Ofcom’s tight grip on current affairs broadcasts has been likened by some observers to a choking collar. Clive Myrie, one of the BBC’s most decent and best educated correspondents, disagrees. But Myrie’s robust defence of Ofcom’s role, which he put forward in the inaugural Harold Evans Memorial Lecture this week, should trouble anyone concerned with preserving free speech on air.
Myrie took a simple line: to compare the US and UK broadcasting landscapes. In the US there is not, and under the First Amendment probably could not be, any regulation of how news is presented. The result is overbearing influence exercised by presenters on channels such as CNN or Fox; a ‘trust deficit’ as regards news sources; and generally an ‘ultra-toxic’ media environment. This free-for-all led to polarisation and violence (cue footage of Trump supporters storming the Capitol) and misinformation (cue on-air climate change denial).
By contrast, things are different in the UK. True, extreme views are held; true, there has been enormous polarisation over matters like Brexit. But the damage to social cohesion has been limited. The heavily-regulated BBC, widely trusted for accuracy, had held the nation together. Ofcom’s rules, requiring balanced current affairs coverage on the broadcast media generally, have kept us safe and free from the excesses seen in the US.
Is this right? Well, to quote the downtrodden acolytes in Scoop, ‘Up to a point, Lord Copper.’
For one thing, the amount of news people actually gather from mainstream media, including television, is going down fast, and with it the harm such media can do. Increasingly, one suspects, people watch channels like Fox News, not in order to obtain information, but to reinforce their views relating to information they have obtained on social media or elsewhere. The suggestion that Fox’s programming somehow caused or even facilitated events on the Capitol looks implausible.
But there is a more important point. Having dismissed the US media environment as toxic, Myrie made a vital further observation about it: there was actually no lack of balanced US broadcasters and news providers. Besides his own BBC, he approvingly cited PBS News and (admittedly a bit of a stretch, but let that pass for now) the New York Times. He could equally have added NPR on the radio.
What he was really saying then was that the trouble with the US was not its voters’ inability to obtain balanced news, but the fact that too many of them seemingly did not want it. Tellingly, what he saw as particularly troubling was that reliable PBS came only third in the popular trust rankings, well behind clearly partisan Fox.
Underlying his whole argument was a very simple proposition. The problem with the US media was not lack of diversity or anything like it, but the fact that current affairs channels like Fox News and MSNBC, which did not follow the PBS model, were allowed to broadcast at all. He did not of course say this expressly; though he hinted at it when he lamented the ability of television opinion hosts in the US to influence large swathes of opinion on current affairs, and said that something needed to be done about it.
And here we landed on Myrie’s enthusiasm for regulation by Ofcom. It was justified, he suggested, precisely because it overtly limited what we could watch. It prevented opinionated broadcasting on public affairs; it kept shock jocks off the air; and it preserved all of us from being exposed to harmful or offensive material or unfair treatment.
This view sounds comforting. But it is dangerous. One reason is that it justifies continuing, and indeed extending, the power of the state to limit the kind of views that may be expressed in the media.
Myrie, to his credit, was candid about this. Asked about Piers Morgan’s controversial remarks on GMB about Meghan Markle, he saw it as very healthy that Ofcom had full power to impose serious sanctions on GMB if what Morgan had said had broken its media code.
‘The guardrails ultimately are there,’ he said: or, put another way, it was absolutely right that a state body should have the final word on what could be said.
No doubt Myrie would add that otherwise (as he put it elsewhere in the lecture) ‘it’s the opinion hosts who can mould and shape minds’. But in a choice between allowing opinion hosts to sound off or entrusting a state-appointed bureaucrat, however enlightened and well meaning, to decide which opinions I am allowed to listen to, I know which I’d choose.
A second worry is the depressingly dismissive attitude to the British public which, intentionally or not, Myrie’s view seems to embody. The only justification for suppressing undesirable or ‘harmful’ material in broadcasts to the public is an assumption that viewers do not have the intelligence to size it up themselves and see what is wrong with it, and will simply sit passively and accept it.
Even more importantly, by taking the position he does Myrie discounts our right as citizens to exercise intellectual autonomy and decide for ourselves what we will watch and whether we will believe it. Perhaps surprisingly he came close to admitting that this was actually his view.
Asked by the lecture host – a retired BBC executive – what he thought of criticisms that he wanted to limit listeners’ freedom to make up their own mind, he was dismissive of the point. Ofcom’s control was, he said, an entirely justifiable intervention, rather like the seat belt law, introduced for listeners’ own good, and for the public weal.
Myrie, whose views pretty clearly track those of the BBC hierarchy, is transparently honest and well-intentioned. But for anyone who believes that in a democracy we must have faith in people to choose their sources of information and decide in accordance with them, his thesis won’t do.
We must have the right to choose what we listen to and watch, and make up our own minds about it. The state has no business interfering with this decision by censoring what we see: in so far as they have this effect, Ofcom’s controls over broadcast content must go.
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