Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Of politicians as newsreaders and other curiosities of our brave new digital world

Few will have been surprised by Ofcom’s recent verdict that GB News broke due impartiality rules by featuring politicians like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Esther McVey as news presenters. However, the regulator’s decision to handle GB News with kid gloves by putting it on notice whilst refraining from imposing statutory sanctions raised an eyebrow or two. A month earlier, Ofcom controversially cleared another GB presenter, Neil Oliver, of an accuracy breach as a result of linking the coronavirus vaccine to a deadly disease he referred to as ‘turbo cancer’. Ofcom argued that Oliver’s brief comments represented his personal views on a controversial topic, and did not materially mislead the audience. Press Freedom and Regulation in a Digital Era: A Comparative Study contrasts the incremental relaxation of broadcasting obligations with the global trend towards a heightened regulation of online news, and asks whether press freedom guarantees risk falling by the wayside as regulatory silos are re-negotiated in a converged media environment.  

Incidents of politicians acting as news presenters and of star pundits tweeting their personal political opinions, as in the case of Gary Lineker, show that the standard of impartiality is in flux. Once a crucial tenet of robust journalism, impartiality is increasingly seen as an impediment to freedom of expression, as an anachronistic relic from a bygone era. The press is allowed to be partisan, while cherishing an elusive ideal of objectivity. The internet teems with opinion-based journalism and rewards distinctive, even extreme voices. This raises the question whether broadcasting should still be shackled with due impartiality duties. The broadcast medium’s special regulation, as well as the need for public service broadcasting in a communication environment of plenty, is asked with unremitting urgency.

In the early 2010s, the House of Lords argued that the requirement of due impartiality be lifted for all non-PSB broadcast news providers. Others have maintained that the adherence of broadcasting to standards of impartiality, and the freedom of the press to express opinion, even where it develops TV-like online content, should be protected. The promotion of coherence in content standards should be limited to cross-platform, not cross-media consistency. In other words, regulatory standards should be the same regardless of whether broadcast or printed news content was delivered respectively on air, in print, or online. Neither the proposed cross-platform consistency nor the controversial lowering of non-PSBs’ impartiality commitments has materialised. In fact, the Draft Media Bill proposes to ‘help public service broadcasters better compete with media giants’ by extending impartiality to the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime. At the same time, the Ofcom Broadcasting Code does not apply to online content, raising concerns that PSBs such as ITV and Channel 4 might not maintain the same accuracy and impartiality standards online as on air. This regulatory patchwork creates a real risk that audiences might be confused and that their expectations might be frustrated.

Against the background of this regulatory maze, a novel understanding not only of impartiality, but also of accuracy in the online domain is emerging. Online-only news providers, and occasionally also traditional media, sacrifice accuracy on the altar of shareability. The problem is exacerbated by the deluge of unregulated, unreliable news content online, and the widespread incapacity of the public to distinguish between news produced in line with ethical journalism norms and other forms of content creation. The rise of increasingly advanced forms of artificial intelligence is likely to further undermine trust in news. The attack on the Capitol as a result of then-President Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of election fraud became emblematic of the capacity of disinformation to undermine democratic processes, and prompted governments to adopt policy responses to stem the flood.

These policies have time and again stumbled against the intractable divide between professional and amateur news providers. In the UK, the carve-outs for recognised news publishers in the Online Safety Act have attracted widespread criticism of favouritism and of gaping loopholes ready to be exploited by rogue actors. In Germany, non-journalistic actors have been subjected to due diligence obligations whilst being deprived of the privileges to which legacy media are entitled. What is more, such non-professional news commentators are exposed to the backstop powers of the state media authorities, the bodies traditionally responsible for commercial broadcasting, at variance with long-held press freedom guarantees. The concern cannot easily be dismissed that such powers might be abused to purge unfavourable political opinions. Differently from traditional journalism, the German online press is thus committed to a state-sanctioned duty of accuracy. It is difficult to comprehend why individuals with little reach should be sanctioned for alleged violations of the accuracy standard, while mainstream media regularly commit such transgressions with impunity. The crusade against disinformation, driven by ever new ‘public shocks’, risks subjugating the online press, and crushing core tenets of press freedom.

A core question remains whether a policy per medium approach is still appropriate, and which medium might provide the blueprint for the emergent internet governance. The book argues that, for all their appeal, regulatory analogies need to be used with caution. The complementarity between the press and broadcasting models, rather than any model per se, can serve as a paradigm for a democratic online environment that is more oriented towards the maximisation of the public good than to the prevention of competitive imbalance or harm.

Featured image by Sam McGhee via Unsplash, public domain.

  • Posted In:
  • Law

Recent Comments

  1. vbet

    This is a thought-provoking post on the complexities of regulating press freedom in the digital age. It highlights the tension between traditional standards of impartiality and the evolving nature of media consumption. Particularly intriguing is the discussion on how different mediums and platforms could be governed to safeguard the accuracy and impartiality that are foundational to ethical journalism. It’s essential we continue this conversation to ensure a balanced approach to media regulation that respects both freedom and responsibility.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *