This blog is part of a series exploring proposals from our Manifesto for a People’s Media in more depth. Others are on: independence; why there is no replacement for public funding; and how we can fund our media democratically.
A core principle for the media commons as we’ve imagined it in the Manifesto is accountability. In some ways, accountability is the most foundational value that needs to be in place to make the vision work. After all, media organisations can claim all they like that they are committed to core values of being democratic or independent – but without robust ways of holding them to account for how they actually live out these values this could just be meaningless PR.
Most people think about accountability in terms of ‘regulation’ – the kinds of formal processes and institutions someone can use if they feel they’ve been harmed by media. At the end of this blog we’ll talk about deeper kinds of accountability that can come from democratic participation, but mostly we will focus on giving more detail on our vision for how this kind of regulation could work in the media commons.
At the moment, most of our media are covered by two bodies – Ofcom, which regulates broadcasters, and IPSO, which our major newspapers are signed up to. There are concerns that Ofcom is not independent enough of government, and that it doesn’t respond adequately to complaints. During the 2019 general election, Ofcom received 2,124 complaints about election programming, but only undertook one investigation – partly because complaints had to go to broadcasters first who often have opaque and cumbersome processes. This suggests that Ofcom’s rules need a serious overhaul. And even though it already struggles to adequately regulate broadcasters, it is about to have even more duties to regulate online content through the Online Safety Bill.
Meanwhile, IPSO (the press regulator favoured by most mainstream newspapers), seems to exist mostly to protect its newspaper members rather than provide justice for the public – it has still never launched an investigation into malpractice or levied a fine, and has been described by the Press Recognition Panel as “not a regulator”. On the other hand, IMPRESS (the independent press regulator which meets all the recommendations of the Leveson Report into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press does have a good record of ensuring high journalistic standards among its members. Some of the lessons we can learn from it are described below, after a description of the new regulator we think is needed for the media commons.
A central proposal in the Manifesto is that responsibility for regulating public media should move from Ofcom to a new institution – for the purposes of this blog let’s call it ‘Mediacom’. We imagine that Ofcom would still exist and would continue with its other duties like overseeing broadband and mobile providers, fixed-line telecommunications and postal services. But Mediacom would become responsible for regulating broadcasters, including the transformed People’s BBC and People’s Channel 4, as well as social media and other digital platforms.
Our vision for the BBC and Channel 4 is that these organisations will be radically decentralised, so that most budgeting and commissioning decisions are made in the English regions and devolved nations. Mediacom would also be devolved in this way – there might be a small national office (somewhere outside London) but most of the activity would be more localised. The Manifesto proposes that a network of Citizen Media Assemblies would be created to facilitate participation in the People’s BBC and People’s Channel 4, and Mediacom would also work closely with these localised Media Assemblies.
There would be something fundamentally different about the way that Mediacom worked compared to Ofcom. Rather than relying on an inflexible centralised framework, ‘the broadcasting code’, there would be a much more continuous, two-way process of talking to people about what they consider to be harmful and what they think meaningful redress looks like. Rules would be built out of these conversations, and regularly updated to account for changing technologies, language and attitudes.
This kind of openness to ‘the public’ might raise alarm bells, and there are some understandable fears that this might open up media organisations to a free for all. Anyone who has looked at comment sections on the BBC knows that they tend to encourage forms of feedback which are, at best, unconstructive. The framework used by Mediacom would of course need to be rooted in equalities and human rights, including the right to freedom of expression, or else this kind of system would probably just further empower those who shout the loudest. Yet arguably this is the system that we already have – where certain key power holders in society, especially those who hold the megaphone such as editors of mainstream newspapers, get a disproportionate say in deciding which things on television are harmful enough to deserve action by Ofcom. Civil society voices who complain about, for example, Islamophobia or anti-Gypsy messages, struggle to have their perspectives taken seriously. Mediacom would give groups like this more of a say.
There is another crucial reason why we need a more distributed system for understanding what is harmful, connected to the shift to digital technologies. With linear broadcasting, it is possible to see through the broadcasting schedule the kinds of programmes that everyone is being exposed to. As people increasingly access content via personalised video on demand platforms like 4OD and iPlayer, our experiences become more divergent – and this is even more the case on private platforms like Facebook. We know that during the Brexit referendum the Leave campaign used 1433 different adverts targeted at specific groups, with no central point where the range of adverts and claims could be seen at the time.
As mentioned above, Ofcom is soon going to become responsible for regulating harmful content on social media platforms. There are many problems with the Online Safety Bill as it currently stands (as discussed in detail by Hacked Off), but one of the less discussed aspects is that it’s pretty unrealistic that a relatively small central team can ever get an adequate handle on what is happening online at any one time.
Imagine, instead, a distributed system for dealing with media harms, including harmful online content. As well as having ways of making complaints online, this could be made more accessible by using existing national infrastructures like public libraries. Every library could have a Mediacom station – a dedicated computer, phone line, and information leaflets, along with help and support from trained-up librarians. (Obviously this would also need many libraries to be reopened, and librarians to be well-paid and have a reasonable workload.)
Anyone with a complaint could have a conversation with their librarian and local Mediacom branch, who could tell them if this was something that met the criteria for further action and guide them through the process. This could then also act as a massive data gathering exercise, helping to flag up new and emerging issues in the highly complex digital world, including issues that could get further debated by the Citizen Media Assemblies.
Mediacom would work collaboratively with other regulators who are also committed to the core values of the commons, and could signpost people to the best place to go for a particular complaint. These regulators would create a shared set of standards so that people knew what to expect – standards like ‘all our members need to display who regulates them in this place on their website’, or ‘we will respond to complaints within 28 days’. This would be far less confusing than the current uneven system, where Ofcom, IPSO and IMPRESS all work in radically different ways.
If someone wasn’t happy with the interaction with Mediacom, they could go to the Citizen Media Assembly to advocate for changes to the code or how to make the process more accessible. It wouldn’t be perfect, and it wouldn’t please everybody. But it would be far more flexible, responsible and knowledgeable about what was going on than our current system. And fortunately we don’t just have to imagine a different way of doing accountability – we can actually see it in practice right now, at the independent press regulator IMPRESS.
Lessons from IMPRESS
IMPRESS was founded in 2015, and currently regulates over 190 publications in the UK, reaching over 16 million readers in the UK each month. As well as offering complaints adjudication and free arbitration, they also provide publishers and journalists with the protection and support they need to do their job. And they’ve also been modelling a different way of approaching regulation. Lexie Kirkconnell-Kawana, Head of Regulation, explained what’s different about IMPRESS’s approach:
“Most people understand regulation from the perspective of compliance, the idea of top-down state regulation. It isn’t about norm setting, it’s about imposition, and that creates tension because you always have actors who don’t want to comply with a set of rules if they’re not part of the rulemaking or constitution. And then the regulator’s job becomes to corral non-compliant actors and that’s where all the resources and attention goes.”
“At IMPRESS we have the opportunity to enter into conversation with our members about what the rules are and how they will apply, and it’s a constructive conversation. And that negotiation leads to compliant members because they feel part of the rules and feel the rules reflect their values. So we see very little non-compliance, because not only are they choosing to join but they also take pride in it.”
This is a much more consensual way of thinking about regulation, and also a different way of thinking about harm resolution. IMPRESS offers a highly collaborative process where someone who makes a complaint gets a say in how it is run, for example how many times they are going to make submissions, whether there will be a hearing and so on. This has a fundamentally different flavour to the kinds of processes offered elsewhere:
“The way most people understand redress is in an adversarial context – judges dictating rules down to them. In my experience, the vast majority of people just want the opportunity to have their case heard – it’s not even necessarily that they want a particular outcome, for someone to say this person’s right, this one’s wrong. But they want a process where they can have an opportunity to air their grievance, and actually have that more constructive dialogue and move to resolution. It’s really powerful watching people go through this as they come out the other side not just having resolved the dispute but often having learned something, and being able to rebuild the relationship with the journalist or the publisher.”
The Manifesto advocates for the creation of a ‘media commons’ – a media system that is collectively run by those who rely on it. IMPRESS is a really powerful example of how elements of the media commons already exist in the independent news sector, who are figuring out forms of collective self-governance based on norm-setting and common practices, rather than top-down rules.
IMPRESS is able to be this flexible because it isn’t a statutory regulator – it is independent and currently funded largely by philanthropic grants. For a regulator on the scale of Mediacom, it’s probably unrealistic that it could exist without public funding, but it would still be open to innovation through its dialogue with the public via Citizen Media Assemblies. So it could be designed in a way that really makes the most of the lessons that can be learnt from IMPRESS.
Regulation and responding to complaints is just one aspect of accountability, and in some ways is a backstop for when other measures to prevent harm have failed. After all, by the time one person has been harmed by a piece of media content the chances are that many others have been as well. The Manifesto also contains other proposals for democratic participation that would allow for far deeper kinds of accountability. For example, our proposals to ensure that media workers are far more representative of diverse communities, and that underrepresented minorities can access funding to support their own independent media endeavours, should mean that harmful stereotypes and inaccuracies become less common because groups are able to represent themselves.
Democratic participation is also the best remedy for the kinds of harm that are hardest to evidence or address – the harms that come from being excluded, unrepresented or silenced. When major issues or stories get missed, such as the fire safety concerns in tower blocks like Grenfell, this can have devastating consequences. Simply reacting to the content that is created isn’t enough: we need avenues for identifying gaps and supporting marginalised groups and communities to share their views, concerns and stories. Mediacom could oversee this by doing regular audits of media and reporting on which issues are getting covered, which people are getting heard and which are ignored or silenced. And in a thriving media commons, this would also be an ongoing process on the ground, as people participate day-to-day in their local Community Radio stations, cooperative newsrooms and Citizen Media Assemblies.