Self-regulation of the media

 

11.1     What is self-regulation in relation to the media?

Self-regulation is a model of regulation which has become quite popular with the media in the past few decades.  It is an alternative – occasionally, a supplement – to statutory regulation, viz. prescriptive regulation by the state.  As the name suggests, self-regulation essentially means regulation of the media by the media itself.  In other words, it is regulation of media practitioners by their own peers.

 

11.2     How does self-regulation work in practice?

Typically, self-regulation would involve a body such as a Press Council, a Broadcasting Standards Council, or a Media Council, which would be composed of members who are broadly representative of the media businesses and organisations that are sought to be regulated.  These members would be either elected or nominated by the businesses or organisation and would hold office for a fixed period.  They would have responsibility for overseeing the conduct of the media entities covered by the Council and to receive and adjudicate complaints received against those entities from the public.

 

11.3     What is the touchstone on which a self-regulatory mechanism would judge the conduct of the media?

Usually, every self-regulatory mechanism would be backed by a code of conduct which sets out the norms by which media practitioners and businesses would have to abide.  These norms would cover such matters as:

·         accuracy in the gathering and reporting of news;

·         fairness in the treatment of news sources and other subjects of media operations;

·         respect for the privacy of individuals;

·         respect for the public’s right to know;

·         avoidance of ‘cheque-book journalism’, i.e. the practice of paying criminals, etc. for stories;

·         protection of confidentiality of sources;

·         sensitivity in reporting of certain topics, e.g. bereavement, and in the treatment of vulnerable groups, e.g. children, victims of sexual offences, etc.

 

11.4     How are self-regulatory bodies funded?

Self-regulatory bodies are usually funded through contributions from the media organisations which sign up to them.  The contributions may vary according to the size of individual businesses. 

Some self-regulatory bodies are funded – or part-funded – by fees charged to those who use their services, viz. complainants, though this is rare.

 

11.5     Can there be a combination of statutory and self-regulation?

Yes.  In quite a few countries, this model, which is sometimes referred to as ‘co-regulation’, is followed.  Here, the regulatory body – e.g. a Press Council – is established by statute or other law made by the state, but its composition and day-to-day running is left largely to representatives of the media (the degree of autonomy given to the Council varies from country to country).  The funding of this arrangement is usually the responsibility of the sponsoring government department, although it is possible for a private-public partnership model to be adopted.

 

11.6     Is self-regulation effective?

There is divergence of opinion on this point.  Some commentators have argued that self-regulation works better than statutory regulation because it is free from interference by the state.  Others have expressed the view that self-regulation lacks credibility because those being regulated are the regulators themselves. Increasingly, however, the trend around the world appears to be away from state regulation and towards self-regulation (or co-regulation), except in the area of broadcasting where there is still a continuing preference for state involvement.

One of the major drawbacks of Press Councils and similar mechanisms is their lack of enforcement powers – in most cases, all that a Press Council can do is censure a media organisation.  It is not uncommon for newspapers and broadcasters to ignore the decisions of self-regulatory bodies – a practice which has reduced the credibility of such bodies.

 

11.7     How is broadcasting likely to be regulated in the future?

Traditionally, the shortage of radio frequencies has justified extensive state interference in the area of broadcasting.  Many countries have state broadcasters exercising a monopoly in the provision of television services.  Recent years have however seen an opening up of this market, with digital communication technologies allowing for an expansion in the frequency spectrum available for broadcasting.  The situation has been made more complex by the advent of satellite television which allows for cross-border broadcasting.  This new phenomenon has made regulation of broadcasting more difficult, especially on the content side. 

 

11.8     What are the main challenges in this area?

Apart from the challenges posed by cross-border broadcasting (which requires extensive co-operation between national governments and their law-enforcement authorities), the issue of insulating the regulator from extraneous pressures is a pressing problem which both governments and the media are having to contend with around the world.  There are no easy solutions to this problem, but a number of measures have been recommended to secure the independence of the regulator, including the following:

·      a clear statement in statute (or, better still, in the national constitution) guaranteeing such independence;

·      an assured funding mechanism, which does not leave too much discretionary power in the hands of the government, to allow the regulator to discharge its responsibilities efficiently and effectively;

·       genuine functional autonomy for the regulator in carrying out its day-to-day functions;

·       a fair, non-partisan and transparent appointment process for the regulatory body (including any oversight mechanism that may be constituted as part of the regulatory regime);

·       effective protections against arbitrary removal of members of the regulatory body or its oversight mechanism;

·      clear, effective and transparent accountability systems for the regulator, including periodic reporting to the national parliament and rigorous financial audits.

 

Ombudsman mechanism

 

11.9     What is an Ombudsman and how does this mechanism operate?

This is a relatively new mechanism in many parts of the world, although the institution has existed in Sweden for over two centuries now.  An Ombudsman is an in-house ‘referee’ appointed by the media organisation to receive and consider complaints from readers, listeners or viewers of the organisation’s publications or programmes.  He is usually a respected figure, such as a retired judge, who would command the confidence of the public.

The mechanism works fairly simply, with the Ombudsman investigating those complaints which contain prima facie evidence of misconduct by journalists or other editorial staff belonging to the media organisation.  The complaints received usually concern inaccuracy, bias or invasion of an individual’s privacy.  The Ombudsman gives the editor or other senior functionary within the organisation an opportunity of responding to the complaint, and if after due consideration of all the facts he comes to the conclusion that any action is called for, he makes a recommendation to that effect to the editor, who is then left to take such measures as he deems fit.

The Ombudsman cannot order any monetary or other compensation to a complainant.  He does not have any enforcement powers either in relation to any conclusion that he may have come to in relation to a complaint.  For that reason, and for the reason that he is appointed – and paid – by the media organisation, many people have expressed scepticism about the impartiality and usefulness of this mechanism.  Even so, the institution of Ombudsman as a facet of self-regulation has been gaining ground around the world.