Tim Luckhurst: Watchdog can champion ethics and fight sleaze

A visitor from Arkinfootle Minor might be shocked that the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee believes Britain's press should remain self-regulating.

Democrats should not be. MPs could scour the world for a better regulatory system. They would find examples of censorship masquerading as a servant of the public interest, but nothing better than our own flawed guarantor of a diverse and troublesome free press.

But, having predictably confirmed the worth of unlovable newspapers, the committee made helpful suggestions about the future of the Press Complaints Commission in this era of multimedia convergence. Most valuable is the proposal that the PCC should embrace an enhanced role as a promoter of ethical standards in journalism. The PCC's response was unenthusiastic. It said the committee had, "somewhat underrated the level of proactive work already undertaken," and suggested that the best way forward would be to, "improve the Committee's knowledge of our activities in these areas." It should not be so defensive.

In a forthcoming collection of essays about journalism and democracy in the digital era, New Media, Old News, Angela Phillips, Nick Couldry and Des Freedman of Goldsmiths, University of London, identify a trilogy of ethical objectives for modern reporters: accuracy; sincerity; and hospitality. Journalists should tell the truth, say what they genuinely believe and be receptive to other opinions.

In its present form the PCC does little to encourage these virtues. The first clause of the PCC code says that: "The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information." But the Goldsmiths team expose ways in which reporters on red-top and upmarket newspapers are cajoled into sacrificing ethics. One reporter tells them: "It isn't a balanced representation. It's been twisted to conform to an idea."

Few journalists who have worked for mass-market newspapers will challenge that depiction, at least not in private. They know that reporters' consciences are treasured less than circulation. These days pressure can include demands that journalists include in stories irrelevant references that have no purpose other than to increase web traffic. Journalists on one British title receive memos from their web team listing subjects being searched on Google. Then, if their story is about the prevalence of divorce, they are required to file copy which includes a phrase like, "couples such as Ashley and Cheryl Cole".

Such practices represent the application of old rules to a new environment. Future profits may be made in new ways. With newspaper circulations in decline, it is no longer plausible to pretend that old tricks still work. If there was ever a case for spinning the news to make it sexier, that case is weakened by the plethora of sensation and speculation now available online. Hyperbolic nonsense is ubiquitous on the internet. The modern newspaper reader is entitled to demand trustworthiness.

Intelligent readers understand that their favourite titles cannot beat online gossip for speed. They value trusted brands for their ability to present news accurately and in context, complete with background, commentary and analysis. Newspapers no longer need to be first. Instead they must be best at reporting accurately and thoroughly. Some call it curating the news instead of just publishing it.

This sets the PCC a new challenge. Without surrendering the principle that newspapers must be free to promote partisan opinions, it must promote a new atmosphere of trust. Ethical considerations are becoming one of the key criteria by which readers will distinguish professional reporting from the amateur variety known as citizen journalism.

As long as they embrace multi-media publishing, the challenge from new media can enhance rather than kill newspapers, but it may place a high premium on integrity. So, as the PCC adapts to modern conditions, it should put promoting ethics on an equal footing with its traditional role as an arbiter of complaints. This may provoke resistance from the sleazier end of Fleet Street. No matter. For self-regulation to win popular as well as parliamentary support the PCC must be willing to embarrass the industry that funds it in the interests of the public it serves.

Discussions about the future of professional journalism tend to end in prognoses that it may not have one. Orthodoxy is that much of the time people used to spend consuming news they now dedicate to social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Now a report by the BBC's Nic Newman for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism offers hope. Newman finds that person-to-person recommendations on social networking sites are driving traffic towards trusted news content. People who first learn about news events from online friends go to sites such as independent.co.uk to check the facts. Newman believes social networking may become as important as search engines in creating audiences for news. Coverage of recent stories, including Iran's disputed election and the G20 summit, confirm that a market exists for quality reporting that is easy to find online.

Kent pulls the plug on Soviet-like TV station

The death has been announced of Kent TV, the experimental taxpayer-funded internet broadcaster launched in September 2007 by Kent County Council. It will close this month.

The council likes to pretend that it devised a fiendishly clever way to cover its own services. In fact the council simply crawled into the digital no-man's land between Ofcom and the PCC to create a station that was not formally regulated at all. Thus a Conservative council gave birth to Britain's first attempt at Soviet-model, state-owned broadcasting.

The council liked to imagine that it would become self funding through advertising. In fact it cost local taxpayers £1.8m because viewing figures were never good enough to attract revenue. It failed because most locals did not know it existed and the few who did were wise enough not to trust it. So, hallelujah that it has gone, but a threat lingers on. Councils with newspapers that undermine the profitability of independent, local titles may try to emulate Kent's experiment. A legal framework is required to ban council ownership of broadcasting. The journalists who work for Kent TV are talented and I regret that they will lose their jobs, but nothing they did could conceal that this was a devious and deplorable attempt by local politicians to circumnavigate critical, independent scrutiny of council proceedings.

Message from the Garden of England: in a healthy democracy the state cannot hold itself to account. Power does not speak truth unto power. Only independent reporting does that.

Tim Luckhurst is Professor of Journalism at the University of Kent and Head of the University's Centre for Journalism, www.centreforjournalism.co.uk

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