Archive for November, 2007

Regulating quality

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Listening to Ed Richards, Chief Executive of OFCOM, speaking at his old alma mater the LSE last night, it struck me that OFCOM’s job is even more tricky than I previously thought.

In addition to the enormous number of practical issues it has to deal with – digital switchover, spectrum distribution, public service broadcasting obligations etc. – it has to grapple with some teasing philosophical questions. Richards’ particular favourite is how OFCOM balances the needs of both citizens and consumers.

But the one that I think will dog OFCOM, and which I don’t know how it will resolve, is on what basis a content regulator should base its decisions in a world where quantity of content becomes an increasingly unhelpful and potentially misleading measure?

What should OFCOM do when the problem is not the quantity of material but the quality?

In childrens’ television, as Richards said, there is more broadcast content available to children than there has ever been before – but alot of it is cartoons, and the vast majority is made outside the UK. In news, people have access, via broadband and freeview, to great swathes of content, oodles of print and video. Yet if you happen to live in West Wales and aren’t interested in reading 1,671 articles online about Madeleine McCann or Meredith Kercher, where can you read about public interest news, particularly what’s happening within a few hundred miles of you?

Which leads me to believe that, like it or not, if OFCOM wants to have a material impact on what people see/hear/read in future, it will have to start becoming more judgmental. It will have to be more discriminating about the merit of content as well as how much there is of it.

Media regulators have had to make qualitative decisions in the past, and OFCOM does now (e.g. with Channel 4′s Dispatches programme uncovering extremism within Mosques) but for the most part it, and its predecessors, have always fallen back on statistical, quantitative evidence to justify their decisions.

The regulator was born at a time when government wanted to base all decisions – political, social, moral, ethical – on a foundation of measurable evidence and exclude anything that might be interpreted as subjective judgment. It is now becoming apparent that such an approach has serious limitations.

Written by Martin Moore

November 22nd, 2007 at 8:31 am

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Impartiality – from whose perspective?

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National newspapers yesterday reported that the BBC Trust is going to conduct a review into the impartiality of BBC coverage of the four nations. Most papers did it with a very straight bat. ‘BBC to examine post-devolution news coverage’ was the Guardian’s take – and headlines in other UK papers were similar.

But take a look at newspapers in the nations and you get rather a different story. ‘Is Wales losing out to a BBC pro-England news bias?’ the Western Mail asked on Saturday, and followed this with a story yesterday that focused on the idea that Wales was being ignored by the BBC, and that this was the primary motivation for the review. In the article former Welsh secretary Ron Davies is quoted as saying “I think the quality of BBC regional broadcasting is very good but unfortunately quantity is very, very limited”.

And this is surely the problem with the whole review. How exactly will the BBC Trust (or in this case Cardiff School of Journalism which is carrying out the study) judge partiality or impartiality?

Are they planning to do a simple geographic story count? Presumbably not, since this would bring editorial values into question. Or are they going to look at the approach to political stories – particularly during the election in Scotland, for example? If so, surely the Scottish perception of impartial coverage of the election is going to be quite different from the English.

It is very true to say that Wales is starved of news, but an awful lot of that is not the fault of the BBC. There are big ‘news blackspots’ in Wales where commercial news organisations have decided it is not profitable to send reporters. This is market failure but is it the job of the BBC to fill the gap? And, if it does, will this not be favouring Welsh news to the detriment of other areas of the country?

Ah, the perils of judging impartiality.

Written by Martin Moore

November 20th, 2007 at 3:56 pm

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Blogging, commenting and anonymity

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Help me out here.

I’ve never really fully understood online etiquette when it comes to leaving comments / responding to them etc. I guess that’s half the point, none of us do – indeed when Jimmy Wales and Tim O’Reilly tried to institute a bloggers code of conduct they were roundly hung, drawn and quartered (you can see O’Reilly’s ‘Lessons Learned’ here).

But how are you supposed to react to anonymous or pseudonymous comments? Does anonymity promote equality – i.e. everyone gets the same degree of respect? Or does it prevent discussion ever getting past a superficial level? Do we need to know a little more about someone before replying?

I’m curious because I’m not sure how to respond to the comment on my previous blog.

‘President Ahmadinejad’ (real name?) has left a lengthy religious message – with many Biblical references and web links. President – if you’re out there – give me an indication of what kind of response you’re looking for. Since there isn’t really much attempt to debate here I’m assuming no response is expected (indeed it looks like President A has just posted his/her blog as a comment).

But it does raise a broader question about whether, in our world of ever-expanding communication and means to self-publish we’re simply creating endless opportunities for monologue (like this?).

Written by Martin Moore

November 19th, 2007 at 5:07 pm

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The British Press: Lessons in Self-Criticism Part 2

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You’d be forgiven if you missed the publication this week of a report about reporting of Muslims in the British press.

I’ve scoured Nexis Lexis and found one news story – 87 words in the Daily Telegraph on Wednesday – and two pieces on the Guardian’s Comment is Free (‘You couldn’t make it up’ and ‘Muslims and the media‘).

Contrast this with the summer’s series of mea culpas by the BBC. Imagine if the report had accused the BBC of discrimination how many column inches it would have earned in the press.

The villain of the piece is, unsurprisingly, the Daily Express. The report quotes headlines from last year like ‘Britain is at War with Islam’ and ‘Muslims tell us how to run our schools’ (front page). But you only need to look at the last week to get an inkling of the Express’ view: ‘How can this Muslim leader say Britain is like Nazi Germany?’ (13-11-07), ‘£100m super yacht for a Muslim spiritual leader’ (13-11-07), ‘Hairdresser sued for refusing to give job to Muslim in headscarf’ (9-11-07). I could continue.

Mind you, no newspapers come out particularly well. When only 4% of 352 articles about Islam are positive and 91% are negative (5% being neutral) you’ve got to figure there’s a degree of bias out there. On top of which, the report claims that over half the articles represented Islam as a threat.

There are a whole bunch of things in the report that I would take issue with – I would not, for example, be as overwhelmingly negative as the first conclusion that ‘the dominant view [in the press] is that there is no common ground between the west and Islam, and that conflict between them is accordingly inevitable’ – but that’s half the point, to discuss the findings and see what can be done about them.

To ignore the report entirely, which most papers seem to have done, doesn’t suggest we’re going to see any change in negative coverage any time soon.

Written by Martin Moore

November 16th, 2007 at 5:40 pm

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