Speech to Thomson Foundation (Egyptian Journalists' visit) 19.6.2007
Tony Blair’s belated acknowledgement in his Reuters speech that the growing dominance of the internet and accelerating media convergence might require a new regulatory framework only serves to underline his government’s lamentable failure to protect public service broadcasting.
Through his unseemly courtship of media magnates such as Rupert Murdoch, which continued throughout his Premiership, Blair weakened the BBC and has bequeathed a media regime which could threaten one of the country’s greatest democratic safeguards.
News coverage of election campaigns is a classic British compromise: we have a free press and newspapers can be as unscrupulous as they like in promoting whichever party they choose. But coverage on television and radio cannot be politically partisan; there are clear rules requiring television and radio stations to ensure a balance in air time between the parties.
Now, with rapid media convergence, I think that unregulated broadcasting on the internet by newspaper websites, political pressure groups and bloggers could become the Trojan horse which erodes a system which has protected not only the opposition of the day but also guaranteed a voice for minority parties.
Over the years candidates from across the political spectrum have been the beneficiaries of an arrangement which ensures them access to television and radio and allows them to promote their own individual policies within programme structures which, despite their limitations, most observers accept are generally fair to all sides.
However, because the government has allowed broadcasting on newspaper websites to be self-regulated there will be no built-in safeguards affecting output on the internet during future election campaigns; websites will have the freedom to promote whatever political line they choose without having to respect the traditional rules on party balance.
What makes this a potential threat to the future conduct of election campaigns is that the audio-visual material which is being broadcast by mass-circulation newspapers like the Sun and the News of the World will become yet another significant propaganda outlet for the political patronage of the Murdoch empire.
Traditional broadcasters like the BBC will be at an immediate competitive disadvantage because politicians will be tempted to seek out the most favourable coverage. Campaigning on the internet via the website of a supporting newspaper will offer far greater political freedom than the still regulated television and radio.
Another tried and tested feature of British general elections -- the party political broadcast -- might also be threatened. Parties are allocated broadcasts on a formula based on the number of constituencies which they are contesting. It is because national and regional stations are obliged to give these broadcasts air time, that Britain has always banned the kind of election advertising on television and radio which is commonplace in many other countries, most noticeably in the USA.
This transformation has already begun. Politically-partisan websites are being established at a rate of knots and are quite unapologetic both about their commitment to the party of their choice and to their lack of equal access or balance for political opponents.
Within a matter of weeks British television viewers will be able to purchase set top boxes which at the click of a remote control will give them a choice of websites on their television screens. So true convergence is closer than most people realise and it will inevitably prompt a further push by the big media proprietors to capture a share of the website market to compensate for their loss of newspaper sales.
So far, on the political front, it seems to be activists within the Conservative Party who are leading the way and developing websites which are at the cutting edge of political communication.
Almost year ago www.18doughtystreet.com began live transmissions of daily political discussions and one of its many innovations has been the creation of British versions of the television attack advertisements which are so prominent during American elections.
Its most successful ad, "A world without America", was a staunch defence of America’s role in the world and claimed that without America it would be "a world with less freedom". Perhaps, not unexpectedly, the ad went down so well in the USA that it had 250,000 hits and was rebroadcast on Fox News and CNN.
Another far more controversial offering from 18Doughtystreet was its attack ad on Ken Livingstone’s record as Mayor of London. It contained hard- hitting lines about how London was "less safe than New York"; how as "London’s problems mount Ken Livingstone is enjoying himself and found time to visit Cuba"; and how Ken had the support of the rail union leader, Bob Crow, "Bob the strike leader".
My concern is that come the next general election, unregulated attack ads broadcast on the websites of the Sun or the News of the World could become powerful political weapons in the hands of the Murdoch newspapers and whichever party News International decides to support.
No wonder the media proprietors purred with delight six months ago when the broadcasting regulator Ofcom threw in the towel and allowed the Press Complaints Commission to widen its remit and start adjudicating on complaints about the content of video and audio material on newspaper websites.
In his speech to the Reuters Institute attacking the news media for "hunting in a pack…like a feral beast", Tony Blair acknowledged that the blurring of the distinction between papers and television pointed to the need for revision of a regulatory framework puts broadcasting under Ofcom but leaves the press to be self-regulated by the PCC.
However, Blair failed to address the impact of the key change which happened on his watch: that television output on newspaper websites is to be self-regulated and therefore not subject to the rules governing broadcasting during election campaigns.
Future European regulations might require that all television output streamed over the internet has to be covered by regulators like Ofcom but British media proprietors are at the forefront of the campaign to ensure that online newspapers are excluded from statutory regulation.
Sir Christopher Meyer, the PCC chairman, is a firm defender of self regulation for newspaper websites. In reacting to Blair’s speech, he said he believed that "imposed content rules for press and the internet are objectionable in principle and now impossible to enforce in practice".
Neither Blair nor Meyer have speculated publicly on what they think might happen during a general election. When I voiced my concerns in March at a seminar on political web logs organised by the Adam Smith Institute, I was greeted with derision. The unanimous view of the blogsphere is that such will be the diversity and competition between websites and bloggers come the next election, that political balance will sort itself out. That too was the view when I debated the issue during a discussion on the Vox Politix programme on www.18Doughtystreet.com .
Nonetheless I am not convinced. Media proprietors are having to adjust to the fact that the value of advertising on the net now exceeds that of newspapers and they will want a share of the action.
Over the decades newspapers have built up mass circulations on the back of political campaigning and the most successful publishers became formidable players on the political stage, be it the Lords Northcliffe and Beaverbrook of earlier years or more latterly Rupert Murdoch.
It could be 2010 before Britain votes again and my fear still is that by then political parties struggling for support will rue the day that the Labour government failed to ensure action was taken to protect balanced reporting on television and radio during general elections.