British broadcasting is at risk of greater censorship or full-on conflict with powerful governments who are seeking subtle or overt control over output.
Researchers fear a ‘German style’ conflict over TV and Radio coverage and the freedoms enjoyed by journalists in the UK.
Germany was shaken in 2016 when a former TV executive claimed that his station’s news output was ‘laid down by the political class’ and the news is to ‘Ms Merkel’s liking’. Dr Wolfgang Herle’s comments were denied by ZDF but the risks may resonate in a number of other liberal democracies.
‘The German revelations centred on a major Public Service Broadcaster’ said Rob McLoughlin OBE, a former Board Director of Granada Television and World in Action investigator and co-author of a major new chapter on the media and censorship: ‘They raise questions which all who care about journalism must now consider. We have a conflict within our broadcast systems whereby such channels need government to approve funding, to regulate advertising yet at the same time they are expected to scrutinise those governments and expose their bad decision making and costly mistakes’.
‘The relationship is tense at the best of times but when prime ministers can effectively appoint the chair of major broadcasters, there’s a risk that an expectation can develop where journalists are forced to toe the line’.
The chapter part of a major new encyclopedia on public affairs and lobbying warns Government and Media: Censorship Versus Freedom (published online 5th October 2021 and due for print publication in 2022) that TV and Radio journalists are increasingly seen as the ‘enemy’ by powerful governments and face growing curbs on their freedom to challenge and scrutinise authority. The successful Trump campaign of 2016 is the clearest example of a political ‘playbook’ against the media but other actions by governments are less overt.
These developments are often ‘subtle’ in countries such as the United Kingdom but they could erode the role of public service broadcasters such as the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and the flow of revelations or accurate information to the public.
The chapter is published as there are warnings that the coming decade will be among the most oppressive ever across the globe and not just from elected governments but from oppressive nations and terrorism.
Since 1990 2,658 journalists and media workers have died worldwide.
The shocking figures collated by The International Federation of Journalists include high profile newspaper and new media journalists such as Jamal Khashoggi of The Washington Post who died in a Saudi Consulate in Turkey in 2018 and Lyra Mckee who was murdered during a riot in Northern Ireland in 2019.
Away from those horrific international warnings the researchers have focussed on the UK where ‘party political appointments’ to the BBC’s governing body, threats to the status of Channel 4 and an institutional imbalance between the powers of politicians and proposed changes to the Official Secrets Act reveal a fault line which could crack and give political parties more control over what is seen and heard.
The authors of the chapter on government and censorship maintain that the ‘pact’ between the powerful and broadcasters needs to be urgently reviewed as an ‘expectation’ has grown up where majority parties as well as oppressive states often expect preferential reporting from a supposedly free media.
The risks have led to allegations of revenge by the authorities against TV and radio stations in the UK, which have been denied officially.
However, it comes as the World Press Freedom Index claims that converging crises including Covid-19 will see more and more states suppressing information by 2031. States such as Turkey, Russia, Hungary, Belarus, Iran and China are singled out but in western democracies the media became an ‘enemy’ in the Trump election campaign and hostilities towards journalists have been dangerous and horrific.
‘It is perhaps time for a serious debate over the media and levels of investigative journalism we crave against the levers which powerful political figures can exercise over a media which angers, annoys or attacks them’.
‘Standing up to bullying is a day to day issue but when the fundamentals include threats to the existence of channels or licences then the ‘pact’ between the scrutinised and the scrutineers may need reforming.
For more information and to discuss access to the authors Rob McLoughlin and Andrea Campos-Vigouroux, please contact: Kate Byford at Bird Consultancy: email – kb (at) birdconsultancy.co.uk, mobile – 07816294055.