14 March 2009

Media under fire

By Juliette Harkin

The Media Standards Trust (MST), an independent charity, issued a report last week highlighting the greater pressures than ever before for journalists and media managers, as the current recession negatively impacts on the newspapers and broadcasters we rely on for information.

Our media is reliant on advertising revenue as well as, for example, revenue from newspaper sales. But, advertising budgets are one of the first things to get the axe when times are hard. On Wednesday the Financial Times reported that the ITV group expects its advertising revenue to decrease by 15% this year and that is was reduced to selling off assets to meet its budget deficit.

The quality and accuracy of our media is at stake as the recession deepens and this danger has been growing over the years as executives put profits before content. As the MST highlights, there has been a growing trend among national newspapers to "sacrifice standards in order to maintain sales" and the defamatory reporting of the Madeleine McCann case is cited as a prime example of sensationalism to drive up sales.

Last year has witnessed a steady increase in job cuts in the media industry. TV has been hit, with 250 staff layoffs at BSkyB and 87 existing jobs to go at Channel Five as it introduces a comprehensive restructuring plan to safeguard profits. The print sector has not escaped. At the Daily Mail and General Trust which owns the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and the London Evening Standard 300 staff have been laid off (or, 6% of the workforce).

Cuts have been painful and commonly account for around 10% of the workforce. Managers have been at pains not to decimate editorial and programme production, so IT, Marketing and non-programming staff have been greatly affected. But more recent cuts have seen journalists, sub-editors and feature writers all being affected. Employees at the Independent newspaper, who already produce content on a shoestring, are facing the prospect of compulsory redundancies. The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has reacted to this by considering industrial action.

Our own Norfolk newspapers now face the same threat with Archant Norfolk proposing large cuts to the editorial staff working on the Eastern Daily Press, Evening News and other publications for Norfolk. Our local press offers a distinct and relevant voice for the public on issues in our towns and cities that directly affect us; this is of critical importance in sustaining democracy.

Can standards in the media be maintained in the face of job losses in critical editorial positions? It is Ofcom's job to regulate the broadcast media and to protect and represent the public interest. However, as the MST report points out, our print media has always operated under a system of self-regulation and can be held to account by the Press Complaints Commission which has a much more limited role than Ofcom in the broadcast sector.

Self-regulation has protected newspapers from the government and courts that might hold back freedom of expression. The members of the Media Standards Trust who were involved in the evaluation of the media see the danger in moving away from self-regulation to other forms of control like the government and the courts. But as public disquiet about standards in the media has grown (as shown in the YouGov poll commissioned by the British Journalism Review in 2008) there is a groundswell of support for government intervention, a move that could jeopardise precious press freedoms.

So, we need to preserve the integrity of our media by ensuring that job cuts do not attack the very heart of journalism, so that reactionary calls for increased regulation do not drown out the news that we have a right to know about.

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