The chairman of one of the UK’s biggest companies recently told me
what value he placed on journalists. He read their stories, not for
accurate inside information, which he doubted they possessed, nor for
analysis, but for their value as markers, indicating ’hot spots’ of
governmental or business activity.
I left feeling depressed, yet convinced he was wrong. A free flow of
accurate information, after all, underpins democratic society and the
media have a duty to provide it. Which is why I want to draw attention
to the danger of oversimplifying complicated stories to the point where
big policy issues are underreported or misreported, to no-one’s
Just days after meeting that businessman this tendency was amply
illustrated by the way the Government’s recent decision on ’listed’
sporting events was broadly disseminated. If you read back over the
coverage and recall the radio and TV reports, the news concentrated on
the fact that English Test matches would be ’lost’ to the BBC, and would
be switching to Sky TV. ’Murdoch to snatch cricket’ would serve very
well as a lurid summary: it’s a story most media and sports journalists
could pen in their sleep.
The decision was even linked by some with a belief that Tony Blair,
mauled by the Sun for his pro-European views, wanted to bend over
backwards for the Europhobic media magnate.
As one seasoned media journalist remarked to me, the problem was that
the Test match story leaked via the lobby and it was impossible in a
late night scramble to catch up, and correct the spin with a more
balanced account. For the story is far more complicated, and
The announcement was greeted far from rapturously by Sky itself, and
with good reason. For despite giving ’English cricket the freedom to
decide for itself how to sell its broadcast rights’, the Government has
created a new ’B-list’ of sporting events to regulate the sale of
secondary delayed rights in a genuinely open manner. We’re talking of
lengthy highlights from events such as the Ryder Cup. Further, this code
of conduct is to be policed by the ITC.
In addition, Chris Smith, Culture, Media and Sports Secretary has
extended the ’A-list’ of free-to-air events to include the European
Football Championships finals, the Rugby League Challenge Cup Final and
the Rugby World Cup Final - the first time that rugby has been
protected. Smith is also seeking Europe-wide deals for future World Cup
and European Championships qualifying matches.
So what is actually happening is a piece of carefully negotiated
deregulation, an attempt to edge towards the new market realities
without injuring the 70 per cent of the population still relying on
terrestrial TV. Media stories, like life, are rarely black and white.
Journalists must fight the sound bite culture too.