Is Ofcom Up to Dealing with Disinformation and the Decline of Quality Journalism?

The Cainrcross Review

A couple of reports have been published in the last couple of weeks that are important for the future development of community media here in the UK. The parliamentary committee with oversight for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), produced its findings into their investigation of misinformation and social media platforms. And the official government review of quality journalism in the UK, the Cairncross Review, was also published.

Both reports are timely interventions into the debates that relate to challenges of promoting a discourse of civic engagement underpinned by news and well-informed information. They also illustrate, however, the challenge of keeping public policy up-to-date when it comes to media, as both of these reports show a clear lag in dealing with the social, economic and technical changes that have been going on for some time within news media.

Particularly, they illustrate the need for a revision of the model of media literacies and civic engagement that our policy-makers are working with.  On the one hand the government is promoting models of civic engagement that promote digital access based on the idea of devolved social practices, particularly in areas associated with healthcare. Whereas on the other hand, these reports retain a foot that is firmly planted in the expectations that come with the heritage and legacy mindsets of broadcast media and newspapers.

DCMS Misinformation Report

Both identify the need to reinforce how we promote media literacies, which is welcome, but there isn’t much innovation behind this re-evaluation. In many ways both reports rehash the expectations about trusted sources and professionalism that we associate with the mass media model of the twentieth century. And while the Committee for DCMS doesn’t pull its punches against Facebook, there is still an explicit assumption in both reports that what we need is more regulation and government intervention.

Take for example the concerns around platform neutrality. Platform neutrality is used by the tech corporations to justify their lack of engagement with content regulation. You post the images and stories, not Facebook, Google, Twitter and so on. Therefore, so their argument goes, and with the exception of the removal of extreme forms of content, the tech companies are pretty much free to carry on as they are.

This is a complicated argument about free speech and censorship, and also a longstanding question of taste, harm and decency. The challenge that we face, however, is that no one forces anyone to log-in to a dodgy YouTube channel, or to follow an idiot on Twitter! Many millions do so, and are entirely free to choose what they want to engage with.

Where it becomes a problem, as in any liberal democracy that seeks to protect freedom of thought, is when content becomes hateful and insightful. It’s taken Facebook and Instagram a long time to take down the channels used by Tommy Robinson, the right-wing agitator. The problem with suppression, however, is that the view that Robinson espouses are likely to emerge through proxy accounts.

Is it better to keep these views out in the open where they can be monitored and tracked by opponents, or will closing them down simply give them a cache that they don’t deserve because they will be viewed as transgressive, counter-hegemonic and justification for playing the victim?

The further complication that both reports also acknowledge, is that the economic model that has sustained independent journalism and reporting, is under severe stress from the shift to online media platforms that cover every possible communications and type of information possible.

Seldom a day goes by when one of the tech conglomerates announces that they are introducing a new service that replicates the success of other services provided by other tech conglomerates. The appetite for the spread of these cloned activity is voracious. Nothing seems to hold anyone back. Each innovation is quickly duplicated and extended by each other tech corporation.

Consumers never get the opportunity to truly make market-based choices, because the aim of the tech companies is to lock you into their media eco-system.

I have an iPhone, and I recently considered shifting to Android, but the thought of paying for apps that I already own on one platform but would have to pay for again if I shift to another, put me off. So, this isn’t really about news and information provision, is it? It’s about ineffective market regulation and a willingness to see a model of innovation that is only driven by the large conglomerates, and not by independent companies acting in an economy that is dispersed and decentralised.

We have multiple levels of access to information and online services that are regulated in varying ways. The data service providers, who set in place the hardware that connects us are regulated in one way. Then the software and platform providers are regulated in a completely different way. The content providers are almost entirely at the mercy of the large platforms, with no push-back against them, or protections that delineate the essential or valuable services they provide.

If the news organisations and content providers don’t play ball, the tech companies simply set up and promote their own alternative content services that takes their content and repurposes it without paying for it. Why this hasn’t been tackled in basic competition law is difficult to understand. I suppose the promise to consumers of unlimited supply of cat videos was just too good to be true.

Both the Cairncross Report and the Committee of the DCMS make recommendations that we need to strengthen media literacies here in the UK. And Ofcom’s role in promoting media literacy is cited in both reports. What neither does, however, is step back from what Sharon White, the CEO of Ofcom says about media literacies, and applies an independent mind to the problem.

Indeed, I’ll be bold and say that Ofcom is itself the problem. Ofcom is an economic and technical regulator that has content regulation bolted on. If it is the allocation of frequencies or the implementation of licences for mobile data services, then Ofcom has a clear purpose. The problem comes when the same people who do this, also have to think about the social, cultural and civic imperatives that shape content.

When I read the last couple of Media Literacies reports from Ofcom, I was struck by how much they focussed on consumer-led forms of media literacy. The ability to choose between different e-commerce sites, or what platforms audiences are streaming video content, or what to expect when purchasing a mobile phone contract, all seem to dominate.

What Ofcom lacks is a practitioner and participant-focussed approach. The media literacies model that is used by Ofcom doesn’t have a hands-on dimension to it. It doesn’t view active participation in the creation, development, decision-making and accountability process for producing media as valuable.

Ofcom does prioritise the economic imperative of industry training in order for willing professionals to work in the creative industries, but I was hard-pressed to find a civic-engagement ethos, or a personal fulfilment mindset in the media literacies model that Ofcom proffers?

Therefore, while I recognise and respect the concerns that are raised by the Cairncross Review, and the Committee for the DCMS report, there is a deeper and more fundamental problem that needs to be addressed.  

Do we need to break-up Ofcom and separate out economic and platform regulation from content and civic governance of media and information? What is presented in both reports doesn’t go nearly deep enough into the challenge that we face, which is the way that we do social and deliberative civic engagement in the first place. Is this a question of renewing the nature of our democracy itself, and shifting away from the centralised and top-down approaches of the past, and embracing forms of decentralised and deliberative civic engagement instead?

Mass media, and therefore mass audience thinking still dominates our regulatory mindsets. Until this mindset is broken, and a participatory and deliberative model of community media development is considered as an equal in a pluralistic model of media, then we will continue to run into problems of disengagement, disinformation and an apparent decline in the standards of civic life.