Regulation of the media is in clear need of fresh thinking

Paul Chadwick
‘It would be a satisfying irony if Russia were to contribute indirectly to regulatory reform leading to greater media freedom in the UK.’ Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA

In these times of Russian meddling in democracies’ information environments and an authoritarian government in Russia hostile to media freedom, it would be a satisfying irony if Russia were to contribute indirectly to regulatory reform leading to greater media freedom in the UK.

The thought occurred last week when Ofcom, the UK broadcasting regulator, opened seven new investigations into “the due impartiality of RT news and current affairs programmes”. The licence under which RT broadcasts in the UK is held by TV Novosti, an entity controlled by the Russian state.

Ofcom was spurred by the way RT has covered the attempted murders of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury last month, attacks for which the UK and some other governments hold Russia responsible.

This may be the opening step in a process that concludes that TV Novosti and siblings are not fit and proper to hold their licences. We’ll see.

But the absurdity of a regulator inquiring into whether a Russian state-controlled broadcaster has shown due impartiality over the Skripal issue, or any other issue in which Russian state interests are implicated – Syria, Ukraine, Nato, you name it – begs larger questions about regulation of media content in this era of converging technologies.

Ofcom is just doing its duty, but it would be healthier to spare the regulator contortions that a law designed for earlier times seems to require of it. For instance, Ofcom notes that states sometimes commit acts contrary to generally accepted international values. However, “it would be inappropriate for Ofcom always to place decisive weight on such matters in determining whether state-funded broadcasters were fit and proper to hold broadcast licences, independently of their broadcast record. If we did, many state-funded broadcasters … would be potentially not fit and proper. This would be a poorer outcome for UK audiences in light of our duties on plurality, diversity and freedom of expression.” Better, said Ofcom, that it consider whether TV Novosti breaches the broadcasting code.

But why? If RT contributes anything to plurality in the current UK broadcasting mix, it is a Russian perspective, propaganda and all - the Russian projection of the world to RT’s average weekly audience of 1.06% of UK adults.

Not only is it futile to seek impartiality from Putin’s Russia, RT would become useless to UK diversity if impartiality were miraculously to be extracted. Either tolerate RT or banish it.

The case can still be made for local public broadcasters – BBC, CBC in Canada, ABC in Australia – privileged with public money and statutory independence, to commit in the public interest to impartiality. And structural, not content, regulation to prevent concentration of ownership and control of commercial media is still necessary.

But the rest of broadcasting content regulation is creaking. The traditional rationale for content regulation was that the spectrum available for broadcasting was a scarce resource and so the number of broadcasters was very limited. This justified licensing and tests for whether the licensees were fit and proper. But technology is reducing scarcity. Papers produce audio and video now, and broadcasters publish text online.

Newspapers should report news fairly and accurately, but unlike broadcasters they are not obliged to be impartial. They run campaigns and take positions and argue fiercely for them, and the more separately controlled papers there are, the greater plurality of opinion readers can expect. (That’s the theory.)

The papers’ liberty from content regulation and licensing was hard-won. Broadcasters do not have the same freedom yet.

It was backward-looking for the Leveson inquiry to recommend in 2012 a regulatory scheme for press content, overseen by Ofcom.

Fresh thinking is needed.

• Paul Chadwick is the Guardian’s readers’ editor

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