Reuters Report: Regulation and Reform

May 15, 2012 • Media and Politics • by

A new Reuters report by Laura Fielden shows incentive programs and increased penalties for news outlets may help rehabilitate the UK media regulatory system.

In response to recent critiques from both the government and the public, the UK’s Press Complaints Commission announced their plan to launch a new media regulatory system this past March. Yet as journalists and officials attempt to map their new regulatory path, the complexity of the task grows more apparent.

Fielden, a visiting fellow at Reuters, suggests the heart of the UK press council debate is the issue of whether regulation should be voluntary or mandatory.

The report, titled “Regulating the Press: A comparative study of international press councils,” examines regulatory systems in six countries, draws on information gathered via interviews with press council members, media ombudsmen, and journalists from participating countries. The purpose is not to provide a broad overview of press regulation, but rather to present shared experiences – both positive and negative – to help inform future decisions concerning press regulation in the UK.

Countries following a voluntary system are discussed at length using the story of Richard Desmond, who in 2011 withdrew several of his newspapers from the UK’s Press Complaints Commission while simultaneously joining the Irish Press Council.

In what has now come to be known as “the Desmond problem,” Fielden hints in her report that Desmond’s withdrawal from the UK regulatory body was motivated by a lack of tangible benefits provided by the commission. Fielden frequently refers to the Desmond case to show that for press councils to be voluntary, an incentive system must be created in order to promote adherence and prolonged membership.

Sweden, Germany, Finland, Denmark, Ireland, and Australia were selected for analysis due to similarities with the UK as far as governmental makeup, size, and breadth of media oversight.  In addition, the report called on specific experiences from Canada, New Zealand, and Norway in order to highlight areas of press freedom in those particular countries.

Drawing on examples from Canada and Germany, Fielden backs a unique system that uses media consumers as bait to encourage outlets to increase their compliance.  Fielden points out that current regulatory systems largely leave readers in the dark, making it difficult for consumers to identify press outlets that are affiliated with credible regulatory commissions.

Fielden suggests media outlets be forced to carry some type of “standards mark” on their front page, in order to indicate their participation in a press council. This type of system, Fielden explains, will allow members to promote their affiliations to customers and distinguish themselves from less compliant outlets. She also recommends strict oversight designed to punish media outlets for failing to adhere to a press council ruling through fines and suspension from regulatory commissions.

Fielden explains that UK press regulators should attempt to align their new system with one that shares similarities with the Irish.  Fielden touts the superiority of the Irish model of press regulation, which legally recognizes publications with clean compliance records thus providing protection from future ligation. Ultimately Fielden feels that ethical incentives will eventually translate to revenue incentives, especially if stigma is attached to papers that fail to appropriately satisfy their regulatory commissions.

The report’s complexity portends that developing a new media regulatory system in the UK will be extremely difficult. Not only are current media regulations becoming outdated, but press councils are also finding it difficult to provide incentives for newspapers to uphold memberships. Ultimately, Fielden suggests that UK press councils transition “towards a model where there are robust incentives to ensure that ethical compliance is viewed as a commercial selling point.”

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