On privacy, bias, and the British mediaFollow @mediaukdiscuss
- A short set of questions arrived last week through email, presumably since I run Media UK. Just in case it’s useful to anyone else, here were the answers I gave…
We are a group of year 11s from [a] Community College and we are completing a piece of coursework in which we have chosen to research the media. I am writing to enquire about your company and your opinion on controlling the media.
1. How do you feel about working with the media?
I’ve worked within the media for all my adult life, so I’m pretty comfortable with it.
“The media” is a big thing, including all kinds of things like radio and TV, respectable magazines like The Economist, tedious showbiz magazines like Heat or OK, and campaigning titles like Private Eye or, occasionally, The Guardian. Some of what the media does is pretty worthless; some of what it does is vital to a healthy democracy and its people.
2. Do you think the media is biased?
Broadcast media isn’t allowed follow a political line by law; but print media can be unashamedly biased.
I am not too concerned about media bias. I am concerned about media plurality: there are many people who mostly listen to Radio 4, watch BBC television and use the BBC News website instead of buying a newspaper: these people therefore get almost all their news from just one dominant source – the BBC. I don’t believe the BBC is biased, but it does have its own priority on what news it covers. I hope that people understand that it’s important to get news from multiple sources: that way, bias naturally disappears.
(Incidentally, if you watch Channel 5 and Sky, and listen to commercial radio, you’re similarly getting all your news from one source – that of Sky News.)
3. Do you think it’s right for the media to invade peoples personal privacy?
In certain circumstances, yes: where it’s in direct conflict with a job they’re doing, for example. If a politician is keen to promote state schools but secretly sends his own daughter to a private school, that’s a good example of hypocrisy in his private life that needs to be highlighted.
4. What did you think of the phone hacking scandal?
In most cases, it’s not the right way to get a story, and I was dismayed to read the apparent details.
However, if a story is in the public interest, journalists should get the evidence they need before publishing. Sometimes this may be via underhand methods. Some of the best and most important stories have been broken in this way.
5. Because of the phone hacking scandal do you think the newspapers will have tighter controls in the future?
Phone hacking is illegal. People who do it are breaking the law. There are already adequate controls in law against what happened. What went wrong in this case is that the police and the newspapers were apparently working together.
I hope that the press stays free; but that its behaviour is curbed by the public who should refuse to purchase newspapers who behave badly. The public has shown, repeatedly, that it continues to buy papers like the News of the World, even though it has the capacity to destroy peoples’ lives. In some sense, the NoW was simply doing its commercial duty to give the public what it wanted; and, in some ways, the public is not, entirely, blameless.
6. Do you think freedom of the press is more important than the right to privacy?
I don’t believe that anyone who has fought hard to elect themselves on their beliefs should be hidden from scrutiny; so, yes, the freedom of the press should be retained. However, I also don’t believe that it’s anyone’s business whether a showbiz star takes illegal substances or has a healthy attitude to his or her private relationships. So it’s probably more complicated than that.
I hope that helps. Let me know if we can make Media UK more helpful to your coursework, too.
- Did I get everything right? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts, too…
I think you were fair and generally correct. The one area where I might question your answer was in the public’s complicity in the NOTW’s crimes.
I agree that our love of sensationalist stories and puerile gossip is deplorable, but blaming the fact that the person buying your product is “implicitly” approving of the methods and bias used in its production is a little like the old Stock Market motto of “Buyer Beware”.
It sounds reasonable to most of us, especially me who admittedly is no fan of the nanny state!, until you realise how simple and accepting most people are, naively accepting that if it’s “allowed” to be published it must be true. And newspapers who know this and publish retractions in small print buried deep in the back to stories that were given front page space originally. Thank you for this opportunity for comment and let me say that generally I completely agree with your standpoint and have many times berated people for their blind beleif in obviously biased, politically motivated material or stories printed purely to get a predictable reaction, saying that they should vote with their feet. My mother likes to read a selection of papers to get a balanced view, but unfortunately as you have pointed out, too many different papers are in fact just ONE paper written under different headings, which is perhaps the biggest sin perpetrated by the media at the moment!
blaming the fact that the person buying your product
Hi, Tony – thanks for your comments. I didn’t blame the public; but I did say that they weren’t entirely blameless. If the public had no appetite for stories like those published in the NoW, the NoW wouldn’t print them.
If you’re interested in how the News of the World really operates, this book is very much recommended.