From the DSK to the News of The World scandal, regulation or self-regulation?

In the night of May 14 2011, the world’s mainstream media as a whole tumbled into an avalanche of reports about what would become of the “DSK” the story and “DSK” the man. The European approach, and in particular that of the French, was at antipodes with the ‘American way of life’. Two different codes of ethics found themselves at odds with each other.
Albert Rudastimburwa
Albert Rudastimburwa

In the night of May 14 2011, the world’s mainstream media as a whole tumbled into an avalanche of reports about what would become of the “DSK” the story and “DSK” the man.

The European approach, and in particular that of the French, was at antipodes with the ‘American way of life’. Two different codes of ethics found themselves at odds with each other.

The story not only exposed how different justice systems are on both sides of the Atlantic, it also shed light on a strikingly different approach in the media coverage of the alleged sexual misconduct of the rich and powerful. Yet both ends claim to act solely in the best interest of their citizens.

Such a hailstorm of reports and counter reports leaves very little room to the weak minds to process the information.

Just as we thought we had seen the media at their worst, in came the “News of the World” scandal.

The new Murdoch saga exposes the very dangerous love affair existing between the media and the powers that be. Once again, the question of accountability and protection of the weakest members of society was raised.

In both cases, it was the involvement of celebrities or “big fish” that brought them out of the closet and into the court of public opinion; and as I follow both stories with great interest, I can’t help but recall the ongoing debate in Kigali about regulation vs. self-regulation.

It was in the midst of all this media frenzy that I, amongst many others, got this mail from a colleague sharing and wondered if we (the journalists) shouldn’t have a media version of the famous “Hippocrates” oath. Very few reacted, but those who did highlighted the fact that journalism was about “free speech”.

Allow me to agree with some degree of reservation as it is self-evident to me, and hopefully to others, that there is no such thing as absolute freedom. There are limitations to individual freedoms and these are universal in general but may vary through space, time and culture … in other words, these limitations can only be determined by the people immediately affected by the lack or the excess of those freedoms.

There is clearly need for some level of regulation. The mere fact that the worst media scandal of our time erupted in the country that boasts of the oldest journalism traditions only goes to show that you can never be too careful. The News of the World scandal is a typical example of self-regulation gone wrong. The media fraternity of the UK failed itself and the people whose interests they claimed to serve by failing to expose what is evidently a problem across the board, going as far as involving the political class, police officers and the New Scotland Yard itself.

And so the question of regulation and self-regulation finds itself, through these cases, propelled to the forefront of the debate.

It is not wrong to assume that journalism in Western countries has a certain level of maturity that inspires public opinions. However the scandal of the British press has cast doubts on the industry and affected the public at the heart of the system.  It has raised the interesting point, beyond the industry, of why a regulator might be needed.

But what can a regulator do compared to a self-regulating body?

In a democracy, citizens can launch a complaint when they are not satisfied with the content published or broadcast by a media outlet. If this content constitutes a legal offence (i.e. defamation, insults), the citizen can actually address it in a court, but that is an expensive and slow process, not readily accessible to all.

On the other hand, if it is a complaint based on a breach of professional conduct (i.e. misinformation, unverified, unethical), the public can appeal to the self-regulation body.

But what happens if the self-regulating body is not effective or not credible? The complainants will have the impression that their concerns are not taken into account.

There is also another aspect of this problematic aspect not only directly related to journalism or news reports, but none the less a matter of concern; all other forms of information channeled through any given media outlet.

Such elements can unfortunately not be treated through self-regulation.

For example: the degrading images of women or children in some advertisements or programs, inappropriate programming for particular audiences at particular times; at whose door will this unhappy citizen knock if there is no regulator?

Concerning the protection of minors, advertising, compliance with good “manners”, cultural content,

which of them are really supported by law (and courts), or by the ethics (and self-regulation)? Yet, it is fundamental that citizens can request accounts for this type of program.

We also need a regulator to independently monitor compliance by private media of their “cahier de charges” and the public media’s fulfillment of its missions and obligations. From the moment you consider an approach whereby the rule of competition and free market is the stage, a regulator is needed to ensure a clear balance and protect the interests of the weakest communities which more often than not suffer from a deficit in representation.

Self-regulation cannot replace regulation because some responsibilities of the media are not attributable solely to individual journalists (as are the ethical principles).

And there are so many other reasons why a regulator will contribute to guarantee freedom of speech and the interests of the public.

Being a strong ambassador for freedom of expression, I must admit that when we discussed the matter of regulation and self-regulation earlier this year, I couldn’t help thinking that something was wrong in the approach and the process rushed.

Supporting self-regulation is definitely noble and most welcome. Scattering regulation into different bodies is a step backward in media development.

It takes time to build competence. Being a member of the board of the Media High Council, I have been able to witness the capacity acquired over the years by this body. Perhaps one could have a fresher look at the composition of the board and the people it should reports to. An honourable assembly of scholars and non active professionals, balanced between conservative and progressive and reporting to the Parliament would be ideal, in my humble opinion; accountable to the Elected Representatives and to the Public.

We can never be truly safe from the unpredictable but we can learn from the setback of others.

We owe it to ourselves and our profession to do so.

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