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'As a former editor, I welcome many of these proposals': Response to Media Reform recommendations

Andreas Whittam Smith
18 December 2011

Some of the recommendations for media reform by the Co-ordinating Committee are the best I have seen. At least they work with the grain of journalism as it is conducted. I shall mention those that seem to me to be workable.

Statutory right of reply.  

The problem for editors in operating a strict right of reply - the response to appear with the same prominence and in the same place as the original article – was that, as I felt, it resulted in having to carry the wrong story in the wrong place on the wrong day. That is why nobody would do it.

But the Co-ordinating Committee proposes instead that a right of reply should be summarised in a mistakes and clarifications section in the print edition and that item would cross refer to the online edition where the ‘reply’ would be reproduced in full, without comment, immediately below the offending article. Were I still an editor, I could live with that.

Membership of a ‘News Publishing Commission’ that would replace the present body, the Press Complaints Commission.  

Here it is proposed that publications that choose not to become members of the new body, and to conduct themselves according to its principles would lose their VAT exemption. This seems a clever idea if the Government would pass the necessary legislation, though it may run counter to the old principle that all taxpayers in a particular class should be treated equally.

Creation of a News Ombudsman who could operate as a first port of call for members of the public.  

Newly created News Tribunals, modelled on employment tribunals, would adjudicate on cases that are not resolved by the Ombudsman. This has the merit of being constructed in such a way that it could operate swiftly, though nobody can quite keep up with the 24 hours news cycle.

Cross ownership rules and clear upper ceilings on the share across media markets.

If tough rules limiting market share, such as apply to many industries, had been applied to the Murdoch empire 30 years ago, most of the problems that have since arisen would have been avoided.   

The Co-ordinating Committee proposes that any supplier with a 15 per cent share in a designated media market should be subject to a public interest test in respect of any merger or acquisition in the same or another media market. Yes, please, with the proviso that the test should be statutory and not subject to decision by government ministers.

Likewise, I approve of the proposal that the maximum permitted holding of 30 per cent, again so long as no exceptions can be permitted. That is really the key point. No exceptions. The ownership rules to be rigidly enforced. If this means that publishing magnates are forced to sell some of their holdings, perhaps at an unfavourable time, so be it.

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