the PCC should already be ensuring “the press… distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.” I have made clear why I believe this to be a vital commitment. It just needs to be upheld by the right sort of regulator and it is possible for this regulator to be free from statutory control and not restrict freedom of speech. I don’t see how freedom of speech and an open society is inhibited by putting accurate information first and tacking on financially profitable opinion later.