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.