Exam date

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

Monday, 6 June 2016

Applying political issues

“Some media regulatory practices are more effective than others.” Discuss. [OCR June 2013]

There are many forms of media regulation within the UK market alone, and more at the supranational level and in other countries. For example, film regulation, through the BBFC in the UK and the MPAA in the US, has notable differences. The issues of concern to each regulated media industry can vary too. In this essay I will explore some of the similarities and differences between the regulation of the film, press and TV industries in the UK, with some international comparisons. This requires comparing two approaches to self-regulation, the voluntary press system (until recently the PCC, now IPSO) and the statutory film system (BBFC), with the statutory 'superregulator' of broadcast (TV and radio), web and telephony, OfCom. OfCom and the BBFC are also quangos, a significant point I shall explore. I shall also consider examples linked to the issues of protection of children and the clashing adult right to free speech, privacy, and the tensions over the democratic role of media and democratic oversight of them, including the often neglected issue of ownership.

The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO, the 2014 successor to the Press Complaints Commission, PCC) stands in contrast to the other two as an entirely voluntary system with no statutory power or compulsion. The long history of rebadging and relaunching the same system suggests this has been an ineffective solution. From 1694 to 1953 the press enjoyed the unique distinction of having no formal regulatory system or organisation, those being the years licenses were scrapped for newspaper publishing (removing a significant layer of political control and censorship in the process) and the launch date of the General Council of the Press. There had been wide agreement with the NUJ (National Union of Journalists) call for reforms of the press industry in 1945, but this being seen as a delicate matter for democracy, with the press conceived of a 'fourth estate' independent from politics and business, another pattern was set. No party wanted to be seen as imposing censorship on the press, attracting their powerful hostility and in all likelihood struggling to win elections with such negative coverage, so a Royal Commission on the Press was launched in 1947, above party politics as a panel of independent experts.

It reported in 1949 that a regulator was required, and that there were serious issues with concentration of ownership into too few hands, general standards of content, and the overwhelming predominance of right-wing views and support amongst the national daily newspapers (although ti did feel that much of this would be resolved by the free market once the industry had recovered from WW2. The four year gap between this and the launch of the GCP is indicative of the reluctance of the press to engage in any regulation, no matter how minimal. It was only the threat of statutory regulation via legislation that persuaded the industry to agree to setting up a regulator themselves.

Arguably very little has changed today, with both the PCC and IPSO failing to cover several newspapers. Richard Desmond decided in 2011 that he would withdraw the two national dailies his Northern and Shell conglomerate owned, the Star and Express titles, from the PCC. This was not only a cost-saving measure, as the press pays a levy to fund the press regulator (similarly to the also self-funding BBFC, it does not receive any government funding), but also conveniently avoided two of the most-complained about papers receiving any more brand-damaging judgements. When the Star used the divorce of a rock guitarist from Toploader and his celebrity wife as an excuse to print stories on and photos of their young children, the family could not complain to the PCC but instead had to go straight to court, an expensive option not open to everyone. Remarkably, there was and is no sanction for this. IPSO is also an entirely voluntary regulator and The Guardian, Indie/i and FT all refused to join and so currently exist outside the system of press regulation.

There simply is no opting out of either the BBFC or OfCom systems. OfCom is a licensing power, and has removed the license from several TV channels, including Iran-funded Press TV for repeatedly breaching regulations. That makes it a criminal offence for any TV distribution platform, the likes of Sky, BT, Virgin or even Netflix and Amazon to carry the channel in the UK. In the case of the BBFC, if they refuse to issue an 18 or R18 rating that also makes it a criminal offence to distribute or exhibit that movie, a power they have only used three times since 2010, but had used much more frequently in the past. There is an exception here, arguably a positive example of local oversight being added to a national system: local councils have the power to issue their own ratings on the very rare occasions when they disagree with a BBFC decision. This was exercised in 2000 for the then-banned 1973 slasher movie "The Last House on the Left", with those limited screenings presumably pushing an embarrassed BBFC to finally issue the film with an 18 for an uncut version the following year.

Where the regulation of film and TV has been established through the passing of laws with relatively little fuss (at least until the current government began to pursue an openly hostile approach to the BBC and C4), repeated parliamentary investigations and reports have failed to make any fundamental difference to press regulation, with no party in power willing to gamble their re-election prospects on angering a still-powerful press. A second RCP reported just a decade after the 1st that the GCP had been a failure and that the state of the press was now worse, requiring tougher measures. With the threat of statutory regulation again raised, the industry replaced the GCP with the Press Council, which itself would be condemned as a failure by a third RCP in 1977 - two versions of the press regulator condemned as unfit for purpose within little more than 20 years of the first being launched.

One potentially significant change did come from the send RCP report, a legal change to require the signature of a government minister to agree any future sales of newspaper titles. None of the now four press regulators have had anything to say about the ownership of the press, a fundamental issue without consideration of which there arguably can be no effective press regulation. In practice, in the now 50 years since this legal change not one single sale has been refused by the government. Indeed, recently released documents show that Mrs Thatcher went out of her way to illegally smooth the path for Rupert Murdoch to take over the Times newspapers in the 1980s, Murdoch being seen as 'one of us', a reliable right-winger who would promote right-wing ideas through his papers. Murdoch would of course lead one of the most significant union-busting actions of the 1980s, taking on and defeating the powerful print unions with the full force of the police made available to him.

It is a picture Curran and Seaton would recognise from the 1850s, a time seen as marking the starting point of a truly free press as the government scrapped tax (stamp duty) on papers. Marxist academics, they quote from parliamentary debate to show how undermining the flourishing radical (mainly left-wing) press, and its spreading of class consciousness and awareness of the growing trade union movement, was the explicit aim of these reforms, which has taken on hegemonic status as an unquestionably good thing.

When the phone-hacking scandal, and public outrage over the Milly Dowling case in particular, created ...

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