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Category: Media Trends

If ever there was a harbinger of an imminent demolition job it has to be Rupert Murdoch’s demand for an easing of the rules which require radio and television services to be politically impartial in their news and current affairs output.

Murdoch knows he is pushing at an open door: newspaper websites are already free to be as partisan as they like in what they report and now that the broadcasting regulator Ofcom has thrown in the towel, the same goes for the burgeoning audio-visual output of press proprietors.

Internet television will soon be available at the flick of a remote control and my fear is that political parties struggling for support will rue the day that the Blair government failed to ensure action was taken to protect balanced reporting on television and radio during general election campaigns.

 

In private evidence to a House of Lords’ communications committee, Murdoch said he wanted Sky News to have the same political freedom as his American channel Fox News so that Sky could become "a proper alternative to the BBC".

Murdoch insisted that when it came to deciding the political line to be followed by the Sun and the News of the World he was and would remain a "traditional proprietor". He would take the decision, in consultation with his editors, and he was still undecided about which party to support at the next general election.

What so far has attracted little attention is the potential political impact of the television news bulletins which are now available on the websites of national newspapers. Whether the choice is Telegraph TV or Sun TV, what has happened is that press proprietors rather than established broadcasters are now at the cutting edge in testing the rules on impartiality.

Murdoch wins either way: internet tv news will change the face of political coverage and that will inevitably effect the output of mainstream channels like the BBC, ITV and Sky which eventually will find they have no alternative but to compete on equal terms.

Two largely unreported but related developments support my fears. A year ago, to the delight of the media proprietors, Ofcom backed off and agreed that the Press Complaints Commission would be allowed to widen its remit and adjudicate on any complaints about the content of audio-visual material on newspaper websites.

Self-regulation for internet tv was followed in June by Ofcom’s report, New News, Future News which discusses the case for relaxing the rules on political impartiality for mainstream tv services. It argued that the requirement for due impartiality "may become less enforceable" and it is now suggesting that to begin with "small niche channels" should be given this freedom.

Unfortunately Ofcom is so remote from reality, and so determined to be a light-touch regulator, that its highly-paid staff have failed to wake up to the fact that politically partisan tv is already alive and well on websites like www.18doughtystreet.com

For some months the Conservative blogger Iain Dale hosted Vox Politix, a nightly televised discussion programme which was the brainchild of the site’s owner Stephan Shakespeare. Having been a guest several times, I have no complaints and was free to make whatever point I wanted, but the two-hour programme could hardly have been described as a balanced platform offering an equal share of time to Labour or the Liberal Democrats.

Likewise with its television attack advertisements 18 Doughty Street is breaking new ground and broadcasting the kind of propaganda for which American election campaigns are infamous.

By far its most controversial offering was the two-minute attack ad broadcast on 18 Doughty Street in March which sought demolish the record of Ken Livingstone, the Labour 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 striker".

My concern is that come the next general election, unregulated attack ads could be broadcast on the websites of the Sun and News of the World and become powerful new political weapons in the hands of the Murdoch press.

With rapid media convergence viewers will soon have set top boxes which at the click of a remote control will give them a choice of websites on their television screens. How will the BBC respond to the political freedom exercised by Sun TV or 18 Doughty Street?

I am convinced these unregulated sites will become the Trojan horse which erodes long-standing election safeguards which have protected not only the opposition of the day but also guaranteed a voice for minority parties.

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 the broadcasters cannot not be politically partisan.

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 news and current affairs programmes which, despite their limitations, most observers accept are generally fair to all sides.

But websites will have the freedom to promote whatever political line they choose without having to respect the traditional rules on party balance and established broadcasters like the BBC will be at an immediate competitive disadvantage.

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 but that arrangement too could disintegrate if the previously banned attack advertisements are allowed on British screens.

Whenever I voice my concerns at seminars on political blogging I am greeted either with silence or derision. Out in the blogosphere the unanimous view seems to be that such is the diversity and competition between websites, bloggers et al, that come the next general election, political balance will sort itself out.

I am afraid we have heard it all before. When the press switched from hot metal production to computerised technology, journalists were assured there would be almost limitless opportunities for diversification and expansion. In the event newspaper ownership has been concentrated into ever fewer hands, especially in the provinces, where much of the regional and local press is a shadow of what it once was.

So it is with the internet. On the one hand the opportunities for political expression seem limitless but on the other it is already the case that the big media groups are muscling in on the most popular sites.

Newspaper proprietors are out in front seeking to protect their interests in a crowded market place and in pursuing their commercial agendas, they will be anxious to retain any influence which they can exert on the government of the day.

At a recent seminar (24.11.2007) on the impact of political blogs at Goldsmiths, University of London, my dire warnings did not impress the assembled bloggers. The general conclusion was that the more competition the better.

Paul Staines, otherwise known as Guido Fawkes, whose blog www.order-order.com is regarded by political journalists as being perhaps the most adventurous and outrageous, believed that political video blogging, which is still in its infancy, will eventually be huge.

Convergence between mainstream and internet tv will open up vast new audiences and this is certainly the hope of Stephan Shakespeare whose site www.18doughtystreet.com is to be re-launched in the New Year as a political news site offering political junkies the kind of service which Bloomberg provides for the financial community.

Shakespeare is a passionate advocate of a new approach to political reporting on tv. "Impartiality as practiced by the BBC doesn’t work. Giving equal time for the Conservatives, Labour and so on doesn’t engage with the audience. What is needed is a diversity of voices".

What is not in doubt is that video-rich political websites are going to drive a coach and horses through the stop-watch political reporting of the past. In view of the many disasters engulfing Gordon Brown it could be 2010 before Britain votes again and by then the lack of a coherent regulatory framework and the government’s lamentable failure to protect public service broadcasting might well have resulted in yet another demolition job on Britain’s democratic safeguards.

 (This article first appeared in Tribune December 7, 2007)