Media institutions can cause huge harm through the things they do – and don’t – say. All media institutions should be accountable, but public media should set the bar for accountability – accurately representing people and issues, correcting mistakes, and taking responsibility for any harm they cause.
Q: What’s the problem?
Media can cause harm in many ways. Some examples in recent years have been:
- using unethical or illegal methods to find stories, like hacking the phones of victims of crime
- promoting celebrities like Jimmy Savile and then turning a blind eye to their abusive behaviour
- misrepresenting disempowered groups, e.g. reinforcing the apparent link between Muslims and terrorism
- failing to cover major stories, such as the fire hazard of the cladding on Grenfell tower
Media institutions need to be accountable for these harms or they will just keep doing them.
Q: What’s the solution?
There are a number of different ways that media might be held accountable, including:
- effective complaints mechanisms
- court action, for libel or compensation for illegal activities
- consumer power – refusing to stock or buy a product, such as the decades long boycott of The Sun in Liverpool
- government inquiries, such as the Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking
- investigations by regulators (e.g. Impress, Ofcom and Ipso) into editorial decisions or representations of groups
- audience involvement in editorial decisions
For these to really hold media institutions to account, whoever holds them accountable has to be truly independent, the processes have to be easily accessible for the general public, and their remedies have to be effective enough to change how media behave.
Q: How are public broadcasters accountable?
All broadcasters are now regulated by Ofcom. Ofcom handles complaints, gives rulings about impartiality, and also decides whether the public service broadcasters are meeting their obligations to the public. Questions have been raised about whether Ofcom is independent enough to handle complaints, especially with the current rumours that the ex-editor of the Daily Mail Paul Dacre might be appointed as the chair.
Rulings on complaints can be very controversial. If you complain to Ofcom about the BBC, it first has to get through a lengthy BBC complaints process to be eligible for consideration. During the 2019 general election, Ofcom received 2,124 complaints but only one investigation was undertaken. This is entirely consistent with Ofcom’s rules and regulations but suggests that these are now in serious need of an overhaul.
Some of the most impactful moments of accountability of have happened when government, rather than citizens, has put pressure on public broadcasters. The Hutton inquiry into the Iraq war, for example, led to changes in the editorial process that arguably made the BBC less independent. The Chilcott inquiry, which was much more critical of the government, didn’t result in equivalent changes.
Q: How are other media accountable?
Newspapers are regulated by IPSO and Impress. Impress was set up following the Leveson inquiry holds higher standards. For example, it can direct the wording and placement of apologies and also accepts group complaints (whereas you can only complain to Ipso if you are directly affected by an article as an individual). Impress is also entirely independent of the organisations it regulates, whereas IPSO is largely run by the press industry itself – so it’s not an adequate regulator for public media.
There are independent media organisations who are developing more radical forms of accountability, including having editors being elected by journalists, or readers being members who have voting rights. These are described more fully in the section on democracy.