In November 2002 the government unveiled an update to their Communications Bill which was to be met with mixed feelings by broadcasters and journalists alike. In this essay I will examine the extent to which it has affected print journalism and the press, by looking at the views of those who know what it will do, journalists and media proprietors themselves and the MP’s involved in composing the bill.
The main worry surrounding print journalists and the press is that the new regulator of communications brought in by the government, ‘Ofcom’, will be a stranglehold on the things that are actually allowed to be written and therefore totally dismissing the concept of a ‘free press’. Ofcom exists now to protect the interests of the consumers, according to the bill, but it is uncertain as to how far they will go to do this in terms of restricting what newspapers can say.
The feeling is that, with Ofcom being a government regulatory body and therefore working closely with them, the government now has the freedom to control everything that goes out in newspapers to their favour, therefore making it impossible for any paper with an anti-Labour stance, or any paper that chooses to disagree with them in the future, to do so publicly through their own newspapers.
The government, however, more notably Culture secretary Tessa Jowell who helped devise the bill, state that the regulatory body is only there in the case of newspapers to advise the Secretary of State in the event of any mergers, and would not have any control over the editorial content of what the newspapers publish. However one of the many clauses in the bill gives way to the fact that any future authoritarian Prime Minister could introduce censorship to newspapers should he/she wish, therefore editorial content could easily be controlled no matter what they choose to censor.
While the majority of Ofcom’s duties, according to the bill, will be based upon broadcasting (radio and TV) and telephony, thus making slightly more them unlikely to want to interfere with the press as well, certain statements within the bill still hold a meaning that could be interpreted in different ways in the future handling of the bill under different MP’s. ‘The accurate presentation of news and free expression of opinion’ is one such statement.
The wording represents almost a contradiction of itself from one half of the phrase to the other. While the MP’s involved at the opening of the bill insist they will not interfere with editorial content, future handlers of the bill could see a ‘free expression of opinion’ as biased towards a certain viewpoint and therefore an ‘inaccurate presentation of news’, leaving the statement with contradiction and several means of interpretation that could cause a problem for newspapers in the future.
As the Communications Director of “Starcom Motive” said at a London conference following the bill’s release (see Analysis of Communications Bill, Media Guardian online), statements like this have ambiguity in the wording, and this leaves too much room for future misinterpretations meaning the wording must be changed before it is passed through as valid. The above statement being right alongside another statement, ‘the public interest test’, is also a concern for press hierarchy.
Both statements are currently the responsibilities of the Press Complaints Commission and the Competition Commission respectively, and therefore should not be in the hands of a government watchdog body as well. Despite all this, however Ofcom still insist that they will leave the majority of newspaper matters to the Press Complaints Commission, and will only intervene in aspects of competition, i.e. when newspaper groups merge or when one takes over another.
To conclude, I would be forced to agree with both sides on different issues, I don’t believe that the current government will intervene in editorial content of newspapers because it would put them in a bad light following all the promises made not to, but I think that if the wording isn’t at least changed in some of the clauses than this could have a very negative effect on press publishing in the long-term future because there are too many holes and room for misinterpretation in some of them, particularly ones regarding the press. The afore mentioned contradictory statement is the main example of this that I could find, but the uproar it caused, not only in the press field but broadcasting as well, seems to suggest that it will have a troublesome first few months getting off the ground.