No, Andrew Gilligan, we do not want content regulation

By Media Reform Coalition / Friday April 19, 2013 Read More
Have you heard? The Media Reform Coalition is part of a plot by the European Union to take control of the British press. At least that’s what seems to be implied in an article by Andrew Gilligan in this week’s Sunday Telegraph. Normally, we turn the other cheek to these kinds of attacks. But in between the shocking revelations that media academics sometimes talk to each other or collaborate on research, Gilligan’s latest makes a number of misleading claims about our proposals, and they need to be corrected. Mike Jempson of Mediawise has written his own response to the claims about that organisation. Here is ours. Gilligan writes:

“CCMR, run by Left-wing academics at Goldsmith’s College, London, believes that concerns about the media “should not be confined only to individual abuses” and regulation should not simply be about the “social-worker mediation of grievances”.”

He goes on:

“The group wants a new media regulator to correct the “national conversation” which it says has been “distorted” by Right-wing newspapers and to change the “terms of public debate” by “imposing public-service duties” on the press.”

Scary stuff. The clear picture is of a staunchly leftist organisation seeking to change the entire media landscape through creating a draconian new regulator. But if you simply read our proposals, rather than jamming quotes together to create sinister innuendo, you’ll get a rather clearer picture of what we actually want. Gilligan takes most of his quotes from our co-founder James Curran. His key sources are a speech at our Rally for Media Reform in May 2012 and another at a Leveson Inquiry seminar in October 2011.  Although the article lifts bits and pieces from both these speeches as if they flow coherently from one another, most of them refer to rather different things. For instance, Curran’s words about “social worker mediation” come from his speech to the Leveson seminar, but they actually refer to the creation of a research centre to “promote informed, evidence-based discussion” – not to new rules about press conduct. The paragraph about “public service duties”, meanwhile, conflates two separate policies. Curran is not talking about our proposals for “a new media regulator.” Instead, his comments are part of a broader debate about media ownership and competition law. First, Curran refers to a call by Enders Analysis – not a left-wing academic think tank but a hard-nosed business research company – to cap any single media company’s revenue at 15 per cent of the total market. He is saying we need to reduce the power of media barons to set “the terms of the public debate” – not quite the same thing as a regulator changing them. Then, several paragraphs later, he talks about the “public service duties” which form part of our own platform on media ownership. Although Gilligan links us with the EU’s Mediadem project, which he says wants content regulation along the lines of Ofcom in broadcasting, these “duties” are nothing of the sort. On the contrary, we’ve repeatedly spoken out against content regulation: a paper from November 2011, we consider then clearly reject any involvement by Ofcom in the print media….

“Licensing and regulation of content (which is required for broadcasting) would be burdensome and chilling. It would crush innovation, and prevent smaller organisations entering the market.” (p14)

Indeed, as Curran notes in the speech itself, the public interest obligations we propose are “not about regulating content but changing the workplace in which content is produced.” What does this mean? It’s all laid out in our Recommendations for Media Plurality. There, we describe a set of public interest obligations which should apply only to the largest media corporations – those who command between 15 and 20 per cent of a given market. In case this were not clear, we spelled out the limits of these recommendations in our submission to the Leveson Inquiry:

“Obligations should only be imposed on those groups with a 15% share of a given audience, and should be restricted to 1) bolstering the autonomy of journalists and editors within the organisation and 2) making a contribution to supporting public interest media outside of their organisation.”

Specifically, these obligations include:
  • Creating within each company an editorial panel composed of journalists from within that company.
  • Making the appointment and dismissal of editors and senior staff subject to approval by this panel, so that proprietors can’t hire and fire their editors for political reasons unless journalists are on board.
  • Making proprietors consult the panel on all changes of editorial direction.
  • Allowing journalists to pass a motion of no confidence in their editors.
This is hardly Stalinist state control. We want reporters to be able to have control over the papers they work for and we want editors to be safe from interference by their rich owners. We also recommend:
  • A levy on profits to support community radio and investigative journalism.
  • Minimum levels of investment in original newsgathering for dominant companies.
  • Other commitments to ensure local and investigative reporting aren’t squeezed out of the market.
These are not the materials of a chilling conspiracy. They are simple, concrete recommendations available for anyone to read on our site; we want competition law to recognise newspapers’ crucial role in our democracy and accordingly ensure their plurality. It should go without saying that these proposals have nothing to do with the Royal Charter and have not been considered by the government, let alone acted on. They are ideas for the future which mainstream political conversation needs urgently to consider. As to the EU’s ‘High Level Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism’, which Gilligan links with us via Ben Hammersley, we have never recommended the ‘striking off’ of journalists. In our Ethical Practice briefing, we argued that such measures would be both impractical and pointless. By contrast, Paul Dacre and Lord Black have both advocated plans for the registration of journalists, which we called “the biggest restraint on press freedom since the mid-nineteenth century.” Gilligan’s article succeeds in obfuscating policies we have made quite clear. Attacks on the movement for media reform often depend on this kind of implication and innuendo. Clear, honest and specific criticisms of how our proposals could impinge on press freedom are, unfortunately, less common.