Code of fairness will benefit broadcasters and audience alike

Opinion: Confidence and trust are key elements in the relationship between broadcaster and audience

Tue, Apr 9, 2013, 06:00

Time was when tribunals of inquiry were rare events in Ireland’s public life. It was a measure of something then that one of them was – in 1969 – a formal judicial investigation of a television current affairs programme, the 7 Days programme on moneylending.

The rights or wrongs of the decision to initiate the inquiry (the subject of the programme might have been a more productive topic than the programme itself) are less important here than what the setting-up of the tribunal had to say about the role of current affairs programming in broadcasting and in Irish life. Broadcasting was a powerful influence, and current affairs especially so.

Broadcasting is still a powerful influence, and news and current affairs have lost none of their capacity to engage and serve the audience.

There is, I believe, less apprehension now – and a greater level of understanding – about the important contribution that news and current affairs can make to the democratic life of the country, and to the entitlement of citizens to be fully informed about what is happening in the community to which they belong. Half a century of experience has strengthened broadcasters and audiences alike.

The tribunal episode came 10 years after the introduction of the first piece of legislation that dealt with programme content. The 1960 Broadcasting Authority Act was, for its time, an enlightened, open and imaginative development. It set out basic principles covering the broadcast of news and current affairs that have endured, with little amendment, to the present day.

These provisions, initially for RTÉ alone, have been extended to all broadcasters operating in the State. Public policy has consistently insisted that the principles of objectivity, impartiality and fairness are central, and that a growing diversity of sources of content should not mean a diversity of standards by which that content should be measured.

Public policy can get it right. These principles are of enduring value and of enduring relevance. Yes, an argument can be made that in the world of the web such principles are out of tune with the times; that in the area of information no restrictions or obligations should be imposed. Viewers and listeners make their choices and take their chances. But that is to miss a crucial point.

All the obligations that apply to broadcasters are fundamentally directed to the interest of the audience. They are, at heart, a statement of commitment to the entitlement of the people of Ireland to have access to the full range of information on any issue and to be able maturely to evaluate it and to make up their own minds.

Truth may be indivisible but it is elusive. And endless versions of it can be found on the internet. While the internet has brought us some really valuable additions in knowledge, information and opinion, there is, perhaps, an even greater need now for sources of information that can be relied upon, that are linked to truth, that grind no axes.And this brings us to the Code of Fairness for News and Current Affairs that the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland is publishing today as part of its statutory remit.

The notion of a code can convey a sense of restriction, of prohibition, of caution. But this is not such a code.

This is not about safe or timid broadcasting. It is not about risk avoidance. Less still is it about establishment or regulatory control.

On the contrary, it is about encouraging broadcasters to engage fully with news and current affairs; to embrace investigative journalism; to give their audiences the secure knowledge that what is broadcast is impartial, takes no sides, tells the full story. It is, primarily, about enabling an audience to repose confidence in broadcast journalism.

That confidence and the trust that is its foundation are key elements in the relationship between broadcaster and audience. We have seen all too clearly in recent times – in high-profile programmes that were investigated by or the subject of complaint to the BAI – how vital that is, but how fragile it can be. Audiences develop very close relationships with programmes and their presenters. They come to trust them.

That confers both privilege and obligation on presenters and the editorial colleagues with whom they work.

Privilege, because their programmes, their scripts are invested with considerable authority by the audience. Responsibility to ensure that the trust is deserved, that the authority is merited, that the full range of voices and views are given to listeners and viewers who can then form their own conclusions.

The code sets out the basic obligations on broadcasters and those involved in the editorial process so that the basic entitlements can be enjoyed by the audience. It requires that news reporting does not express personal views; that presenters of current affairs do not advocate partisan positions; that conflicts of interest on the part of any in the editorial team are recognised by the broadcaster and made known to the audience. It sets out clear requirements that will justify the use of secret recording or “doorstep” interviews. And it emphasises the importance of fair dealing.

There is something of an inevitable power imbalance in broadcasting. Access to the airwaves, familiarity with the programme-making process, the capacity to determine the range of issues presented to the public, the selection of those whose views will be heard and whose opinions may become influential; all these are very significant weights on one side of the scales.

Broadcasters must be keenly aware of these realities – and realities they are – and appreciate that the concept of fairness has a particular relevance in this context.

In the opening sequence of Matthew Hurt’s play The Man Jesus , premiered in Belfast’s Lyric Theatre last week, we hear the words “Some people think I don’t think, but I do.” They have a resonance here.

There are some who think the people don’t think. But they do. It is that capacity for independent thought, that ability to assimilate information, to evaluate issues and to form judgments that must be respected. And it is towards encouraging respect for these fundamentally human characteristics that the obligation to impartiality and fairness in news and current affairs is, in the last analysis, directed.

Bob Collins is chairman of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland

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