Power to the press

Politics and the Media - Power Without Responsibility
April 9, 1999

Most of the arguments about the state of the media in Britain have been going on for a long time and cover familiar ground. The authors of these books are among those who believe that, despite all the upheavals in the communications industry in recent years, fundamental changes are still overdue. Just what these changes should be, and how they might be achieved, lies at the heart of the long-running public debate. There are as many sets of conflicting opinions as there are questions.

Does the media need to be curbed - and, if so, how? Is government too interventionist in its approach to regulation, or too indulgent? Does orthodox majority opinion always get the most favoured treatment, or do vociferous minorities bully their way to more than their proper share of airtime and editorial space? Are politicians given a fair opportunity to address the public, or are they unduly harassed by intemperate interviewers?

On these and a host of other issues there is a bewildering assortment of ideas. But this near-permanent state of flux in the industry at least benefits the media affairs sector of publishing, where the appetite for information (not least among those attracted to a career in press and broadcasting) is keener than ever. The flow of new books is satisfying a genuine demand.

Both Power Without Responsibility and Politics and the Media are good examples of the genre. The former has clearly found its market, since it was first published only two years ago and is already in its fifth edition. The latter is likely to appeal to those seeking a wider selection of opinions, since it brings together essays by a notable collection of journalists, media analysts and politicians. Their subjects range from the media's handling of the monarchy (a surprisingly sprightly account by Ben Pimlott, warden of Goldsmiths College, University of London, given the thoroughness with which this ground has already been covered) to Peter Riddell's perceptive account of the knock-on effects of the displacement of the traditional press-gallery coverage of Parliament by invaders from radio and television.

Considering the frequency of warnings that freedom of speech in Britain is being imperilled, there is a surprising degree of support in both volumes for more, rather than less, regulation of press broadcasting. Jean Seaton, who is Quintin Hogg research fellow and reader in communications at the University of Westminster, and James Curran, professor of communications at Goldsmiths, would no doubt reply that the sort of regulation they favour is intended to underpin freedom of speech, particularly for minorities, not diminish it. One of their many suggestions for broadcasting is the establishment of a small public corporation to run one national minority television and radio channel. This would be based in Glasgow and Liverpool, not London or the South-East, and would be publicly funded - "perhaps from a tax on television subscriptions" - to shield it from market pressures and free it from any prohibition or restriction other than the law of the land.

"In effect," they say, "it would be the only broadcasting organisation in the world that would be completely free from both regulatory and commercial controls. Its remit would be, simply, to make good programmes." Job-seekers at the station would, no doubt, have to get up early to find a place in the queue.

The co-authors have plenty of ideas for the press as well. For example, they would like journalists to be meaningfully involved in the choice of their editors, who in turn would have guaranteed rights (not least to reject advice on policy from the publisher).

Similar themes are taken up in the collection of essays. Steven Barnett, from the University of Westminster, believes that journalists require a "sympathetic framework" to support their highest aspirations - "a regulatory system which recognises that in the cultural industries the unfettered pursuit of profit is unlikely to produce the opportunities for knowledge and understanding that an informed, effective, participatory democracy requires."

Colin Seymour-Ure, professor of government at Kent University, would like to see newspaper proprietors required to place on record a statement about their paper's political principles and their own role - as Lord Northcliffe apparently did in the first number of The Daily Mail in 1896.

On election broadcasting - frequently a thorny subject in dealings between the media and politicians - Tony Wright, a Labour MP with journalistic experience, calls for an independent commission with responsibility for all aspects of electoral conduct, including broadcasting. "Public policy in a democracy has a duty to ensure that the framework exists in which the civic role of the media can be sustained and developed," he says.

Lamenting the decline in serious reporting of parliamentary debates, and its substitution with the lampooning by gallery sketchwriters, he comments that this accurately reflects the changing character of Parliament itself. "The media will only have to start taking Parliament seriously when Parliament starts taking itself seriously," he says.

Don Harker was formerly director of public affairs, Granada Television.

Politics and the Media: Harlots and prerogtives at the Turn of the Millennium

Editor - Jean Seaton
ISBN - 0 631 20941 7
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £12.99
Pages - 135

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