Ethics and Self-Regulation in Bulgaria (Seminar Contribution by Ronan Brady, Member of the NUJ Ireland)

Sofia 1-2 March 2001

Having missed the first morning of the seminar, I'll assume that some of what I'd intended to say has already been covered.

Ethical journalism is based upon the commitments to accuracy and fairness which journalists make to their readers, viewers and listeners as well as to their own colleagues. These principles do differ from one society to another, depending on the social and political problems faced by the country as a whole at a particular juncture.

For that reason and others, the discussion we have at meetings like this is usually more important than the actual content. The process of working out ethical problems creates an ethical awareness far more important than any set of rules or guidelines.

I am an advisor to the IFJ and have spent a good deal of time in this region, talking to colleagues and trying to assist them. This is my second visit to Bulgaria. I spent a week here eighteen months ago and wrote up my discussions and experiences for the report Money Power and Standards.

I can say now, as I did then, that the single most positive element in the Bulgarian media is the close working relationship between the UBJ and Podkrepa. Through this, Bulgarian journalists have a much firmer voice than their colleagues in other countries of this region.

Let me first begin with some definitions:

Media Regulation:

Controlling or directly influencing the media to act in a particular fashion. The purpose of such control may be anything between enforcing censorship/self-censorship and encouraging compliance with codes of journalistic good practice. The two basic forms of regulation are by Statutory bodies (ie: set up by statute or law) or by media bodies themselves (Self-regulation).

Statutory Regulation:

This can take the form of a rigid censor who restricts freedom of speech. Censorship has frequently been used to prevent criticism of governments or to restrict obscenity. Recently international human rights law has combined with new technology to reduce the ability of governments to enforce direct, rigid censorship. The decisions of the European Court of Human Rights on cases involving Art 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights have prevented governments from taking disproportionate measures to protect the public. Meanwhile, the internet has made it virtually impossible to impose censorship.

But the term statutory regulation applies to any measure to direct the media which has been passed by parliament. Defamation or libel laws come under this category. So does Incitement to Hatred legislation, as do restrictions on the right of journalists to name the victims in rape or sexual abuse cases.

Sometimes states use the law to enforce codes of conduct on journalists. For example, the Greek Press Council is funded by the state and its members are selected by the parliamentary parties and by the state. The fact that neither journalists nor publishers have been involved has left a situation where Greek journalists have no commonly agreed code of conduct. Recently in Pakistan, a statutory press standards board was set up. However, it quickly transpired that the government was simply imposing its own prejudices on the press and there was widespread opposition to the board. This illustrates one of the problems with statutory regulation: it may give too much power to the politicians in power.

A different approach is taken in many countries to broadcasting as opposed to the press. In Ireland and Britain this results in statutory bodies to oversee broadcasting complaints, while in the US there is no such statutory body. The rationale behind the view on this side of the Atlantic seems to be that broadcasting needs to observe higher standards of impartiality as it reaches a wider audience and as the award of broadcasting frequencies is itself restricted by government. The approach of digital TV may well change this view in the future.

Basically, journalists and publishers believe it is as inappropriate for judges to interfere in the newsroom as in the bedroom. That is because the courts adjudicate between guilt and innocence while journalism is usually to be found somewhere between these two. The courts are blunt instruments when it comes to the nuances of our trade. They frequently demand standards of proof, which may be appropriate in a legal setting but which stifle political discourse. The law can prevent good journalism, but no law can create it.

Self-regulation:

This concept means that journalists and publishers or broadcasters take responsibility for ensuring that their media adhere to good journalistic standards. Self-regulation can take place (A) at the level of individual journalists when they commit themselves to abide by a code of conduct, (B) at the level of the media organisation (newspaper or broadcasting station) where editors ensure respect for standards and (C) at the level of a national media industry (national press/broadcasting council).

(A) Throughout the world, journalists make a commitment to their country's code of conduct as they first become employed. The strength of their adherence to this promise is ultimately the most important guarantee of high standards. This is because most journalistic choices can only be taken by an individual acting alone. Editors and other colleagues can help answer questions such as "How shall I describe this event?" or "Do I believe this individual sufficiently to use his story and to promise to protect his anonymity?" or "How much more background information do I need?" But others cannot answer these questions for the reporter in the field - the ultimate responsibility belongs to the journalist him or herself.

(B) Each newspaper and broadcasting station also adopts style guides and policies which determine how it will cover particular issues. The central reason for these decisions is that the reader, the listener or the viewer can get very confused if a news organ seems to veer radically in its approach to certain questions. These decisions can affect the standards of the paper or station. For example, in order to protect their political independence, some newspapers restrict the rights of their members to belong to a political party.

Another example of self-regulation at the level of the media organ is the creation by the national newspapers of readers' representatives - staff members whose job it is to hear complaints against articles and to liaise between the complainant and the paper. This is designed to allow readers greater access to the paper and to provide someone who can judge the complaint as independently as possible.

(C) When people speak of self-regulation, what they most frequently mean is some form of national Press Council, Complaints Commission or Ombudsman, which is funded by the media industry alone, by the journalists alone or by a combination of both. The crucial distinction here is that the body must not take money from government or the state.

There is also a distinction between a council which takes the defence of press freedom as its central task and adjudicates on complaints as part of that overall policy on the one hand, and a complaints commission on the other. An example of the latter type would be the Press Complaints Commission [PCC] in Britain, while an example of the former would be the Australian Press Council [APC].

The Australian body has the enthusiastic support of the journalists' union, which helped to set it up, while the NUJ, my union, has boycotted the PCC. The NUJ's main objections to the PCC are that the body is dominated by the employers and its concerns are too restrictive.

Broadcasting: Statutory Control & Public Service

In Western European countries, broadcasting tends to be regulated by bodies set up under law. These bodies rigorously enforce rules about fairness and political independence. They also hear complaints against individual broadcasts and, in many cases, impose fines. This falls under what we define as statutory control. However we do not object to this model because it contains two elements which we strongly favour: the concept of genuinely independent regulation and that of 'public service broadcasting'.

The job of those who regulate broadcasting in our countries is, first and foremost, to protect the independence of the broadcasters from the politicians. When politicians seek to intimidate broadcasting journalists (as they regularly do in my and other Western European countries), it is the duty of the regulatory body to step in and defend the journalists. The people who make up these bodies are selected to be independent and any attempt to pack these bodies with political cronies is a matter of political controversy.

The second element, the public service aspect, is equally important. The BBC seems to me to be the most positive example of this concept - in that it provides programmes which commercial television will not and cannot do. It caters for minority interests and provides information which may be more useful than it is popular. But the most crucial contribution the BBC makes to society is that it sets a tremendously high standard for broadcasting. It prepares the public to expect more from the commercial sector.

Ronan Brady, Member of the NUJ Ireland