Tuesday night’s panel at Westminster University couldn’t even agree on the virtues of television journalism, let alone whether the PCC was dead in the water. The Media Society event marked the release of Professor Steven Barnett’s new book, ‘The Rise and Fall of Television Journalism‘, in which he argues the press would be strengthened and protected if it learnt from television regulation.

That wouldn’t, he emphasised, mean the wholesale import of an Ofcom-style statutory body. Instead, he said, Parliament should give backstop powers to a self-regulatory body, in a co-regulation arrangement. If that oversight wasn’t given “real teeth” by Parliament, we would be dealing with exactly the same problems we are facing now.

There is a serious problem in the newsroom culture of our national press,” Barnett said, and it goes well beyond hacking the phones of murdered schoolchildren. The ‘What Price Privacy Now?‘ Information Commissioner’s Office report is still relevant: it was based on one single private investigator and the Daily Mail, not the News of the World, topped its list of offenders [PDF link].

Barnett was also influenced by Sharon Marshall’s account of newspaper journalism, in her book ‘Tabloid Girl‘, and her description of how journalists were asked to behave: “There is a line between what is and what isn’t acceptable, and … I think we often crossed it,” she wrote.

Professor Roy Greenslade, Guardian blogger and a former editor of the Daily Mirror, had a real issue with the idea of any statutory backstop power. While he had been very critical of the PCC during his years as a media commentator, “it doesn’t mean the PCC is dead, it means it needs to be reborn“.

Meanwhile the Daily Telegraph’s London editor and reporter for Channel 4’s Dispatches,
Andrew Gilligan, best known for his controversial BBC Radio 4 report in 2003 and role in the Hutton Inquiry, was critical of regulation bodies across the board and claimed current models don’t work for care homes, schools or hospitals. Instead, he advocates a system which would “ensure diversity” and “plurality of ownership“. Far from the press needing to be reined in, it needs greater protection of freedom of speech: “the press is too weak; not too strong“. Broadcasting’s “supposed high standards” were to be questioned in his view, citing that X-Factor humiliation of a contestant was “crueller than anything a tabloid could do“.

While raising concerns about resources and political pressures, Roger Bolton, presenter of Radio 4’s Feedback, current affairs programme maker, and former editor of BBC’s Panorama and ITV’s This Week, seemed more positive about the quality of television journalism than Gilligan. Channel 4’s Unreported World was serious investigative journalism, Bolton said, while Gilligan argued it just put out what was already in the public domain.

Gilligan and Greenslade both emphasised how television and radio often followed the newspapers’ lead. “Balance is not a virtue,” said Gilligan, claiming that Watergate would not have worked if Bernstein and Woodward had been completely balanced in their reporting. Instead, reporting should be truthful, fair and informative. “Balance is often the enemy of all three,” he said. Television news is more trusted because it is “blander on the whole“, he added, claiming it mainly repeats and develops stories from newspapers.

But this discussion was all rather inconsequential according to Greenslade – because newspapers are “on their way out“; in fact, we we were just talking about regulating a “dinosaur“.

The panel was chaired by Julia Hobsbawm, founder of Editorial Intelligence, media commentator and visiting professor of public relations at the University of the Arts. The event was filmed – Inforrm will post the link when the video is made available.

Further reading:

Judith Townend is a freelance journalist and PhD researcher examining legal restraints on the media and runs the Meeja Law blog. She is @jtownend on Twitter.