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Diagnosing UK journalism, the sickness that never was

Every year as May 3 approaches, newspaper headlines remind us of World Press Freedom Day with accompanying stories justifying the newsworthiness of the occasion.

They are often extracted from reports published annually by Reporters Without Borders, which compiles and updates the World Press Freedom Index – a comprehensive list of leaders and laggards in media freedoms.

Many media outlets make sure they do not miss this opportunity to remind the public about the importance of freedom of expression and the role of the press in a healthy democracy. To avoid simply producing unpalatable lists based on technical criteria, editors either pick the worst offenders, such as Uzbekistan, or focus on spectacular falls of previous leaders.

Al Jazeera/YouTube.

Britain as the bad guy

This year, the UK has become an offender for the Independent newspaper, which alerted its readers to the approaching World Press Freedom Day with the headline that the UK was among the worst in Western Europe for freedom of the press.

The view was partly echoed by The Guardian which made a point about the UK lagging behind countries like Burkina Faso and Chile. The UK held the same position last year at number 40, while European countries such as Slovakia and Malta have since slid by double digits but are not even mentioned in the article. In 2014, the same Independent dramatically described the worsening of the UK’s position by five places as “tumbling down” the world rankings, even though some countries fared much worse.

What such relative rankings do not describe well enough is the specific context in which the freedom of the press is exercised in each of the measured countries. It is likely that Burkina Faso would love to curb the extent of encryption on WhatsApp as championed by the former home secretary, Amber Rudd, but lacks the resources to do so. Or that Trinidad & Tobago (also a notch higher than the UK in the rankings) would gladly criminalise the repeated viewing of extremist content but lacks the legal tools to proceed.

Reporters Without Borders/YouTube.

The bad guy that everybody loves

The content produced by the British media undergoes intense international scrutiny and domestic self-examination. The BBC is the envy of the world, and formats developed by the UK media are licensed in many countries, while British journalistic standards and editorial guidelines are often emulated elsewhere.

It is hard to guess from the World Press Freedom Index rankings that British journalism is held in such high esteem, or that some British newspapers online enjoy a hefty global audience. Is this due to the quality of journalism in the UK or the regulatory environment in which it operates? Whatever the answer, the fact is that aberrations and abuses do get found out and reported in the UK – even if with significant delays like the phone hacking scandal – while they may never see daylight in other higher-ranking countries.

This may explain why the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, was assigned a bodyguard in 2016 after receiving threats before anything untoward could happen to her. Her late colleague from Malta, Daphne Caruana Galizia, was not so fortunate when she was blown up by a bomb while investigating high-level corruption on the island.

And yet we continually read that journalism in the UK – and elsewhere – is in crisis. Both academic and trade publications repeat this assertion. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism opened its 2010 study on The Changing Business of Journalism and its Implications for Democracy with the statement:

The business of journalism is widely held to be in serious crisis today, in particular because of the rise of the internet.

The study does not seem to find that journalism itself is at fault here, but the environment it operates in is – the model in which fewer and fewer journalists get involved in producing content and deciding what gets published and how.


Problems in the process

In the past, most journalists in the UK learned their profession “on the job” with little prior training. It took the Andrew Gilligan scandal over the Iraq dossier in 2003, and the subsequent resignation of the BBC Director-General Greg Dyke, for the BBC to transform its relatively modest training and development arm into the College of Journalism (CoJo) and later into the BBC Academy.

Today, dozens of universities in the UK provide courses producing thousands of arguably well-qualified journalists at entry level. Many such courses are endorsed by the media industry and accredited by professional journalistic organisations such as the NCTJ. More importantly, a lot of them are staffed by ex-newspaper editors and former high-profile journalists some of whom lost their jobs in the digital revolution.

And this is where the system has gone wrong. Contrary to the popular diagnosis, there is nothing wrong with journalism in the UK. But there is a lot amiss when it comes to the editorial process – the most expensive and politically inconvenient aspect of journalistic process.

Editorial structures have got flattened by the new internet-driven business models, and the editing process increasingly relies on non-journalistic procedures and practices. We hear incessant cries for “quality journalism” – whatever that fuzzy term means – from inside the media industry, the government and the public. The Guardian calls for financial contributions from the public all in the name of protecting quality journalism. International organisations and private donors chip in to fund journalistic investigations cast aside by many media outlets as too costly or not worth the risk.

To add insult to injury, the traditional and widely accepted regulatory division in the UK media – that of unregulated or self-regulating printed press versus a regulated broadcast industry – has been turned upside down by media convergence triggered by the digital onslaught.

There is growing concern that the British regulatory system embodied by the Communications Act 2003 is becoming obsolete in the new reality. Recent short-term interventions from the UK government to correct what are clearly editorial and regulatory failures only earn the UK penalty points from press freedom watchers.

There are good reasons why hundreds of international cable and satellite channels, including Russia Today, have chosen to be licensed and regulated by Ofcom, and this trend should carry on. The UK now needs a new regulatory philosophy and a new system capable of tackling the converged media environment to continue as a leader and innovator. It will be the best protection for quality journalism and freedom of the press.

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