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Towards an Ethical Environment- A Checklist: Self-regulation

Credibility comes with good work, openness about the mistakes we make and in our ability to receive and to respond to criticism

There are many forms of accountability, each with strengths and weaknesses, but journalists should find ways that will foster the notion of restraint and standard-setting which meets the needs in a democracy for people to have confidence that journalism and media are genuinely held to account.

Monitoring media is best done by independent media support bodies whose governance respects the same independence from vested interest that they expect from media.

The press council is the typical and long-standing fixture of self-regulation on the newspaper scene. Most broadcasting institutions are subject to more rigorous and demanding controls and monitoring, often directly by state institutions.

Almost all press councils were set up by media organisations as a way of heading off proposals for statutory regulation of media by a government body. Some are better than others but the best are organised by journalists and media professionals working with representatives of civil society, including those who represent minority and vulnerable groups. The worst are dominated by executives who see their role as a narrow defence of their own titles or their own media group's business interests.

It is vital that press councils act on behalf the public and the profession and are not there to shield owners from criticism or ethical scrutiny.

Public service broadcasting generally has different bodies to scrutinise editorial standards. These can be complex. The BBC, for example, has a statutory system that seeks to give editorial independence to the editorial directors. Although based on statute this is clearly aimed at self-regulation, and designed to protect the BBC from government control.

There is a constant argument about the role of law in this area. Most media and journalists’ unions hold steadfastly to a belief that self-regulation is always preferable to the law in judging the editorial conduct of journalism. Even well intentioned legal controls are the path to destruction of media freedoms, they warn. However, most accept some legal restrictions, for example on hate speech or material inciting ethnic or religious hatred.

However, in a changing information landscape structures of public accountability need to change. The demarcation lines between the press and broadcasting has become blurred with online services, blogs and the rest. In a converged media environment it can be that one regulator and set of rules govern the content of a journalist's work before lunch (when uploading material onto the web-site or contributing to the newspaper) and an entirely separate body is responsible for regulating their work in the afternoon, when the same material is reworked for video or radio broadcast.

We need some convergence of the regulating principles, but defining the scope and range of such accountability is a major challenge.

Meanwhile, there needs to be renewal of commitment to public service values in all areas of media. Financial support to public service broadcasting needs to be reinforced and extended to a range of media across different platforms to ensure plurality and to fill in the gaps being left by the private sector. There is no case for government support to state owned broadcasters unless they have a genuine commitment to become centres for public service journalism, rather than 'pro government' broadcasters.

At the same time there is still exists tremendous ignorance and misunderstanding about journalism and the role of media within society and within the structures of state. Media literacy work and education of public officials about the link between media freedom and democracy are urgently needed.


 Are there independent observatories or media watch groups effectively monitoring and reporting on the work of media?

 Do public figures use libel and insult laws to restrict coverage of public affairs (politics, police and legal affairs, business, entertainment)?
 Is there a press or media council or other credible system of self-regulation of media involving journalists, media and public representatives?
 Is there an internal ombudsman, reader’s editor or other internal mechanism for correcting mistakes, dealing with complaints and engaging with the public on accountability?
 Are there structures for dialogue to engage in debate with the public on rights and responsibilities of journalists, and to lobby lawmakers and government in defence of media freedom?
 Are media – private and public – sufficiently independent of political and commercial influence in theory and in practice?
 Are there media literacy and education programmes for civil society?
 Are there similar media literacy and education programmes for public officials, including the police and the judiciary?
 Are there official structures for review of media policy connecting media, journalists, civil society and the authorities?

Things to do:

If there is not a viable and working media monitoring at work – then consider setting one up. The network of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange brings together many of these groups and there many examples to look at, from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) in the United States to The Hoot, the internet watchdog in South Asia.

Examine the case for establishing a press council and question the value of the existing one. There are about 65 press councils globally, but they vary considerably in the work they do and effectiveness. The best, as described above, capture the commitment of journalists, media professionals and civil society groups for effective and ethical media and offer a real protection to the public.

Examine the capacity for internal peer review of journalism and for dealing with complaints. Organise meetings on establishing internal structures that will encourage a culture of professional accountability inside journalism.