Time to Regulate the News Media

Comedian John Oliver's right about our self-destructing press. Here's what to do about it.

By Shannon Rupp 28 Aug 2014 |

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor. Find her previous Tyee pieces here.

We may never have a better opportunity to regulate Canada's news media -- and the case for doing it has never been stronger.

There, now that I've sent a shiver through media mogul-dom, allow me a few words to explain how a former news reporter came to a conclusion that would have horrified her 20 years ago. And why I think the evidence shows press regulation is the only way to preserve journalism as a public service.

Start with the fact that, courtesy of John Oliver, native advertising is having a moment, which can mean only one thing: they will have to change the name again.

Fake journalism has gone by a variety of names over the last 100 years. Advertorial, puff pieces, brand journalism, BJs, content, sponsorships, sponsored posts, and my personal favourite, "brass cheques."

That one comes from the pen of one of the great muckraking journalists, Upton Sinclair, who called his book documenting the sleazy practices of newspapers circa 1919, The Brass Check.

The term refers to the currency in brothels at the time. To prevent women getting their hands on the money, brothel owners would sell men tokens to bestow on the whore-of-choice. Even without reading the book you know what Sinclair was telling us about Randolph Hearst's notorious newspaper chain, the equally corrupt Associated Press wire service, and the hordes of publications that littered the landscape in that era.

They were the inheritors of the 19th century's penny press tradition, papers and magazines that got rich on delighting the mob with lurid news stories and potboiling novels. And for all the libertarian blather about the importance of a free press in a democracy, Sinclair noted astutely that most publishers were interested only in "competing for advertisements of whiskey and cigars and soap."

Or, in modern terms: ads for quack therapy, real estate, and cars.

'Twas ever thus, I like to say, but strictly speaking that's not true. Retired ink-stained wretches will tell you it wasn't like that on their watch. And even allowing for nostalgia and bar-room boasting, there's some truth to their reminiscences, according to the history books.

So what happened between The Brass Check and native advertising that improved the quality of journalism for a few, brief years?

In a word, Hitler. Well, it's more complicated than that. It was more a case of public outrage and horror driving social change. World War II gave the greatest generation a healthy respect for the power of mass media after they witnessed how effectively the Nazis had used newspapers, radio, and film to herd the mob to their own destruction.

So they decided it was time for the community to regulate an amoral business. War-hardened and far less naive than their predecessors, they didn't fall for the libertarian claim they were threatening freedom of speech. Broadcasting was already regulated with no ill effects. And in the U.S. the Hays Code prevented film producers from going straight for easy money porn.

So putting a leash on press barons seemed like an obvious public good -- particularly to anyone who had ever met a press baron.

From panic to press councils

The U.S. launched the Hutchins Commission, which deliberated on the problem from 1943 to 1947. In Britain they held their first Royal Commission on Newspapers in 1947.

Naturally the press owners panicked, since this sudden enthusiasm for truth, transparency, accuracy, and objectivity would surely cut into profits. So they needed to convince the public they were the watchdog of society rather than a wolf in sheep's clothing. They began a public relations campaign to prove they could be "self-regulating," which included introducing ethical newsroom practices.

But the real stroke of PR genius was the invention of press councils, which are run by the newspaper owners, for the newspaper owners. The Brits got their first one in 1953, giving the public somewhere useless to complain. Meanwhile newspapers could appear to be accountable without curtailing the publishers' power or economic advantages.

Even more intriguing is how newspaper employees embraced the idea of ethics in a bid to claim they were professionals. As Stephen Ward notes in his book The Invention of Journalism Ethics, the urge to be seen as professionals goes back to the mid-19th century when journalists began trying to lay claim to middle class values and a more "gentlemanly" press.

"Journalists desired professionalism to raise their social status... [they] believed that a professional attitude would raise standards and reduce the embarrassing partisan behaviour of editors," Ward writes.

That touching naiveté coupled with a shocking lack of logic is still common in the trade, where various associations churn out their own codes of ethics and argue that journalists should be licensed professionals. Although it is never clear how they plan to police their unlicensed and unregulated employers.

Never mind. Journalists bragging about their high professional standards has always been good for the news industry. The scribes' belief in their own worthiness supports the publishers' position that the industry needs no oversight.

And it turns out that the hacks' long-standing obsession with ethics coupled with some other changes, including unionization, really did have an impact on the quality of journalism after the war. For a few decades, there was a widespread good faith attempt to do a good job of reporting news on behalf of the public. Not in every outlet, or in every community, or even in every instance in a particular newsroom. But in general, publishers respected their readers in exchange for publishing freedom -- or the public raised the spectre of regulation.

This worked right up until the corporations began buying up the lucrative family-owned businesses and killing competition. Canadian press councils sprang up to pacify an angry public after the Davey Commission (1970) and the Kent Commission (1980) exposed the collusion between news corporations to give themselves monopolies.

We don't need your stinkin' press council!

But because press council membership was voluntary, those corporations also dropped the facade of accountability on a whim. Today major newspaper chains have dropped out of press councils across the country. Locally, the Sun and the Province, both owned by Postmedia, and the Victoria Times-Colonist, (Glacier Media), dropped out of the B.C. Press Council about a year ago. According to executive director Rollie Rose, they can't afford the membership given their declining circulation. (The Georgia Straight, like most alt weeklies, was never a member.)

This month, in the face of the growing jokes about news media corruption, the publishers' association, Newspapers Canada, is discussing a national press council for their more than 800 members to replace the collapsing provincial ones.

That serves them, not the public.

Without legislation and some sort of tribunal to discipline offenders, self-regulation is just another term for no regulation. Just ask Britain's Leveson Inquiry: Into the Culture, Practice, and Ethics of the Press.

When Leveson investigated Rupert Murdoch's News of the World hacking into phones they found that the publisher-run Press Complaints Commission was actively lying about what happened and attacking journalists who began uncovering the story at other papers.

The Guardian's legendary investigative reporter Nick Davies, who broke the phone hacking scandal, just released a page-turner of a book that expands on his coverage -- Hack Attack: How the Truth Caught Up with Rupert Murdoch.

It's like something from the scriptwriters at House of Cards. Only a handful of Murdoch's senior journalists were charged in the phone hacking, but that list includes Prime Minister David Cameron's communications director, Andy Coulson, who was convicted. The phone hacking happened on his watch at the News of the World.

Prime Minister Cameron is also a great friend of Rebekah Brooks, chief executive at Murdoch's News International, who was miraculously acquitted of criminal charges. Coulson and Brooks were senior editors together during the criminal events, and had a long running affair over the course of several years, spouses, and fiancées.

But it's Davies' account of the freewheeling crime and corruption that will leave you slack-jawed. More than 5,500 people were victims of the phone hacking, including a murdered schoolgirl. Famously, the lawyers prosecuting the criminal cases and representing the victims would pull the batteries out of their phones when they began meetings, suspecting it was likely Murdoch's digital thugs were tracking them and trying to listen-in.

Want UK's monstering media?

Murdoch's media empire has long terrorized the power elite (including politicians and police) with his tabloid newspapers. They do something called "monstering" -- stalking the newspaper's victims and exposing their personal (often sexual) secrets. Then they report on them daily until the victim's career is ruined and they're driven out of public life.

As Davies recounts in an interview with CBC's The Current, Brit politicians of all stripes have been going along with Murdoch for decades because, since 1979, no government has been elected without the support of his media empire. In exchange, they govern to please him. For example, Cameron's government has cut funding for both the BBC and the broadcasting regulator Ofcom -- their version of the CRTC.

It's a mutually beneficial system that works to some extent in most nations with a free press. Davies' tales are likely to remind Canadians of a news story four years ago, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper's former communications director Kory Teneycke became a vice president with the Sun News Network. The PMO allegedly pressured the CRTC to grant the station, nicknamed Fox News North, an advantageous spot on the ladder of channels. But it all came to nothing.

Although, that story did reveal the curious power of novelists in this country. Margaret Atwood and her tweet-force -- a small army of about 500,000 -- raised public awareness of possible skullduggery with an enthusiasm (and a reach) none of the failing news outlets could match.

But the peccadilloes of our press look downright quaint compared to the criminality of the British red-tops. In 2012, Leveson made recommendations to improve press accountability that include a genuine regulatory body staffed by members of the public and journalists as well as the press barons. To date, the media owners are challenging it in court and the government is helping them stall. And guess who can afford the most lawyers?

Peace, order and good media

So for Canadians, the British experience is a cautionary tale. It's probably too late for them to regulate the press, since the owners are too wealthy and too powerful. That's probably true of the U.S. too, where Murdoch also owns a host of major media outlets, including Fox News, the New York Post, and the Wall Street Journal.

But Canadian media economics are different, which makes this the perfect time to revisit the idea of mandatory press regulation. The old media are in such rapid decline here that they can't influence political outcomes the way they once did. New media, including the shill sites, are still too small to stymie a public determined to set limits on them and their dodgy ways.

And then there are our cultural protection laws prohibiting foreign ownership of media, which means we export press barons. In other words, we don't have to contend with a billionaire bully like Murdoch.

All it would take is the public to recognize that petty media corruption like native advertising is the top of the slippery slope on the way to organized crime -- what else would you call Murdoch media's monstering campaigns? To prevent this happening, all the Canadian public would have to do is elect politicians willing to legislate for the public good.

Yeah, I know: the idea is funnier than John Oliver's jokes about native advertising.

Which may well have been the real point of the gag: to tell us it's too late to fix this. As he points out, HBO bought a "sponsored post" for his own show on BuzzFeed, one of North America's most notorious shill sites. (Until recently, the proud home of more than 4,000 plagiarized posts.)

Hilarious! With that in mind, let me tell you about my all but completed book on the future of news -- The New Brass Cheque: What Today's Journalists Can Learn from 1919. Any media tycoons interested in publishing it?  [Tyee]

Read more: Media, Media

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Get The Tyee in your inbox


The Barometer

Has the IPCC climate change report made you :

Take this week's poll