Exam date

When's the 2016 exam? Wednesday 8th June, am.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Key Themes

[written in 2012]
The idea of the paragraphs below is that these could go straight into exam essays; there's no extraneous material.

The themes I cover are:


There is a highly confused, inconsistent and generally irrational approach taken to the notion of media effects. Much of the commentary over media controversies reflects outmoded ideas and thinking developed by sociologists as far back as the 1920s and 1930. The often German Jews of the Frankfurt and Chicago Schools partly framed their ideas from personal experience of Nazi propaganda, developing concepts such as the hypodermic syringe model (the idea that the values contained within a media text could easily influence the thinking of an audience). From the outcry over Brass Eye to the more recent fuss over Rhianna/Christina Aguilera’s flimsy costumes and sexual dance moves, there is little effort to seriously investigate how children actually respond to material deemed inappropriate. As Maire Messenger-Davies, and David Buckingham, have explored in their academic work, we seriously underestimate the sophistication of children’s responses. There is a curious link between the press and the broadcast media on this issue: the press, so viciously opposed to regulation for itself, continually seeks tighter restrictions on TV/radio content –especially BBC/C4 content! As Stanley Cohen, Martin Barker and others have shown, the press continually generate moral panics by hysterically over-reacting to and exaggerating the harmfulness of singular events. Nowhere in most press reportage (at least amongst the red-tops, tabloid and mid-market alike), is there any thought given to the long development of advancements in thinking over audiences, and the growing appreciation of the ‘active’ state of the audience. The Daily Mail exemplifies this, its crude efforts at whipping up moral panics over today’s youth, causes of cancer (in one month, as BBC comedian Russell Howard documented in the YouTube hit “The Cancer Song”, they claimed being male, female, black, white and so on gave you increased chances of getting cancer!) reflecting a simplistic view of media effects that’s little-changed from the very earliest attempts at theorising audience effects.
Its worth noting, however, that Marxist media critics are also guilty of over-simplifying the issue of audience effects. Curran & Seaton focus on political and economic analysis to construct their view of the media in a way Chomsky would recognise, arguing that it works not for ‘the people’ and the public interest in a democracy, but for the hegemonic elite and their narrow interests, seeking to convince the many to support ideas that favour the few. They don’t directly tackle the issue of how diverse audiences are, or the scope for polysemy, or negotiated/oppositional readings that Stuart Hall and other semioticians have shown an individual audience member might construct, depending on their individual background and knowledge.

See this post for the Russell Howard vid and more.

Republic of Ireland has press self-regulation, but unlike the PCC (Desmond withdrew without sanction [punishment]) its not a voluntary regulator, its set up by statute and has legal powers to enforce its sanctions. The government does not run or appoint the Irish regulator, the Irish press does, but government power, in contrast to the wagging finger of the UK's PCC, backs up its rulings. I note this because Labour leader Ed Miliband stated to Leveson this week (June 2012) thats what he wants to see here. This is described as statutory-backed self-regulation; we currently have voluntary self-regulation.
BBC self-regulates its strategic decision-making (which channels to run, how to spend the budget etc) although, unlike the press, it is 'statutory-backed', but OfCom regulates BBC content in terms of taste, accuracy and decency: UK TV therefore is co-regulated by a self-regulator and a statutory regulator.

It seems highly likely that the future points to press self-regulation continuing: Leveson made it clear when Tony Blair appeared last week that he does not wish to scrap self-regulation. However, the idea floated by Roy Greenslade and many others, and backed this week by Labour leader Ed Miliband when he appeared before Leveson, of copying the Irish model of statutory-backed self-regulation looks likely to be adopted. The PCC's cynical decision to announce its own abolition, handily pre-empting Leveson's recommendations, will help ensure that the press can successfully argue to be allowed to continue drinking in the last chance saloon (the new PCC replacement won't have had time to be tried out the argument will go). The example of Richard Desmond, withdrawing from the PCC without any consequence, in future is likely to see a punishment of VAT being applied to such papers, effectively a huge fine.

Only in a very limited sense: its very name reveals that it deals only with complaints. Whereas OfCom proactively engages in in-depth research into various strategic areas, for example its reviews of public service broadcasting, the PCC is reactive, dealing only with complaints. Given the greatest press scandal of modern times, Hackgate, the PCC's response was worse than poor: it actually attacked The Guardian, who broke the story, for damaging the reputation of the press, and its 'investigation' into News International's operations went no further than asking a few senior figures if they knew of hacking. When told, 'no, it was just the one "rogue reporter"' (royal correspondent Clive Goodman, jailed for arranging the hacking of royals' phones), the PCC accepted the line and reported that there was no further issue. When Lord Hunt announced the PCC's plan to abolish itself in March 2012, their failure over Hackgate was seen as a key factor (though many also feel this is a ploy to pre-empt Leveson and safeguard self-regulation). At best then the PCC is only a partial regulator, and even its handling of complaints has been very poor - as the 2010 Culture Select Committee noted in their highly critical report, the PCC has the power to investigate third party complaints ("in exceptional circumstances") written into its Editors' Code but routinely refuses to do so [the schoolgirl skirt-slut eg is good eg; blogger complained + rebuffed by PCC as third party; story + pics remain on Mail website].

What about OfCom then? Currently its running a formal investigation into Rupert Murdoch. If they decide he does not fit their "fit and proper person" test (a legal test as they are a statutory regulator remember), he will be forced to sell or greatly reduce his shareholding in BSkyB - otherwise they would lose their license to operate in the UK. Given that two ex-Prime Ministers, Gordon Brown and John Major, accused Murdoch of lying in his evidence (under oath) to Leveson and to the Culture Select Committee (a criminal act) just this week, that seems increasingly likely. The press licensing system was abolished in 1694. Other than Murdoch there have been many recent examples of criminal press proprietors [owners]: Robert Maxwell (Mirror) and Tiny Rowland (Observer) in the 1980s and Conrad Black (Telegraph), just recently released from a Canadian jail. It says a lot about the corrupt relationship between press and politicians that Black was made Lord Black before his criminal conviction.

Lets take another aspect of regulation: taste, accuracy and decency. OfCom regulates both commercial TV and the BBC on this; in theory at least, the PCC regulates the press over this. The contrast is almost laughable however. OfCom issues fines for breaches of the watershed rules (eg swearing by Chris Moyles on the BBC), and issued a warning after all the complaints over Rhianna and Christina Aguilera's scantily clad [wearing v little], sexualised performances at the 2011 X Factor final, reminding broadcasters of their legal requirement to protect children from explicit material before the 9pm watershed. The BBC announced in 2009, following the 'Sachsgate' scandal, its intention to tighten up and effectively extend the watershed with bleeped swearing through to 10pm.

Its worth asking if both OfCom and the BBC (who in 2004 reacted angrily to OfCom proposals to tighten up the watershed) were responding to political pressure (the Tory Party is hostile towards both organisations)? In the 1980s the IBA and the BBC stood up to intense pressure from Mrs Thatcher to ban documentaries on Northern Ireland and 'The Troubles' (Real Lives and Death on the Rocks). The entire broadcast industry fought against the 1989 Broadcasting Act which banned the voices of Irish Republican spokesmen (notably satirised in Chris Morris' The Day Today), which was quickly repealed [the ban was lifted] when John Major became PM. Thames TV paid a heavy price though: having produced Death on the Rock, they were the only major ITV company to lose their license under the new system brought in by the 1990 Broadcasting Act. Indeed, the IBA was arguably scrapped for doing too good a job as an independent media regulator, representing the public interest and not that of the media industry or of politicians - it was scrapped and replaced by the ITC through this same Act.

Politicians learned from the example of David Mellor, the Heritage Secretary now remembered for toe-sucking his Spanish mistress wearing only a Chelsea football top after he dared to warn the press it was "drinking in the last chance saloon", not to mess with the press (Tom Watson, the Labour MP who alone kept pushing the Hackgate story in Parliament, was directly threatened by News International). It seems the TV industry and its regulators have also learned not to mess with powerful politicians. When the BBC dared to (correctly) question the 'dodgy dossier' used to justify the UK's war on Iraq a furious Labour government saw to it that both the senior BBC executives resigned (Dr Kelly's 'suicide' followed); the pro-monarchy coverage of the Jubilee by the BBC in June 2012 suggests it has lost much of its independence. As Chomsky might argue, the 'flak' (one of the five filters in his propaganda model) it received ensured it reduced its broadcasting of counter-hegemonic material. The BBC has always been vulnerable to political pressure, with the government setting the license fee and thus directly controlling its budget, and they weren't the only media organisation to backtrack from criticism of Labour's war on Iraq (advertiser pressure ensured Piers Morgan was sacked as Mirror editor over a doctored photo; he had led an anti-war campaign through the paper, which was immediately abandoned once he was sacked). Even OfCom have shown why they are accurately labelled a quango - quasi-autonomous. Even before the 2010 election, they began reducing their activities and cutting their budget in response to Tory criticisms.

As I'll discuss in more detail later, such moves are highly questionable given the digitisation of TV and radio; Playboy's UK managing director (albeit having just been fined 'fined £110,000 by Ofcom for airing "adult sex" chat advertisements that featured sexually provocative footage') is one to have argued, in December 2011 [giving such dates helps show your examples are up to date] that UK-based companies were losing out to unregulated foreign web operators and that Tivo and other 'time-shifting' recording devices rendered the watershed an obsolete concept ("the watershed is a nonsense" were his precise words). Given that pornographer Richard Desmond runs two national newspapers and C5, we can't simply dismiss his argument because of his background.

The Daily Mail, typically, sought to stir up a moral panic (Stanley Cohen's concept of distorted media coverage exaggerating the frequency and threat of antisocial actions, later explored in greater detail by John Springhall) over the issue ... but its own coverage of the X Factor final included photos more explicit than those actually broadcast! The PCC, of course, was silent on this, but blogs such as TabloidWatch and even other newspapers (Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker made the point that the Mail's website lacks any age restrictions but is filled with explicit imagery) picked up on this. This is not an isolated example [take your pick from these egs], from use of upskirt photos of the 15 year-old Charlotte Church and the "isn't she chest swell" story about her the Star ran alongside its hyperbolic [OTT, exaggerated] condemnation of C4 and the regulator ITC for allowing Brass Eye's "Paedogeddon Special" to be broadcast, through to the "schoolgirl told 'you look like a slut in that short skirt'" article the Mail ran (with helpful pictures of the 13 year-old's thighs) in 2009, clear breaches of Articles 6 and 7 of the Editors' Code are commonplace but ignored by the PCC. A blogger complained about that last story, and was told by the PCC that as he was a third party his complaint would not be investigated.

The hypocrisy goes further: while the press attacks any proposal for tighter press regulation as anti-democratic, the red-tops (tabloid and mid-markets) incessantly [frequently] call for tighter regulation of broadcast media. The Mail condemned OfCom as toothless [see here for egs of fines issued by OfCom] over its handling of the X Factor final 'scandal' of Rhianna/Aguilera's costume, and loses no opportunity to attack the BBC, even if that requires a blatant lie to do so (eg the 2011 'story' about the BBC ditching the BC/AD descriptors which was simply untrue). As the Guardian's media commentator Steve Hewlett argued, this is typical of the Mail's contradictory approach to media regulation: attacking TV regulation as too soft, using explicit images to illustrate articles on TV it claims to be angry about - images which, if the PCC was ran like OfCom, it would not be allowed to run ... but then press regulation is an attack on democratic freedom! The Mail manages to agree with the MumsNet report (discussed below) calling for lads mags to be covered with paper bags whilst somehow ignoring its own explicit imagery, let alone that of the tabloids with their daily page three, subject to no age restriction whatsoever.

There is a further social issue here, and a further question mark over how effective media regulators are. Somewhat absurdly, in 2010 the Prime Minister commissioned a conservative, pro-censorship pressure group, MumsNet, to report on concerns over sexualisation of children through media content. Unsurprisingly, it concluded that there needed to be tighter censorship, not least stronger application of the watershed. PM Cameron welcomed the report and said he would implement its recommendations. Having stated its intention to scrap OfCom (rather suspiciously, just days after James Murdoch's 2009 Edinburgh speech, using similar words, called for the same thing) before the 2010 election, its not surprising that the Tory Party would seek to use like-minded right-wing organisations to 'investigate' the media rather than OfCom. OfCom have independently investigated a range of media issues since their creation through the 2003 Communications Act, often drawing upon academic experts (such as Maire Messenger-Davies and David Buckingham for research into children's use of the media). As Freedman concludes in his 2012 book, The Politics of Media Policy, media policy (both here and the US; he examines both) is not governed by rational thought and research but rather by political calculations. The daily revelations in Leveson reinforce Freedman's conclusions.

Indeed, we should by now have a new Communications Green Paper, but the scandal surrounding Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, and PM Cameron's links to Murdoch through Rebeccah Brooks, his former media advisor Andy Coulson and direct meetings with the Murdochs, has ensured that plans to further deregulate UK media (more than likely benefitting Murdoch yet again in the process, just as previous Labour bills also did; the 2003 Communications Act was dubbed by many as the Murdoch Act as it loosened cross-media ownership rules ... ironically, it was Richard Desmond who benefitted most from this, adding C5 to his Northern and Shell empire of porn plus the Star and Express).

We could also ask if advertisers are not in fact the de facto press regulators. When the News of the World was closed by Murdoch, it may have been a strategic move but it was the series of announcements by advertisers that they would boycott the paper that caused its closure. Its noticeable again that the public did not turn to the PCC to raise their concerns or disgust about the paper; it was campaigns on Facebook, and trending on Twitter that pressurised major advertisers to withdraw. Newspapers cannot survive without advertising revenue, as the cover price (already reduced by distribution costs and retailers' margin) does not come close to covering the production cost, never mind offer a profit margin. Its advertising that makes newspapers profitable or not. When the 1960s Times put on a large new C2DE readership it actually lost a lot of money: advertisers targeting ABC1s refused to pay any more for these unwanted readers, so the paper became ever more right-wing to try to lose these new readers. Curran and Seaton in their classic study of UK press and broadcasting, Power Without Responsiblity, argue that the conventional history of the press is distorted. The 1985 Peacock Report into UK TV directly cited [quoted] the creation of press freedom through the 1851 creation of a free market as a model to follow (stamp duty was scrapped in 1851, ending formal government oversight of the press and leaving it to the 'free market'). Curran and Seaton detail the parliamentary debates of the time which show the clear intention of using a supposed free market to limit the working-class readership of papers and undermine the prospects of left-wing papers, then enjoying an equal market share with more right-wing papers. Just as Chomsky also argued (advertisers are one of his five filters in the propaganda model), the patronage of advertisers would decide which papers would thrive and which would fail. As advertisers represent businesses generally in favour of low wages, low taxation, weak unions etc, they're less likely to favour left-wing papers. Even the third Royal Commission on the Press (1977), in contrast to its 1949 and 1962 predecessors, concluded that the right-wing focus of our press needs to be addressed.

As UK audiences increasingly use the likes of Pirate Bay and BitTorrent to (often illegally) access TV and film content online, irrespective of age ratings, and global social media forums such as Twitter are perceived to operate beyond our laws (eg the 75,000 Twitter users who broke a superinjunction by tweeting the names of Ryan Giggs and Imogen Jones in January 2011), is media regulation relevant or even feasible in 2012? Newspapers are in steep decline with circulation falling fast as the web increasingly becomes the default news source, including many non-UK sources freely available online. As the web 2.0 theorists (not least O'Reilly, 2004) argue, the line between audience and producer is collapsing in our digitised, new media age; it could be argued that the evidence emerging through Leveson of the too-close links between politicians and press marks the end of an era. In the future will the bias of a tabloid matter as much as opinions trending on Twitter?

Twitter, and its users, are arguably already a more effective informal regulator than the PCC. When Lord Prescott (former Labour deputy PM) read quotes in the Sunday Times he knew he hadn't said, he didn't ring the paper or the PCC; he tweeted. Within two hours he'd received an apology and the article was removed from the Times website. Prescott argues that the traditional media have grown so large and powerful they no longer the democratic 'fourth estate' or public sphere function; they have actually become part of what we need protection against. He says that Twitter reaching 10m UK accounts makes it more likely that accurate information will be available to UK citizens. (It seems TV audiences are also as likely to take to Twitter as to contact the formal regulators: while the BBC got 3,000 complaints over its Jubilee coverage, there were more tweets about presenter Fearne Cotton alone - her response to "being bullied" became just as big a story, a good example of how far tabloidisation has gone [BBC pro-royal bias should have been the story, but instead the blonde celebrity was more widely covered]).

Having seen off the challenge from AtVOD, the online-TV regulator created by EU law, to also regulate the multimedia content on newspapers' websites, and given that it runs a detailed website, the PCC could be seen as responsive to the challenges of the new media age. However, it actually details only a small minority of the complaints received, and manages to ignore the daily distortions of the press, whether thats the Express telling its readers that the EU wants to merge France and the UK (not an April Fool's story!) or the Mail, as satirised by Russell Howard in "The Cancer Song" (a much-viewed YouTube clip), telling its readers that being male, female, black, white (... and many more factors over a single month in 2011) increased your chances of getting cancer. The PCC ignores these distortions and obviously made-up stories, and also turns a blind eye to the ideological bias of the press. You could argue then that its actually blogs such as MailWatch, TabloidWatch, The Murdoch Empire and his Nest of Vipers and more that actually effectively scrutinise and expose the shortcomings of our press.

[this point already covered above] There's a challenge for OfCom and the BBC here too. After OfCom's December 2011 warning to all UK broadcasters over breaches of the watershed, the BBC responded by proposing to effectively extend the watershed, stating that there shouldn't be a sharp, sudden swift to adult fare; more adult fare should be kept for 10pm or even later.

Freedman 2012 compares US + UK media regulation and finds that both are dominated by neo-liberal, free market thinking BUT both nonetheless share significant gov intervention over content (FCC/OfCom’s decency rules) and markets (sets limits on market share). So, free market/laissez faire approach dominates here + US but each follow varieties of neo-liberalism says Freedman: ‘Neo-conservatism and third way politics could be said, in this context, to be two different variations of neoliberalism.’ (p.223)
He argues media policy is made according to political needs, and the might of media corporate lobbying:  ‘It is hard to sustain an argument that the development of media policy is a bounded, rational process that is open to multiple voices representing disparate interests. Instead, media policy appears to be a rather slippery process that favours those who share an ideological disposition towards free markets and free enterprise, rather than a commitment to public service and a conception of communicative activity in which profits and economic value are not the decisive values.’ (p.221)

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Finding ASA/BBFC case studies

You can simply browse the BBFC site, or try book indexes, googling something like ‘BBFC controvers*’. These links will also help you to find fruitful examples to explore –several of which we’ve already briefly discussed in lessons; BBFC: