24 September 2020

Let loose the shock jocks! It’s time radio stations had the same freedom as newspapers

By Tony Salmon

Since the invention of the wireless, ‘due impartiality’ has been a requirement of a broadcasters’ licence to transmit. This was responsible when the BBC launched its first radio service in 1922 – with extraordinary power, reach and a monopoly on this wonderful new medium.

Now traditional broadcasters have a host of new competitors, including websites, podcasts, social media, and online radio stations, none of whom are similarly constrained. The rules no longer make sense.

It’s high time we stop forcing the radio to adhere to outdated rules on impartiality. Why should commercial stations be fair and balanced? Let’s give radio the same editorial freedom that newspapers have enjoyed for so long, allowing broadcasters, as the ‘shock jocks’ do so successfully in the US, to position their brands, grow their markets, and boost listener loyalty.

So let’s chuck out Ofcom’s Section 5 rules on due impartiality for commercial radio stations. People like echo chambers. Witness the variety of politically biased national newspapers – loyal readers buy the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror every day because these papers give voice to their own views. Online we curate our social media feeds to reflect our own beliefs and prejudices.

The reality, which we should recognise rather than pretend doesn’t exist, is that editorial teams have their own cultural and moral values which effectively determine who gets what airtime. It is in their DNA. In practice it’s difficult to prove impartiality because it’s often not what is said, but what is left unsaid that reveals a bias.

This would be fine if it was out in the open, like with newspapers. But it isn’t.

It comes as no surprise then that this has become an ideological battlefield, with supporters of the two main political parties having their own views of what weight their opinions are due. In the recent General Election both sides of the political spectrum claimed unfair bias in the reporting of their campaigns. The BBC claims it had complaints from both sides in equal numbers, vindicating its decisions. But the fact is that the listeners are still complaining, which suggests that even-handedness pleases no one.

Rethinking the broadcasting rules for commercial radio could also help the BBC and other public service broadcasters by emphasising their special values. By continuing to comply with the Ofcom code, publicly-funded radio stations would demonstrate even more strongly their commitment to balance – in contrast to their commercially-driven rivals’ editorially-themed output.

Of course, there will be always be a requirement for some sensible regulation. But apart from proscriptions against hate speech, private-sector broadcasters should be free to take their own clear editorial line on politics, economics, social policy, and any other topic that grabs their attention.

This will open up the marketplace for ideas, and broadcasters from both the left and the right of the political spectrum will be able to compete for listeners. Many, aiming to attract as broad an audience as possible, will continue to strive for impartiality, and good luck to them.

Britain, with its proud history of broadcasting, should not be afraid to make this change to drive the development of the most vibrant and innovative radio offering in the world.

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Tony is an experienced Independent Producer/ Director/ Writer formerly with BBC Television and Prix Italia prize winner. He’s currently working on an American TV project.