Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website
Foreign Press Association debateApril 28, 2009The rapid moves by UK newspapers to develop their online output – complete with video and audio as well text and pictures -- is injecting a  new dynamism into British journalism.  Having been a BBC correspondent for thirty years, I find it painful having to admit this, but I have to say that it is newspapers rather than the mainstream television and radio services, which are at the cutting edge in offering exclusive videos and audio tapes, stretching to the limits what journalism should be achieving and more often than not dictating the news agenda into the bargain.  In the short space of a year or two, newspaper websites have become a powerful new platform -- an online showcase for what is arguably some of the best and perhaps what others might consider is some of the worst of British journalism.  While admittedly they say they are not earning much from their internet initiatives, indeed if they are making any money at all, the UK’s newspapers have definitely been exhibiting their traditional flair and imagination.  I am afraid to say it is the BBC’s management that have lost their way. As a result, BBC correspondents and reporters are unsure as to how far they can go in exploiting the new opportunities which the internet is opening up for investigative journalism, just as the editors of ITV’s news and current affairs have lost the confidence they  displayed in the past, with the honourable exception of Channel Four News.  

The are some fundamental questions which broadcasters like myself should be asked: why would a G20 protestor or environmental campaigner who, for example, has video or audio evidence about alleged Police abuses, prefer to go to the Guardian or the Sunday Times rather than the BBC or ITV?  What is it that motivates a citizen journalist with damming mobile phone footage or an insider who has access to incriminating closed circuit television footage?  The answer is staring us in the face.  They want their footage and information disseminated as quickly and effectively as possible and it is newspaper websites and bloggers which provide additional and almost unlimited opportunities to achieve their objective, which in their case is in exposing alleged abuses. And the same goes for controversial emails as the blogger Guido Fawkes (Paul Staines) can testify.

 

Newspapers like the Guardian, the Sunday Times and Mail on Sunday – or the Sun and the News of the World when it comes to sensational or intrusive material – are prepared to take risks which I fear a neutered BBC dare not contemplate.  Time and again exclusive stories based on video and audio tapes which newspapers have posted online on their websites, are being followed up immediately by the BBC, ITV and Sky.  Once that information has been placed in the public domain -- thanks to the national press -- the broadcasters climb aboard and follow up these story lines as quickly as they can.  It is at this point, that television and radio stations are only too happy to re-broadcast video and audio material which they would not dare to have commissioned themselves or, if they had been given it exclusively, would not dared to have broadcast on their own initiative. 

 The key to this puzzle is regulation.  The BBC’s editorial guidelines and the standards imposed by the regulator Ofcom are stifling the initiative and freedom of broadcasters.  By contrast  newspapers and their websites are self-regulated under the guidance of Press Complaints Commission. When it comes to the code of conduct for newspaper editors, the test is straightforward: is broadcasting the video or audio material online in the public interest?  The answer has to be yes. Take the Guardian’s two exclusives about police abuses which were exploited so skilfully via the Guardian’s website: first footage of newspaper seller Ian Tomlinson being thrown to the ground by a baton-wielding police officer during the G20 demonstration in London (8.4.2009).  And then last weekend’s story based on secret recordings of Strathclyde Police offering cash in return for information about the activities on the environmental group Plane Stupid (25.4.2009).  In both cases mainstream television and radio stations pounced on the video and audio material on the Guardian’s site and rebroadcast it straight away.  The broadcasters took the easy way out – letting the Guardian make the first move.  We have to consider the insurmountable hurdles which broadcasters face on such stories. For example, to have taken advantage of a potentially hostile witness like the environmentalist Tilly Gifford, who engaged in secret, surreptitious recording of the Police would have required BBC journalists to have gone through mind-numbing procedures which I think would almost certainly have ended with top management saying No.  I am convinced there is no way the BBC would have ever given approval to the sting by journalists of the Sunday Times in recording members of the House of Lords asking for cash in return for changing the law (25.1.2009).  It was a sting which drove a coach and horses through the parliamentary rules governing the conduct of journalists but the tapes – which added so much to the veracity of the story -- dominated BBC news bulletins.  Nor would the BBC have agreed to the News of the World’s secret filming of a member of the European Parliament boasting about fiddling his expenses (11.5.2008).  But the double standards of broadcasters like the BBC, ITV and Sky -- in taking advantage of video and audio material obtained by the tabloids in dubious circumstances – plumbed to new depths when we look at recent Sun and News of the World exclusives.   Here we see how the broadcasters forget all their high and mighty scruples about invasion of privacy.  When the News of the World’s website began the online transmission of Prince Harry’s racist video about his time at Sandhurst (11.1.2009),  the BBC, like every other broadcaster, couldn’t get enough of it. But did you hear the BBC questioning how the video had been obtained. Was it stolen? Was it leaked? It was certainly Prince Harry’s property and broadcasting it breached his privacy. But there was equally no soul searching at ITV news when it rebroadcast the Sun’s video of Alfie, who had become a father at thirteen (13.2.2009).    A Sun reporter took a video camera into the hospital to record an interview and it wasn’t until the following week that the family division of the High Court finally stepped in and put a stop to the coverage in order to protect the rights of Alfie and baby Masie.  What is happening is that the national newspapers of Britain are becoming online broadcasters and mounting a direct challenge to mainstream radio and television.  We already have Telegraph TV and Sun TV and last week the Sun launched SunTalk (20.4.2009), its online radio station. The first on-air guest was the Conservative leader David Cameron – or should I say, to quote shock jock Jon Gaunt, the “next Prime Minister”. It was quite a love-in. Don’t forget, the Conservatives are quite clear about the future.  They say newspapers websites which become digital broadcasters should be allowed to be partisan, which means they won’t have to be politically impartial and balanced – the requirement which is placed on public service broadcasters like the BBC and ITV. And now we can begin to see a real political danger.  I am convinced that come the European Parliamentary elections in June we will see coming through in their audio-visual coverage, the strong anti-European Union sentiments of newspapers like the Daily Telegraph, the Sun and the Daily Mail. So is politicised coverage online by the highly-politicised British press going to become the Trojan horse that undermines the great European tradition of balanced reporting during elections? My fear is that it most certainly will be.   But now we face the really difficult question of whether there should be any regulation of the audio-visual output of newspaper websites.  I would suggest that once the number of hits reaches a certain point – or perhaps when they become digital stations – their broadcast output should be required to meet certain standards on impartiality and balance during election campaigns. These sites – or stations as they will become – should be politics-free on polling day.  Newspapers are zero-rated for value added tax so they are subsidised by the taxpayers and if they become broadcasters they should be required to meet at least some of the minimum standards of public service television and radio.