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A Look At Press Freedom And Regulation In The U.K.


Like it or not, the role of the media is a central issue in politics right now. Supporters say press freedoms are in jeopardy and must be protected. Critics contend that the media is biased and is undermining the very democracy it purports to defend. Well, we aren't about to settle that debate. But we are going to head to the United Kingdom, where the government actually does regulate the content of its broadcast media. The body that does that is called the Office of Communications - or Ofcom for short. Ben De Pear is the editor of the prestigious Channel 4 news program in the U.K. And he joins us now to explain. Thanks for being on.

BEN DE PEAR: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So Ofcom come does many things. But I am particularly interested here in its role as an arbiter of bias. How does that work?

DE PEAR: So Ofcom was set up by statute in the United Kingdom. Broadcasting has always been regulated by a regulatory body which is independent of the government but also independent of the broadcasters. And what it does is it really regulates and rules on three different areas. One is accuracy. One is bias. And the other is impartiality. Those three things Ofcom regulates television news in particular so that the journalists have a requirement under law here to be objective and nonpolitical.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Give me an example of how that plays out. Say I'm watching a news show, and I am - as a viewer, don't like what I'm hearing. I can call in and write to complain, and Ofcom investigates?

DE PEAR: Yes. So, obviously, Ofcom is a huge pain. It's a sort of thorn in our side. But I'm very glad it exists. I mean, we've breached accuracy twice in the last two years. We named someone as being dead who was actually dead, but the police hadn't named he was dead. And naming as dead is an official recognition here. So we had to apologize on air. We had to say we were very sorry, and we breached one of Ofcom's guidelines, which is a very important one, which is accuracy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But what about bias? One man's bias is another man's truth. How does Ofcom decide something like that?

DE PEAR: So when we are reporting an election here, we have to give exactly the same amount of time to each political party, especially the main parties. And Ofcom goes to the extent of pretty much timing how much time you have if they receive a complaint. So during elections, we are very careful in making sure that we give free and unbiased representation to each of the political parties. We still hold them to account. We give them very fierce and rigorous interviews. But we can't have one party on without the other. And one thing that cannot happen here is that any reporter or journalist or presenter who represents or works for the broadcasting organization cannot give any sense of their political beliefs or support. They have to remain absolutely impartial at all times.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why is only the broadcast media subject to this kind of scrutiny? We all know the British print media is notoriously partisan and, some would say, inflammatory.

DE PEAR: Yeah. I mean, that is the thing in this country. I mean, I know America quite well. And I think we have to reverse the absolute mirror image of the broadcasting and newspaper. When the debate was around about the beginning of this year about fake news, there was a lot of discussion about how, in this country, people are kind of used to fake news because - not that the newspapers are fictional, but they do take a slant on some stories. But the television media here, in particular, and the radio has been regulated to be unbiased and impartial since broadcasting began in the 1930s.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Some here in America would view this as an agency of thought police. Is there pushback against Ofcom in the United Kingdom?

DE PEAR: There have been periods of incredibly busy activity from Ofcom. Recently, they have been turning quite a few complaints across to us and other broadcasters. That is not a reflection of Ofcom. That's a reflection of people who write to Ofcom. They're only making decisions if viewers complain. But it's not a form of thought police. It's a form of being objective. I think viewers in this country expect the television and radio broadcasting to be unbiased, accurate and impartial. And so that is enshrined in law. It's an expectation. And when they feel that the standards of broadcasting have dropped below that, they complain to Ofcom, and then Ofcom investigates us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ben De Pear is the editor of Channel 4 News. Thank you very much.

DE PEAR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.