Unlike the USA, where the press is in dire straits, British national newspapers are hoping to reinvent themselves on line and derive a new income stream from their websites. Despite the odds being stacked against them, the press proprietors are determined to try to get readers into the habit of paying to view online. But this can only be achieved by forcing the BBC to curb the expansion of its online output. Downsizing the BBC would create the space in which to develop potentially profitable pay-for-view sites – an option almost certain to be favoured by an incoming Conservative government. By buying up exclusive and often sensational videos the newspapers are already showing that they can beat the established broadcasters at their own game. Digital convergence will give the press to ability to join up the dots…to command the agenda not just in print and online but in radio and television as well.
Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom: Conference on Media For All: The Challenge of Convergence, 31.10.2009. Break out session on Politics and the Media Online. Contribution by Nicholas Jones, author and journalist (former BBC political correspondent). Should there be controls to regulate the online television and radio output of newspaper websites? Are press proprietors eroding established broadcasting standards? Can the concept of political impartiality survive in a digital age? Despite all the imponderables surrounding Rupert Murdoch’s struggle to get newspaper websites to turn in a profit, there is one certainty in Britain’s highly-competitive digital environment. Both the Labour government of Gordon Brown and a future Conservative administration led by David Cameron have indicated that they have no intention of either restraining or regulating the online television and radio output of the press. Media proprietors have exerted constant pressure behind the scenes to keep the government at arm’s length and allow the press a free hand to develop on line. Nonetheless the ability of newspapers to reinvent themselves online does raise some important questions: Why is it that within the Department of Culture, Media and Sport there are apparently no red lines when it comes to safeguarding broadcasting ethics? Why, for their own commercial interests, should press proprietors be allowed to give a dangerous degree of legitimacy to a lowering of journalistic standards? Newspapers currently have total freedom to innovate in their online output and it is clear this is a state of affairs which will continue whatever the outcome of next year’s general election. Their websites are under no obligation to pay any heed either to their potential impact on existing radio and television services or to the threat which their unregulated output poses to the broadcasters’ well-respected rules on invasion of privacy and political impartiality.“So what”, tends to be the response whenever I raise my concerns with newspaper executives, website providers or government officials. Their argument is straightforward: the more the competition, the better. They refuse to accept there could possibly be any hidden dangers in allowing newspapers to transmit audio-visual material which flouts the editorial guidelines of both the BBC and Ofcom. What is wrong -- they say -- in giving the press even greater leverage when newspapers manage to command the news agenda? Why shouldn’t the press challenge the BBC in its own backyard? At the heart of a debate about whether or not there should be any restraints on the freedom of newspapers to innovate online are two critical decisions. The audio-visual output of newspaper sites is self-regulated under the codes of the Press Complaints Commission. And, as from the start of the year, it was agreed – again after pressure from the British government – that the output of newspaper sites should be outside the remit not only of the British regulator Ofcom, but also European Union regulations which seek to control the online development of television-like services. A laissez faire regime for the online television and radio output of newspapers – when compared with regulated world of the mainstream broadcasters – begins to assume a greater significance when we take into account the unique nature of the British press. The UK’s newspapers constitute a free press in the true sense of the word. They have total political freedom to campaign for whichever cause or party they choose. They have a well-deserved, world-wide reputation for campaigning journalism. But they are also renowned for having the deepest cheque books when it comes to buying sensational information, intrusive videos and what are often politically-loaded stories and interviews.Such is the intensity of the competition within the British news media that we can now begin to assess the impact of the exclusive online interviews, sensational videos and other material purchased by newspapers. Often, especially at weekend, this output can dominate the news agenda. As a result newspaper proprietors are succeeding in joining up the dots: they are dictating the agenda not just in print but also online and more worryingly their material is feeding through almost instantly into mainstream television and radio news bulletins which eagerly re-broadcast extended extracts from the online output of newspaper sites.You can see the red logos of newspapers like the News of the World or the Sun in the right-hand corner of the shot. What the BBC, ITV and Sky do not tell their viewers and listeners is that they are regularly re-transmitting material which the broadcasters would have been forbidden by their own guidelines from ever commissioning in the first place. But once intrusive and sensational footage is made available online on a newspaper website – and is thus in the public domain – it gains an unwarranted and potentially dangerous legitimacy. The haste with which such footage is being rebroadcast is weakening the rules designed to prevent intrusions of privacy by radio and television.The threat is even more insidious when it comes to the ability of the press proprietors to manipulate the political agenda. An exclusive interview, bought up by a newspaper, has far greater impact when it is also available in an audio-visual format. Again the newspapers are succeeding in setting the agenda not just in the press but also online and on radio and television as well. This blurring of standards is most worrying when newspapers have obtained footage in circumstances which conflict with the guidelines for television and radio. The press can offer the kind of audio-visual output which no established broadcaster could have originated – yet these self-same broadcasters are quite prepared to jettison their high and mighty scruples when retransmitting footage from newspaper websites. Safeguards to protect the identity of children are much stronger on radio and television than for newspapers. Again when it comes to the invasion of people’s privacy, newspaper journalists can go much further than broadcasters in pushing to the limit the ethical boundaries of the news media. The code of conduct issued by the Press Complaints Commission allows editors to argue that intrusion is sometimes in the public interest, a defence that is rarely available under the codes of the BBC and Ofcom. When a Sun reporter with a video camera filmed thirteen-year-old Alfie with what was thought to be his newly-born baby Masie, extracts from the footage were released to broadcasters and transmitted almost immediately on ITV’s news bulletins. (Dad at 13, Sun, 13.2.2009). The family division of the High Court had to step in to order a ban on further news coverage in order to protect the rights of Aflie and Masie. Similarly when the News of the World obtained a purloined copy of Prince Harry’s personal video of his time at Sandhurst – his commentary included racist remarks such as “Ahmed, our little Paki friend” -- extensive extracts were rebroadcast by all the mainstream radio and television news bulletins. (Harry’s Racist Video Shame, News of the World, 11.1.2009). Both stories were paid-for journalism -- neither the Sun nor the News of the World has divulged what they cost – and they were genuine newspaper exclusives which were avidly followed up by radio and television. But no regulated broadcaster would have dared to send a television crew to film a young father and baby in such disputed family circumstances when the publicist Max Clifford was hovering in the background. Nor would the BBC have dared to originate a story about Prince Harry’s video when it had so obviously been obtained in dubious circumstances. There was no soul searching at the BBC. No health warnings about whether the video might have been stolen. Both cases illustrate the way in which established standards are being eroded. Once video footage is available on the websites of the Sun and the News of the World, their stories acquire an added degree of legitimacy. This material is now in the public domain which justifies – so the argument goes – even wider circulation by television and radio and because video clips are freely on offer, established broadcasters can hardly be criticised for jumping on board such sensational story lines. For the newspapers the follow up coverage is win, win --- they are eager to publicise their websites and the wider the subsequent use of questionable material, the easier it is to defend. The impact of politically-loaded video footage is of even greater concern because it allows the newspaper proprietors to pursue their political agendas with added vigour. Broadcasters often have difficulty following up exclusive newspaper interviews; sometimes the interviewee has agreed a deal that excludes interviews by rival news organisations. By offering video clips to radio and television bulletins the newspaper are again in a win, win situation. They have control over the extracts which are being released and the broadcasters are trapped and have no alternative but to use the footage which has been offered. A year ago the Mail on Sunday succeeded in dominating the weekend’s news bulletins when it offered broadcasters footage from its exclusive interview with Lord Levy, fund raiser to the former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Levy’s interview included the sensational claim that Blair had told him that Gordon Brown ‘could never beat’ the Conservative leader David Cameron in a general election. (Blair: Gordon can’t beat Cameron, Mail on Sunday, 27.4.2008). The story coincided with one of the many crises surrounding Brown’s Premiership and it demonstrated the power of the Sunday newspaper exclusive. The Mail on Sunday had purchased exclusive rights to Lord Levy’s autobiography. BBC journalists could not ask Levy questions to test his claims – all that was available was footage from the Mail on Sunday’s website and that was used extensively. Another exclusive Mail on Sunday interview – brokered this time by the publicist Max Clifford – dominated media coverage at the end of September, during the weekend that opened the Labour Party’s annual conference. “I didn’t show the Baroness any passport” was the front page splash over its interview with Tongan housekeeper Loloahi Tapui in which she made a series of allegations about the conduct of the Attorney General, Baroness Scotland. (Mail on Sunday, 27.9.2009) Here was another example of politically-loaded footage getting blanket coverage on radio and television without any questions being asked. Broadcasters had no choice but to use the Mail on Sunday’s footage, such was the intensity of the competition. But it was a paid-for interview obtained in circumstances which would have rung alarm bells within the BBC and ITV if their journalists had tried pay for an interview with a woman whose legal status was in doubt. What is happening by stealth is the creation of a two-tier system: the press has moved into broadcasting without the restraints which apply to mainstream broadcasters and because of the purchasing power of the press – and the ability of newspapers to deliver sensational exclusives – the established television and radio services are rolling over and broadcasting material which could never have been obtained under their own ethical codes.When a delegation from the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom did its best to raise these issues with the government, the response was entirely predictable. I asked Sion Simon, junior minister at the Department of Media, Culture and Sport if he was any concerned by the backdoor demolition of established broadcasting standards. What did he think of broadcasters using pictures of Alfie and Masie? Was her concerned that a paid-for newspaper interview with the Attorney General’s housekeeper dominated radio and television output? Simon could not have been clearer: the government had no plans to either restrain or regulate the expansion of newspaper websites. Audio-visual output was subject to the codes of the Press Complaints Commission and there was no evidence that the online broadcasting of the press was undermining the standards of mainstream television and radio services.“I don’t think there are any red lines within the department…We are not saying ‘never’ and I don’t think there is an ideological objection to the possible regulation of online output in the future… It isn’t inconceivable but the government certainly isn’t in any rush to regulate or restrain newspapers as they seek to reinvent their businesses”.END