SunTalk: Is it Free Speech Radio?

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‘The home of free speech’ claims the Sun’s new radio show, SunTalk, hosted by its columnist Jon Gaunt. “We are not regulated by Ofcom, we are regulated by the Press Complaints Commission. We don’t want people to libel anyone or any of that nonsense, we want people to talk from the heart. If we were a traditional radio station that would not be possible,” Gaunt said.

So how free is Gaunty to say what he likes and broadcast what he likes? What are the differences between the broadcasting code and the PCC code of practice (to which SunTalk adheres)?

Well, for starters he’s shifted from a code that is captured on 97 A4 pages, to one which can be written (admittedly in small font) on one A4 page. Losing 96 pages of rules certainly sounds alot freer. And it’s impressive that SunTalk makes its adherence to the PCC code clear on the website (which is a lesson to the rest of The Sun where references to the code are decidedly sparse).

And there are indeed a bunch of areas where Gaunt will find himself much less constrained. Particularly with respect to:

Harm and Offence – he won’t be required to ‘provide adequate protection for members of the public from the inclusion… of harmful and/or offensive material.’ There would be no similar regulatory intervention on SunTalk, for example, if there were to be a Ross/Brand ‘Sachsgate’ episode (on grounds of harm and offence, though there could be on privacy). Which may mean a more proportionate media response.

Due Impartiality and Due Accuracy – though Gaunty ‘must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information’, he will be under no such limits when it comes to impartiality. He will not need to maintain ‘Due impartiality on matters of political or industrial controversy’ nor need he be too concerned to make sure ‘alternative viewpoints must be adequately represented’ or be careful not to give any political views ‘particular prominence’. This frees him up to do things like invite David Cameron onto the programme for an hour (as he did last Monday), and to refer to him as ‘Prime Minister’.

Elections and referendums – the SunTalk presenter will not be required to offer space to all candidates in the run-up to an election, nor will he have to stop all discussion and analysis once the polls open. It will be fascinating to see how SunTalk reports on the European elections coming up this June.

So far, the story seems to fit with the way it’s been presented – i.e. whether you like it or not, this means live radio broadcasts (or ones with a 7-second delay) are freer to start being politically partial and polemic.

But there are also some other areas where things are more complicated, particularly as regards commercial constraints and how complaints are dealt with.

On sponsorship, for example, the broadcasting code makes clear that TV and radio have to be transparent about their sponsors, can’t promote products within programmes, and need to protect editorial independence within programmes. The press code doesn’t comment on commercial issues like this, so presumably no such restrictions apply (though we start to stray here into Advertising Standards Authority territory, and OFT).

Similarly, it does not refer to competitions. Whereas the broadcasting code states that ‘Competitions should be conducted fairly, prizes should be described accurately and rules should be clear and appropriately made known’.

However, the real confusion comes less from what SunTalk can and can’t do, than from the inconsistency from what it can and can’t do compared to other broadcasters. So, for example, though you can now watch Sky news clips on the Sun website, and listen to SunTalk, you couldn’t listen to SunTalk through SkyTV because it would be regulated differently. So can Sky broadcast SunTalk via the Sky website and if so what rules should apply? From the perspective of the public this cannot help but get confusing.

There’s also a challenge for SunTalk deciding how it deals with complaints. On Ofcom regulated sites, for example, ‘mistakes in news should be acknowledged and corrected on air quickly’. It is not yet clear how mistakes on SunTalk will be acknowledged and corrected.

SunTalk only started broadcasting on 24 April so, unsurprisingly, there is yet to be a test case. But it would be odd if there was not some controversy between now and the autumn – if only to encourage more people to tune in…

Written by Martin Moore

May 1st, 2009 at 9:12 am

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One Response to 'SunTalk: Is it Free Speech Radio?'

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  1. We appear to have 3 hours daily of SunTalk on our local English-language radio in Almeria, Spain – which is a bit of a stretch for those of us who want to know more about Spain and less about England.It seems to be a sort of 'radio for exiles'.


    22 Jul 09 at 8:38 am

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