Organized by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), a leading progressive think tank, the fourteenth annual Oxford Media Convention was held on the 4th of March. This year’s focus was on the media industry at this time of rapid change. Topics of discussion included policies to support the production of high quality, original content in the era of digital journalism, the role of government and regulators in today’s media, and how media coverage is affecting the run-up to the General Election in May.

Broadcaster Independence and Media Freedom

The phone hacking and illegal surveillance revelations that led to the closing of News of the World caused much debate on press intrusion. In July 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron set up a public inquiry led by Judge Brian Leveson, to examine press culture. Leveson’s report concluded that there had to be a new press standards body created by the industry, with a new code of conduct. It would give confidence to the public that their complaints are taken seriously, as well as protecting the press from interference.

In March 2013, Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband agreed to set up a new watchdog by royal charter; it would have the power to impose fines on UK publishers as well as demand upfront apologies. Eventually, the government’s Royal Charter was approved by the Privy Council, the body that formally advises the Queen, in October. The Royal Charter is supposed to create a Recognition Panel to carry out activities relating to the recognition of press regulators. However, as the government has said the system cannot come into effect until a year after the Recognition Panel is established, the process will go beyond the 2015 General Election.

Barbora Bukovská, Senior Director for Law and Policy at Article 19, Professor Rachael Craufurd Smith, senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, and John Whittingdale MP, chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee and Vice Chairman of the Conservative parliamentary 1922 Committee, discussed the implications of these developments for broadcaster independence and media freedom.

Regarding the Snowden controversy, Whittingdale defended the government’s right to express its concern; this does not necessarily mean the discrediting of media. Questioned by Peter Davis from Ofcom on where the line between security and press freedom should be drawn, Whittingdale admitted that the necessary, national debate regarding security versus media independence has not taken place yet. In a later panel, Sarah Davis, group commercial legal director at the Guardian Media Group, criticized the effectiveness of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in this regard. She blamed the DCMS with not having a role in business, especially as it had no say over the Snowden debate as it was taken up by security agencies.

Rachael Craufurd Smith stressed the difficulty of implementing policy without violating broadcaster independence, acknowledging the difficulty of drawing the line between regulation and independence. John Whittingdale made the case for government intervention, stating that £4 billion worth of public money should be accountable to government. He added that there is no evidence to say that OFCOM and the BBC Trust are appointed on basis of political loyalty rather than merit. Barbara Bukovská questioned whether the British public regulation model is sustainable, citing the Dutch and German arrangements of semi-public regulators that feature non-state actors, as alternatives. This debate was further extended to the BBC in a keynote speech given by Rona Fairhead, chair of the BBC trust. She said that the BBC had been ‘damaged by a spate of issues in recent years’. She argued for the need of an external regulator alongside reforms in order to clarify the functioning of the accountability mechanism between the BBC Trust and the executive board.

The panel also questioned Ofcom’s requirement of due impartiality, asking whether ‘independence is too little in this country’. Whittingdale highlighted that the notion of impartiality is highly controversial, citing the example of Russia Today. The panel stressed the need of re-discussing the scope of the impartiality requirement.

Finally, Bukovská  warned of the detrimental effects of public broadcast service erosion, recalling the examples of Greece, Serbia and Spain. For example, in Greece, the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation (ERT) was closed down in July 2013 in the context of austerity measures. Similar examples include Serbia and Spain.

We asked Bukovská  about the social effects of the dismantling of public service broadcasting. ‘The public service media is very important in terms of pluralism and diversity. It creates alternatives in the market for people seen not only as consumers but as citizens’. she said. ‘Although there are some commercial outlets that meet some of the aspects that would be characterized as public service remit, obviously this is a really serious shortfall, also in terms of the classical public service consumers, such as rural and minority communities, women, people with disabilities and children’.

The Role of Advertising

Another issue related to media independence discussed was the growing role advertising is playing in content generation. Stephen Dunbar-Johnson, President of the New York Times Company, stressed the role advertising is playing in adapting journalism to the digital era. He argued for ‘windows of dialogue’ between newsroom and advertising, while suggesting that the separation between editorial and commercial is at the heart of maintaining the integrity of journalism. He was questioned on the tension between media autonomy and commercially-demanded content in a model driven by advertising.

The Media and the 2015 General Election

In the last panel of the day, Steve Barnett, Professor of Communications at the University of Westminster, Gaby Hinsliff, columnist at the Guardian, Evan Harris, Associate Director of Hacked Off and former Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, and Nigel Warner, founding Director of Creative Access, debated the state of the media in relation to the upcoming election.

The panel identified a concerning loss of interest in politics, noting that broadcasters need to do more to tune-in disinterested voters and politicians. Gaby Hinsliff noted that fragmentation of platform, political debate, alongside the transition to multiparty politics is making journalism harder. She added that these patterns of apathy and fragmentation are making self-regulation by journalists harder and harder.

Issues of coverage were also addressed. Barnett asked whether immigration and welfare benefits would still dominate discussion if it were not for the focus of newspapers such as the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. Harris stated that the current British political debate will remain unbalanced as long as Benefits Street is not mirrored by Tax Avoidance Avenue. Hinsliff noted that there has never been such a multifaceted election in the UK; thus, coverage could end up being exclusionary or unequal towards new parties.

Recalling the formation of the Coalition Government back in 2010, Harris asked why the UK cannot cope with political pluralism while European countries can. ‘They need to understand that coalitions need to be formed. There was this panic that the country is going to pieces; there is no government. In fact, that’s pretty normal in other countries. They have to get more mature and understanding about the nature of how hung parliaments work’, he said.

To our question of how the media needs to improve its coverage strategies in the lead-up to the election and during government formation, he responded: ‘they have to understand that there are not just two points of view on any issue. Hopefully, it will be easier given the number of parties that are in play’. Harris also pointed out that the creation of the current coalition was very quick by international standards. ‘It has been stable against all media predictions. Hopefully they will learn from our own country for a repeat; they won’t have to look at other countries’, he added.