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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.


Jeffrey Dvorkin

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Waiting for Judgment: What If Media Self-Regulation is a Myth?

Lord Justice Brian Leveson
Sometime in the coming weeks, Lord Justice Brian Leveson in the UK will render his judgment as to whether newspapers and broadcasters need to come under some form of government sponsored regulation in that country.

If he does, there will be a tremendous outpouring of anguish, outrage and worry from editorial writers and journalists on both sides of the Atlantic and the Channel. When it comes to media matters, what happens in Britain usually doesn't stay in Britain.

Media self-regulation has been a hallmark of a free press going back to colonial times in America and to the rise of the middle classes in Europe. In America, the 1st Amendment to the Constitution has been a hallowed concept. Elsewhere, liberal democracies have enacted laws that guarantee freedom of the press and the right to publish even unpopular opinions, up to and sometimes including hate speech.

The sacred independence of the press and the media in general has been an unquestioned attribute of free societies. Democracy is based on that independence and along with it,
the duty of care of news organizations to have the freedom to write and broadcast what they deem appropriate without either government approval or condemnation.

But what if, in a digital age, that assumption connecting journalism to democracy, is just outmoded, if not plain wrong?

Media managers are anxious about what might just be a shift in that assumption. Justice Leveson may state that after the Murdoch newspapers' appalling behaviour, media organizations have lost their sense of obligation to the societies that they purport to serve.

Instead they pursue shareholder satisfaction above all else.

Just as calls for re-regulation of the banking sector are growing to avoid the wretched excesses of 2008, so might there be similar calls to rein in the so-called free press and legislate some kind of obligation to serve the public as citizens first, and consumers of media, second.

If that happens, journalism has no one to blame but itself. The pursuit of ratings and circulation has changed the sense of trust (limited though it might have been) between citizens and news organizations.

Ombudsmen (myself included) have argued that self-regulation best serves the interests of both the media and the public. That has been the social contract that most news people have believed in. But as some news organizations act more like 19th century robber barons, failing to hold up their end of the contract, that leaves governments and regulators with little choice but enforced accountability.

Should that happen, the role of the independent news ombudsman will require some serious re-thinking: how independent can an ombuds be, if he or she is seen to be an agent for government involvement in journalism?

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