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The Media and Social Responsibility

Date: 1 Feb 2004

The Hutton Report has placed the harshest possible spotlight on the social responsibility of media companies - a light that in the first instance has not been greatly flattering to the BBC. But what here is the real challenge of corporate social responsibility for media companies?

Recently I attended a meeting of the UK's All Party Parliamentary Group on Corporate Social Responsibility - a session specifically focusing on the role of the media. Sadly, it was nothing of the sort. Rather, it became a lengthy discussion on how the media dealt with companies and social responsibility issues affecting them. Hardly surprising, I suppose. The MPs and Lords present were much more interesting in the relationship between their own work and the media that so often interpret it for the general public.

Mind you, there is a real debate here. Companies take a defensive approach to media relations precisely because there are so many examples of journalists with an actively antagonistic viewpoint - editorial comment masquerading as impartial reporting. But then that's part of the point.

Equally, the single industry sector that was most resistant to Business in the Community's Corporate Responsibility Index was that of the media companies. The Index, which sought to measure responses to core marketplace issues, workplace, environmental and community issues, missed the essential positive impact on society created by the media, they argued. The delivering of news from around the world, without fear, without favour, had an immeasurable positive impact. Reporting environmental emissions of a service-intensive industry rather paled in comparison. And, because these companies were the vehicle for reporting the impact of the index, the opposition of these companies became part of the story. And that's part of the point as well.

The UK media is one of the most diverse in the world, and it is full of contradictions. On the one hand, you have the BBC, which generally has upheld pretty high standards of impartiality throughout its history, and is imbued with a public service ethos that has influenced many other followers across the world. It is deeply ironic that it is this institution that has been so unrelentingly savaged by the report of Lord Hutton.

On the other, you have the real shark pool. The tabloid newspapers that will quite cheerfully destroy anyone that gets in their way, and apparently likes nothing better than to chalk up the scalp of a government minister or celebrity following some vitriolic campaign. These are the companies that employ the paparazzi who hound celebrities without mercy. One UK newspaper recently took to publishing front page photographs of 'upskirt' shots of female celebrities - that's about as low as it gets.

The recent events with the BBC have thrown the issues into stark relief. On the one hand, Lord Hutton said that it was unacceptable that the BBC had carried inaccurate stories about the UK government 'sexing up' a dossier used as a basis for going to war against Iraq. Given the intense interest in the event - and the belief in some quarters that an unfavourable verdict by Hutton could have brought the Prime Minister down - there's not much doubt of the stakes. And, whether one likes the Hutton report or not, it is evidently the case that the BBC made mistakes. In particular, its leaders were quick to defend a flawed story. In that case, it was inevitable that they would have to carry the can.

Interestingly, most of the British public would still trust the BBC more than they would the government. The fact is that, whatever failings the BBC evinced in its handling of this story, nobody believes that the Corporation had an agenda that was mischievous in intent. Many believe that the Government, on the other hand, had gone to war over a position that had proven to be mistaken, and had to defend itself against potentially fatal criticism. The real tragedy is that - mistakes notwithstanding - the crisis has robbed the BBC of leaders of real calibre and elsewhere in the world, where the trust in the brand was more fragile, there has been real damage.

But the question remains - how does one approach the issue of social responsibility with the media? Here we have an industry sector that is hugely powerful - exactly why tyrants and despots have always tried to control it. In the UK, politicians have been shy of facing the fact that this is the one powerful industry that remains largely unregulated, mostly because whenever they look as though they might be about to try, the big guns come out and whichever hapless politician it is gets blown out of the water. David Mellor, for instance, famously said that the media were drinking in the 'last chance saloon'. But it was he, not they, that met an untimely end following tabloid disclosures of his affair with an actress.

On the other hand, there is no doubt that the media companies are right. When they are at their best, they can have a hugely positive impact on society. The benefits of a free press - the value of the world broadcasts of the BBC - are there for all to see. Tyrants ultimately fail to control information and it can shape revolutions and change worlds. It is hugely positive. Done well.

But where is the pressure to do well? The BBC has done better than most, because it is under constant pressure both to justify its publicly-paid licence fee and also to show that it is independent of the government of the day. Many other media outlets are so nakedly the tool of their proprietor as to beggar belief. They get away with it only because nobody dares to take them on.

Most companies have to perform well to survive. Competitive pressure means that they produce higher quality products for cheaper prices. But there is no evidence that journalistic integrity is a key competitive feature. People choose their news source on the basis of the interesting scoops. And currently, the papers that feature the barely bikini-clad photos of celebrities in the jungle outsell those that analyse with seriousness the implications of, for instance, the current issue with the BBC. So where is the business case here for social responsibility?

What is the social responsibility of a media company? Surely, to tell the truth. To accord people a general expectation of privacy and dignity. To expose wrongs, but equally to allow that no-one is perfect. To entertain, for sure, but also to inform. And also to avoid conflicts of interest.

We promote to companies generally the value of measuring and reporting performance - so it should be here. Solid measurement would include number of complaints, and prosecutions, as well as standard measures such as environmental performance (yes, still relevant here!), employee satisfaction and impact on local communities. Oh, and some information about how the organisation has dealt with conflicts of interest.

The BBC has been relentless in its frank reporting of its own troubles. How often could that be said of some of the privately owned outlets? So often, the interests of the proprietor have led to biased reporting - or an absence of reporting where appropriate.

Regulation is for minimum standards. CSR is about best practice. There are many who feel that - whilst the BBC is being punished for having fallen temporarily short of the latter - many are getting away with flagrant disregard for the former. If politicians cannot say this, because the industry assumes that they are angling to cover up their own misdemeanors - then who can?

Most companies have to establish clear values, show leadership in embedding those values, and establish policies and processes for ensuring they don't fall short of them. The media industry currently believes it is so noble by inherent virtue of its calling that it needs to do few of these things. They are wrong.

The question is whether Hutton is enough to make this case. After all, the reputational fall of the BBC should be enough to persuade that no-one is immune.

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