Steven Barnett (email@example.com) Professor of Communications, University of Westminster September 2011
July 4 2011 was a momentous date for British journalism. Within three weeks of a single story being published, the 158-year-old weekly News of the World had closed down, two of its former editors had been arrested along with other senior journalists, the head of London's Metropolitan Police force and one of his deputies had resigned, the newspaper's owner Rupert Murdoch and his son James had been summoned to give evidence to a parliamentary committee, the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission had announced her intention to step down, and the Prime Minister David Cameron had set up a judicial inquiry into media ownership and standards of journalism under Lord Justice Leveson. It was a story that left the press, political and police establishments reeling. It was, potentially, a transformative moment not only in British journalism but in British public life.
That was the day on which the Guardian published its front-page exclusive that the mobile phone of Milly Dowler, a Surrey schoolgirl who had been abducted and murdered in 2002, had been hacked by a private detective employed by the News of the World. He had even deleted some of her messages, thereby giving false hope to parents and police that she might still be alive. Although the Guardian had been pursuing the story of illegal phone hacking for two years – and several senior politicians and celebrities had launched civil proceedings in respect of their own experience of phone hacking – this was the moment that the slightly rarefied complaints of a few members of the political and entertainment elite were transformed into an all-encompassing national scandal. As each new revelation emerged and each new arrest was announced, the sheer scale of amorality and corporate corruption astonished even the most sceptical observers.
It was not just the British public that was scandalized. Along with many other commentators of the media scene, in the three weeks that followed that Guardian story I was inundated with interview requests from astonished foreign reporters. From Brazil and Chile, the United States and Canada through Germany, France, Denmark, Norway and Spain to Russia, South Korea and China came the same line of questioning: how on earth could the British political establishment become so ensnared in the Murdoch embrace? What sort of journalism culture facilitated – even encouraged – the bribing of police officers and eavesdropping on the phone messages of bereaved relatives of terrorism victims and murdered children? What did it say about Britain's tabloid culture that a newspaper editor could parade on its front page heart-rending details of the Prime Minister's infant son being diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, knowing that this front-page splash would leave the Prime Minister and his family devastated?
While international observers looked on in disbelief, some British practitioners tried to rationalize. Let's not condemn, they said, the great British tradition of a raucous, rowdy, brash and irreverent tabloid press – an honourable legacy which went back over 100 years. Yes, of course, a few rough diamonds had overstepped the mark and no one could condone criminal activity in pursuit of a story. But the Murdochs had acted swiftly, the News of the World had closed and the problem could be swiftly resolved without recourse to draconian regulation. An unfettered press allowed to regulate itself, they said, was the only guarantor of a healthy democracy. They issued grave warnings of Soviet-style State censorship that would inevitably follow any attempt to invoke a regulatory system that might properly monitor and implement a code of ethical journalistic conduct. Any system which involved statutory sanctions would threaten democracy itself. Free speech would be chilled.
The sentiment was echoed by Rupert Murdoch himself in his evidence to the House of Commons select committee, when he spoke of how Britain benefits ‘from having a competitive press and therefore having a very transparent society. That is sometimes very inconvenient to people. But I think we are better and stronger for it.’ Implicit in this statement were two erroneous assumptions that need to be challenged. First, that the journalism which might be threatened by a stricter regime of regulatory oversight was that vital watchdog function which held power to account and which helped to root out dishonesty, incompetence or wrong-doing in high places. Second, that there was a direct connection between this vital democratic function of journalism and unfettered competition.
Either deliberately, or through blind faith in the free market, Murdoch missed the point. Much (though by no means all) of the reporting practised by the News of the World was light years away from the kinds of corruption-busting authority-defying journalism that all good democrats wish to see not only preserved but vigorously promoted. Increasingly it had come to rely on a diet of sex, sensationalism and scandal derived primarily from ruthless, unprincipled intrusions into the private lives of individuals, with a brutal disregard either for the factual accuracy of the stories or the potentially devastating impact on the characters involved. It was the journalism of the Colosseum rather the journalism of accountability.
This problem is not unique to the News of the World nor to Rupert Murdoch (though his various biographers agree that he is far more interested in scandal-mongering and gossip than hard-nosed investigative journalism). But this vindictive style of journalism does appear to have become an integral element of the British newspaper culture, driven by the cut-throat nature of national competition and Wild West-style absence of any rules of engagement. It is neither pleasant nor edifying, and it is far removed from the kind of impertinent, anti-elitist, populist reporting that once characterized the best of British tabloid journalism – and which was indeed an essential ingredient of a healthy democracy.
For the purposes of this book, however, perhaps the crucial point is that this amoral, celebrity-baiting form of journalism is also far removed from the customs and practices of British television journalism. At its height – abetted by a regulatory framework laid down in law, codes of conduct that were invariably followed, genuine sanctions for transgression and limited competition – television in Britain produced at least as much genuinely informational and accountability journalism as the national press. In its heyday, it would fearlessly tackle difficult social, economic and political issues, and would routinely challenge corporate and public authority. It would, in other words, regularly provide huge national audiences with exactly the kind of democracy-enhancing journalism that newspaper editors profess to worry about today. And here's the irony: it was because of, not in spite of, a protective regulatory framework that the health and survival of its journalism could be guaranteed.
As that protective regulatory framework diminishes, and as competition intensifies, great television journalism is under threat. It has already virtually disappeared in the United States, where the legacy of Edward R. Murrow and other revered journalistic voices from the past were long ago overwhelmed by an unregulated market that cared little for the democratic role of journalism. And now it is under threat not just in the United Kingdom but in many other developed and developing countries whose politicians are being seduced into believing that the marketplace is the universal panacea. History warns us – screams at us – that this is entirely wrong. And therein lies the theme of this book, which I hope will have resonance well beyond the borders of the United Kingdom: that thoughtfully constructed, responsibly implemented and genuinely independent regulation can promote the best journalism, not restrain it; regulation can liberate it rather than censor it. And that message from history has been heavily underlined, I would argue, by those dramatic phone-hacking revelations which rocked Britain in the middle of 2011.
The first half of the book is essentially historical, tracing the institutional and professional roots of television journalism in the United Kingdom, making comparisons in particular with its evolution in the United States and drawing parallels where possible with Europe and other developed nations. The Introduction presents the main thesis and arguments around the role and importance of television journalism, where it diverges from other forms, and the theoretical context.
Chapter 1 looks at the roots of television journalism in public broadcasting and in the emerging philosophy and independence of the BBC. It also identifies some of the early warnings about the limitations of the medium as a vehicle for trustworthy journalism. Chapter 2 examines the origins of commercial competition, the different news culture on commercial television, the regulatory framework and its impact on journalism, and the contrast with the different approach to television journalism that was slowly emerging in the United States.
Chapter 3 covers the 1960s to the 1980s, a period that might be characterized as a golden age of television journalism in the United Kingdom, with a range of news programmes, challenging current affairs, the birth of a new channel pioneering innovative ideas about television journalism, and mass audiences which would never be achieved again. The United States, meanwhile, was beginning its deregulatory journey, leaving increasingly little room for serious journalism on television. Chapter 4 is a case study of two specific programmes in the 1980s, one on the BBC and one on commercial television, which were and remain iconic examples of robust accountability journalism in the toughest possible conditions – each in its different way illustrative of how independent institutional and regulatory frameworks facilitate rather than constrain difficult investigative reporting in the face of enormous opposition from the State.
Chapter 5 looks at a seminal moment in the politics of British broadcasting – the 1990 Broadcasting Act – and its impact on television journalism, specifically in the context of one of the most influential theoretical frameworks of the time: Herman and Chomsky's propaganda model. Chapter 6 charts the demise of long-standing, well-resourced current affairs programmes on commercial television, a direct consequence of deregulatory policies, and the growing tensions around news scheduling. It also examines some of the emerging debates around the nature and style of journalism on the BBC.
Chapter 7 is both a theoretical and empirical analysis of tabloidization, specifically applied to the television medium, looking at evidence for and against the ‘dumbing-down’ thesis in Britain and the United States. It includes some of the first results from our longitudinal research project on the output of UK news bulletins. Chapter 8 and Chapter 9 bring us up-to-date and look ahead at the future for, respectively, publicly funded and commercially funded television journalism. Chapter 8 analyses, in particular, the impact of the Hutton report on BBC journalism, and at the longer term consequences of government cutbacks and the squeeze on public funding. Chapter 9 analyses what remains of the regulatory structure for journalism on commercial television, and its prospects in a digital world of multiple channels, fragmented audiences and disappearing revenues. It asks whether existing frameworks are sustainable and looks at what happens – as in the United States – when they are abolished altogether.
Chapter 10 examines both the phenomenon and the history of 24-hour news channels, their peculiar characteristics and narrative styles, and their respective contributions to a more globalized concept of television journalism. Chapter 11 looks at one specific element of television journalism that in most developed countries, for the time being at least, sets it apart from print and online: a continuing requirement for impartiality. It argues that, despite growing political and technological pressure, it is a necessary if not sufficient condition for sustaining quality and integrity in television journalism. The Conclusions, apart from providing an overview of the argument, also demonstrate why the ‘new’ journalism of the blogosphere and ‘user generated content’ is no substitute for the mass audience reach, professional values and continuing trust invested in television. In other words television journalism, despite its declining efficacy, still has a vital part to play in an informed democracy. Television still matters – but for the medium to sustain a meaningful journalism requires a political and regulatory will that is slowly evaporating.
As ever, I am indebted to a number of people who have been generous with their time and support during the book's long gestation period. My colleagues Anthony McNicholas, Maria Michalis, Gordon Ramsay, Naomi Sakr, Jean Seaton, Colin Sparks, Jeanette Steemers and Daya Thussu have all provided invaluable help and wise counsel as have, at different times, Patrick Barwise, Roger Bolton, Benedetta Brevini, David Elstein, Matthew Engel, Ray Fitzwalter, Suzanne Franks, Peter Humphreys, Tim Luckhurst, Julian Petley, Stewart Purvis, Howard Tumber and John Tusa. Thanks also to my colleagues on the editorial board of the British Journalism Review for some endlessly fascinating debates around the themes raised here (occasionally facilitated by a glass or two of something stronger than coffee). At Bloomsbury Academic, I am very grateful to Lee Ann Tutton and Howard Watson for their sound advice and for eliminating some of my more egregious errors, and to Jennifer Dodd and Chloë Shuttlewood; and especially to Emily Salz for taking the book on, steering me away from some of the less interesting blind alleys, and introducing me to the wonderful cakes of the London Review Bookshop. Finally, to Alexandra, Joanna and Zoë, who have tolerated the occasional tantrum and have given a very convincing impression of believing that, one day, it would be finished – a very big thank you. And no, there isn't any money in it.
I would be happy to respond to any matters arising, objections to my arguments, or any factual errors that may need correcting. For these, I take full responsibility and apologize in advance. It is a fascinating time for journalists and for those who care about journalism. I hope this book represents a reasoned and worthwhile contribution to what is certain to be a very long-running debate.