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The press, regulation and impartiality – Incompatible?

January 31, 2009

When it comes to impartiality, newspapers are a different kettle of fish. Unlike broadcasting where impartiality and neutrality is a key requirement, and is monitored by external organisations such as Ofcom; the press is far less regulated. Impartiality is often more of an ideal than a reality and newspapers are expected to be partisan.

 Just a quick look at The Telegraph and the Guardian, for example, reveals just how different the editorial lines can be. There is fact, but there is also more opinion as newspapers seem to have much more of a difference between them depending on whether they are right or left leaning in their politics. The onus is therefore on the reader to choose the newspaper that best reflects their own views.

It is in times of war that newspapers seem to express their opinions most overtly and stray from impartiality. The Sun’s ‘Gotcha’ headline printed in 1982 during the Falklands war is one of the most notorious examples.


During the first years of the Iraq war The Sun was also pro-war causing many to be critical of the way in which Rupert Murdoch’s views were feeding out to the masses. In comparison, the Daily Mirror took a very anti-war stance. However, the credibility of the paper was threatened when it was revealed that it had printed fake pictures of Iraqi prisoners being abused by British soliders. As a result the editor Piers Morgan was sacked.


The press is mainly self regulated by The Press Complaints Commission, an independent body who investigate complaints made by the public. The National Union of Journalists also has its own code of conduct that the members of the union must follow.

The PCC regulates the press through the Code of Conduct, a list of guidelines that newspapers must follow. However, the code of practice is drawn up by the newspaper editors themselves and is far less expansive than Ofcom’s Broadcasting code. To what extent therefore is self regulation effective?

According to the press complaints commission:

“The Code performs a dual function: it gives the industry a firm set of principles to guide it; and it gives the Commission a clear and consistent framework within which it can address complaints from members of the public… The fact that the Code is drafted by the industry ensures the unswerving commitment of all sectors of the newspaper and magazine publishing sector to self-regulation and to the PCC.”


The protection of the rights of the press seems paramount. The need to be impartial hardly warrants a mention in the code, apart from is passing when it says journalists must be accurate and distinguish between fact and opinion.


i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published.

iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.










Many of the points of the Code of Practice can also be broken providing that the article was written in the public interest.

So is there any point in having such a light touch regulator? Of the 4,340 the PCC received it 2007, it only adjudicated on 32 of them. Unlike Ofcom the PCC cannot fine newspapers, it can only ask them to print apologies to those affected by inaccuracies. Even the former head of the Commission, Sir Christopher Meyer received criticism by printing far from neutral extracts of his memoirs in national newspapers  that were highly critical of Tony Blair and John Prescott. Hardly a basis for impartiality it seems.

The PCC has also received criticism for making it hard for people to complain when the press gets things wrong. All complaints must be in written form, making it hard for those who would rather discuss their complaints in person. Finally, if the press is not really regulated by an outside body as broadcasting is, is it really as credible? Adrian Monck, the former Deputy editor of Five News in 2004 believes that the press should be subject to the same rules that broadcast news is.

And yet there is also an argument for the light touch regulation embodied by the PCC. The PCC argue that they are respected in the industry and that the code of practice is almost like a code of honour, highly respected amongst journalists. Many print journalists are also resistant to the idea of outside regulation. The press, long known as the fourth estate, prides itself on freedom of expression. More regulation of the freedom of the press could hinder its role as a watchdog in a democratic society to monitor the actions of those in power. Free speech could be stifled.


I’ll let you decide which argument you side with.

Because of its history, the press therefore has much less of an obligation to impartiality than the broadcast media. The influence of the BBC and public service broadcasting on all other news programmes has ensured that the broadcast media is far more regulated and has much stricter rules than the press. The press has more potential to print inaccuracies and offend but there is also much more freedom of expression.  Just because the press is more partisan, that is not to say that it is less truthful.

But what do the public think? In a 2008 survey by The British Journalism Review found that journalists were one of the least trusted professions, only just coming above estate agents. However, whilst around 50% of those surveyed trusted broadcast journalists to tell the truth, only 15% trusted tabloid journalists. So maybe the public don’t believe everything they read in the papers.


One Comment leave one →
  1. peterodgers33 permalink
    March 13, 2009 4:11 PM

    Great informative post Ali.

    But as ever I have a couple of questions for you…….

    Bearing in mind it is impossible to be truly objective as a journalist, do you not think television in this country should be run much like newspapers? Are we too reliant, and do we put too much trust into the BBC (and Offcom for that matter) to give us so called impartial news. Although newspapers might be dying out due to the power of the internet, do you think their success over the past century needs to be put into mainstream broadcasting, allowing the viewer to choose the channel “that best reflects their own views”, much like America does with its television channels?

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